I was looking for answers. I was looking for help. So I looked in a book.
Make that a lot of books.
Before I read Brigid Schulte’s Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time, I had, in fact, just completed another book on time and work and women.
I’d recently inhaled I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time in which author Laura Vanderkam presents time-diaries from successful women in order to extract life lessons and extend lifelines. Her book offers hope and hard evidence that we harried women types actually have a lot more time than we think. Determined to harness that hope for my own nefarious book-writing purposes, I followed-through on her advice to map where I’m spending my days and by extension, my life – that Annie Dillard is a goddamned guilt trip and don’t let anyone tell you different – by measuring my time baseline. I downloaded an app to my iPhone and tracked a week of my minute-by-minute time.
And lo, the prophet Vanderkam was live-streaming truth: I discovered that I have between 43 and 48 minutes of empty time each day.
I was ecstatic. You can’t even imagine what that means to me, what magnificent and necessary possibilities that cracks open.
So I’ll try to explain.
We have five children in the house, including a three year old and a colicky baby who prefers shrieking to sleeping (the last day I time-tracked, he cried 8 out of 12 daylight hours). When I was tracking my time, the baby was a month old, it was summer vacation, the two tween girls were home, the three year old was getting in touch with his inner badass, the newly-graduated teenager was inviting his friends to c’mon over at midnight, plus we’d invited a thoroughly traumatized 15 year old to get away from it all and be our house guest for seven weeks.
And my guy was out of town for six weeks.
In this demanding context, finding 43 unaccounted-for minutes to myself – each day! – was like winning the freaking lottery.
Because, my darling clementines, I can write a page in 48 minutes. A page a day for a year is a book. Holy shit. It can be done.
I just need to be more organized and productive.
But I already am exceptionally organized and productive. During that seven week vacation – and please remember that I did all of these activities as a sleep-deprived solo adult with five or six kids in tow, including a three year old prone to bolting and a newborn prone to screaming – we went to a One Direction concert, a water slide park, Playland, Apple Camp, the Vancouver Aquarium, Kits Beach, Jericho Beach, Crescent Beach, White Rock Beach, Britannia Beach, Stanley Park, Campbell Valley Park, Tynehead Regional Park, English Bay, downtown Vancouver, Fort Langley, the Pride Parade, several movies and every mall within a one hour radius.
During this period, my two girls also had several auditions for commercials and I strove to walk 4- 5 kilometres a day. I also did a lil’ decorating (chalk paint is the devil) because I am inordinately house-proud/house-mad. My home is so clean and pristine that the pope and the queen could come together to visit on 20 minutes notice – and I’d spend that 20 minutes straightening my hair, not the house.
(My quest for domestic perfection is part of the problem, but we’ll circle back to that in another post.)
All of this was accomplished while I was riding the unicorn known in most developed nations (but not the US) as federally funded paid maternity leave. Usually, however, I’m managing all these little people and their associated activities while I work full-time outside the home and my man works full-time out of town.
So, in fact, I am very, very, VERY organized and I do a lot and I get a lot accomplished. On my tombstone you could carve the words “She kept an immaculate house and did great work at work and raised compassionate children and lifted everyone around her up, up, up” and that would be the goddamned truth.
But nowhere would it say: she wrote books.
Books? I don’t even have time to complete a blog post. I abstained from Facebook for 15 months because writing status updates was a mountain I couldn’t summit.
But it turns out I have 43-48 minutes a day, so no excuses.
As I said: elated. I AM GOING TO MUSCLE THROUGH AND DO THIS THING.
Channeling Vanderkam, I waste no time.
As soon as the baby nods off, I sit down to write. I write three (crappy) sentences in about 12 minutes and then he wakes up. Next time he goes to sleep, I sit down to write. I read what I wrote, try to remember where I was going, start thinking ahead, playing with phrases, riffing…and he wakes up. There’s nothing new on the screen. When he falls asleep again, I try again and write a shitty paragraph. At the end of the day, that’s what I’ve got: a shitty paragraph. There’s no art in it, no poetry, not even an insight that isn’t already bleedingly obvious to mollusks and houseplants. In other words: beings of higher intelligence need not read anything I’m writing.
