So, I know that self-help is a neoliberal trap that makes the individual responsible for all things, often ignoring or disavowing the structures that profoundly constrain the choices any person can make (I’m looking at you, Rachel Hollis). BUT, I love it and consume a bunch of the stuff anyway. And, if I’m honest, sometimes there are good nuggets in there, especially if the book in question isn’t written by a total charlatan.
One author I have respect for is Laura Vanderkam, who has made a name for herself writing time studies. This past week, because I had a phone call with a newly pregnant academic friend coming up, I revisited Vanderkam’s I Know How She Does It.
The friend was anxious about how to balance work and family, which is precisely the topic of Vanderkam’s book. In it, she discusses the time studies of women with children who also have “big careers” as measured by making 100,000 or more.
What I like about the book is its feminist bent. For, in addition to showing what a bunch of other mothers are doing with each of their 168 hours a week, which pleases my nosy nature, Vanderkam is, in fact, forwarding a feminist agenda. Too often, she argues, women opt out of “big” jobs for fear they won’t have time for family. Not only do other, traditionally feminine and thus, I’d argue, lower-paying jobs like teaching take up plenty of hours, but, as Vanderkam shows, women with big jobs still see their children plenty and have some time for themselves. As the time diaries she analyzes show, motherhood and having a substantial career are not at odds.
So, what does this have to do with having a creative life in motherhood? One of the things I really admire about Vanderkam is that her focus is not so much on efficiency (“hacks for getting 15 things done in less time”) but on quality. That is, are the women filling out the time diaries spending their time in ways that are pleasurable and give their lives meaning?
In two places she discusses time-devouring traps that don’t add significant value to women’s lives and have a nasty Sisyphean quality to them: laundry and email. She looks at the time one woman committed to “inbox zero” spent processing emails—ten of thirty-nine working hours! The problem with pushing that boulder up the hill is that that particular mofo always rolls back down. Housework, which tends to fall to women because of one of those big cultural structures self-help rarely acknowledges, is a similar boulder: especially if you are living with small children, the tidying one does is almost immediately undone. In this case it’s not so much like rolling a boulder up a steep hill, but finding that there’s a small tyrant at the top actively pushing it back down. The tasks associated with the feeding, care, and cleaning of a family with children expands like a gas to fill whatever container you give it. Indeed, Vanderkam connects housework and tedious email clearing in a metaphor that likens the latter to the dishwasher “Constantly emptying this sort of dishwasher will keep you from ever starting dinner.” And, as she points out, email exists in a nebulous non-container, capable of infinite expansion!
If the dinner of this metaphor is a meaningful and creative life, it’s easy to see how day after day filled with relatively tedious and never truly finish-able tasks can breed resentment toward one’s children, partner, and coworkers.
The always unraveling nature of such tasks (the laundry basket that doesn’t stay empty) and the fact that the people you love may be undoing your efforts means such tasks are labor with an inherently frustrating quality.
In addition to the frustrating quality of such ever-expanding tasks, to the extent that you are pursuing them beyond what’s required to keep your job and your colleagues relatively happy and what’s not going to make you totally bonkers in your house, as Vanderkam puts it, “There is no virtue in being productive toward ends that don’t matter.”
As opposed to creative work. This is not to say that creative work can’t ever be frustrating—indeed, it often can be. But if you consider the way you might feel at the end of a day in which you spent 30 minutes writing or painting something—even if that something is quite bad—vs the way you feel at the end of a day in which you’ve sorted laundry for the same amount of time, it’s clear which should be filling the hours of the day.
More devastatingly, if you consider a 30-day month such as September, you see those 30 minutes could be 15 hours. Or, in a non-leap year, 182.5 hours.
When I think about how I’d like to reflect on my own life, I know that I will find meaning in the fact that I have mothered. But, I also know that this meaning has no particular connection to folding laundry, despite what social pressure might tell us. Very clean houses are one way of showing love but they aren’t the only way.
Many of the tasks we associate with loving our children are not, in fact, identical with loving our children. Just think about someone you know who gets lots of credit for being a “good dad.” My hunch is that the title “good dad” has almost nothing to do with how clean he keeps the kitchen.
So, if the gaseous chores that grow to fill the days are not the same as loving our children, better to choke them off in favor of something that is more soul-nourishing, something that, upon reflection, looks like the more meaningful life.
Knowing that, whether it happens once a week, every other day, or every day, the house will get picked up—or better yet, that someone else might pick it up!–, better to declare and protect some hours for building the creative life you want. And this might mean having a frank conversation with the other people in your family to do so.
Here’s what it looks like in my house. I am good at writing in the morning. Less so at other times in the day. Unfortunately, small people wake up early and have lots of needs. After a spate of mornings that left me furious, but the people fed, the breakfast dishes put away, and so on, my husband and I had an explicit conversation about how to get some of these important creative mornings back even during this moment of having young children. Our solution is simple, we alternate. Since the babies tend to default to wanting me to help early in the morning, every other morning I get up early and leave, riding my bike off as the sun comes up to exercise and put in at least an hour of writing. This shift is important for two reasons: it means I’m getting that am writing time for at least half of my days, and, importantly for me and all the other people in the house, it evidences that mom is not necessary for people to make it to school fed and dressed in the morning.
Vanderkam called her series of time studies with high-achieving mothers “The Mosaic Project,” a title which reflects the way in which the women moved hours of their day like tiles to create a harmonious picture. While this can seem a bit idealized, the name also implies constraint, that there are choices to arrange, but there is a limited number of slots to place each tile. Given this, why wouldn’t we fill the image with the tiles that make life most meaningful?