No matter. I’m just trying to get something down with the hope that I can polish it into something acceptable, later.
I do this every day and I have dozens of terrible (and, accordingly, unpublished) pieces to prove it. Then I remember something that gives me an idea. I once heard Dr. Phil say on TV that when their kids were young, his wife Robin used to get up at 4 am – before anyone else was awake – so she could work out in peace. I want to write in peace so I think, ok, I’ll just get up earlier. I aim to do that but most nights the baby hasn’t deigned to retire by the wee hour I’m hoping to rise, so that goes exactly as well as it sounds. I sometimes get a few minutes to write but write nothing of consequence and nothing that sounds or feels or thinks like me.
I don’t know what to think. I used to be able to write fast and furious and beautiful. It flowed.
That’s exactly it. It flowed. I flowed, because I had uninterrupted expanses of time in which to flow. When you start flowing, it does come fast and furious. Flow offers a beautiful process and a beautiful result.
Writing in seven minute staccato bursts: not so much. It’s like brisk-walking for six minutes and wondering why you’re not getting a runner’s high. It’s not long enough or concentrated enough to access the state of flow.
So yes, in the sense that I composed and saved sentences, it’s true that I can write in 11 minute segments. But I can’t flow, which means, I’m not really writing.
From ecstasy, to despair. I can’t actually do more with what I’ve got, unless it can be done start-to-finish in under fifteen minutes without any creative flourishes or deep thinking. So yes, the laundry’s always folded and toilets sparkle and I will duly report my sterling accomplishments to St. Peter when I get to the gate.
(On the bullshit urgency of housework – a lesson I truly need to learn – Laura Vanderkam points out that there are no daily 11 pm inspections.)
That’s about all I’ll have to show for myself because those found snippets of time – even forty-eight frantic minutes – aren’t helping me create writing that’s artful, entertaining or insightful.
And then another prophet waves her hands and the sea parts. I read a magazine article by Brigid Schulte in which she called these bits and pieces of partial availability by their proper name: Time Confetti.
(Ok, she doesn’t actually turn time confetti into a proper name by capitalizing it like I just did. She’s a journalist, not a blogger, so those are my wanton tendencies rather than hers, but put that aside and roll with me, will you? I’m flowing.)
Time confetti, according to Brigid Schulte, is all those scraps of time that add up to a number of minutes or hours that make it look like you could do more with your one wild and precious life if only you’d be more intentional.
In Schulte’s case, a very famous time scientist analyzed her time diaries and presented her with a tally that left her breathless: 30 hours. In his estimation, Schulte, a full-time journalist at The Washington Post and married mother of two (her husband is also a journalist and his stories take him overseas on the regular), has 30 hours of leisure each week – including the two hours she spent stranded on the side of the road waiting for a tow truck.
Yes, Professor Single White Grandfather Time categorized waiting for a tow truck as leisure time.
And that, I think, tells us everything we need to know about his premises and conclusions.
But wait, there’s more!
There’s a scene in a long-ago screwball comedy called Planes, Trains and Automobiles in which a harried and partially constrained (by his own coat!) John Candy drives onto an off-ramp into the wrong lane on the freeway. He hasn’t yet noticed he’s driving against oncoming traffic, even though people in cars on the other side of the median are honking and screaming “You’re going the wrong way!”.
That’s basically what the unencumbered patriarch who studies time tells Schulte: You’re going the wrong way! In his estimation, women are steering their lives the way John Candy drove that car: all wrong and in the wrong direction. We keep doing pesky things like laundry.
He even takes Schulte to a fancy restaurant in Paris to teach her how to properly do leisure.
Because leisure time is critical to creation and mastery.
It may well be that the philosophers and writers and painters in our Western Male Cultural Canon were able to create their heartbreaking works of staggering genius because they had leisure time in which to think, play, discover, rest and rejuvenate.
Unhurried, uninterrupted time is essential for creativity. That’s what I was trying to get at when I was explaining that I simply can’t get to the state of flow in 11 minute increments. I need the background condition of having time to think and make connect-the-random-dot conclusions and be rested and replenished enough to be, well, coherent. And then I just need pure, unadulterated time to make the damn thing already.
So a culture of leisure is the essential precondition – a handmaiden, even – of creativity, works of art, and even The Canon.
But women, admits our time expert, have never had a culture of leisure.
Women were the handmaidens who made the leisure of other people possible – or, as the good Professor puts it, women were part of ‘the laboring classes’.
It’s not a personal failing that Brigid Schulte (and, by extension, all overworked and overwhelmed women in our culture) apparently doesn’t know how to do leisure properly. Despite his effort, it’s not a problem the Professor can remedy with a fine French meal in a rarefied restaurant.
He can’t teach her how to be a single white man who isn’t expected to work a second shift of child-rearing and household responsibilities and then put in a third shift of bringing sexy back – and that’s really what we’re talking about.
There are no how-to tutorials or brilliant time hacks that will hack the system in which women are still expected to perform the Feminine Mystique (primarily responsible for parenting and domestic labour and socially crucified if any of it isn’t up to par at any given moment) and The Beauty Myth (hot, taut, hungry and horny) and be outrageously successful careerists and still find 30 extra hours a week in which to do leisure properly.
The only reason that some men were able to enjoy the leisure time that is a precondition to creativity (and business, and government) was because they had labouring, non-leisuring classes of people enabling them. (See, for example, Albert Einstein’s instructions to his first wife, Mileva Maric.) Someone else was waking up with the baby in the night. Someone else was washing the clothes. Someone else was shopping for groceries and then cooking them up.
It isn’t that women are refusing to do leisure right. It’s that we’re part of a system that requires our unrelenting labour to make the leisure of others possible.
And there it is, finally. The thing I’m craving and seeking and hoping someone will say whenever we’re talking and about women and work and family and time…Brigid Schulte says it. Right there on page 119:
“[O]verwhelm…is not an epidemic of personal failures, of whiny moms unable to juggle work and home efficiently. It’s a massive structural failure in society, and it’s holding everybody back.”
That is the reason I bought her book. Writing about her book, Schulte declared that “time is a feminist issue,” and when I read that, I exhaled. It’s not just me. It’s all of us – or at least a whole lot of us.
Which is not to say this should stop us. The conditions for creativity will never be ideal, so let’s not wait.
But let’s not tolerate it, either. Women keep being told that being overwhelmed and overworked and not having any time to ourselves can be solved with scheduling ju-ju and productivity magic and religious self-care because they’re individual problems. They’re not. This is our collective reality and that’s how we need to start addressing it. Collectively.
Not with tips and tricks and hacks and individual how-tos. Or at least not exclusively or predominantly in that way.
It’s not that you’re failing to lean in at the prescribed angle. It’s not that you’re failing to be organized and productive. It’s not that you’re failing to be rigorous with your minutes or not properly applying the schedules invented by productivity experts. It’s not that you’ve failed to develop the seven habits of highly effective people, you ineffective woman you (Micki McGee begins her book Self Help, Inc with a chapter called “Covey’s Daughter and Her Dilemma” that addresses the productivity bind experienced by women with children). It’s not that you’re lazy for not waking up at 4am to make epic shit happen. It’s not your fault that you don’t have any leisure time or that you only have it in 11 minute stretches. It’s that, by design, women were never supposed to own our time or use it for our own ends.
Then. And now.
So sure, some privileged women types can lean in and outsource and insource and hire people to help shoulder the burden of our wildly feminine responsibilities (usually younger or poorer women of colour, which is how some of us loop back and reinforce the “necessity” of the laboring class we’re trying to escape), but that doesn’t help change the system.
And the system – not whiny, disorganized women and mothers because we’re not – is the problem.
Let’s get together and do something about it.