My office has been touched-up, tidied, desk debris cleared (dusty three-year-old “must-do” piles purged into the recycling bin); we purchased a proper adjustable chair (and removed the folding chair which had replaced the exercise ball both of which had rendered me nearly lame on writing week; seriously, I temporarily lost all feeling down one leg), and Kevin used the skill-saw to customize the tiny computer desk I’ve been using since 1998 (now there was a worthwhile $99.00 investment in pressed-fibre technology). And suddenly, I am sitting in well-organized comfort before my computer screen, in a sunny room that is, yes, still a playroom; but the toys are easily hidden in cupboards and closet, and the bookshelf holds kids’ books on the lower shelves and my books on the upper shelves. I’m ready for the new year.
Because of course this is the real new year. Forget January 1st. I am filled with excitement and energy and ideas and plots and schemes and plans and routines, and my calendar is chock-a-block from one end to the other with everything we’re going to do.
I have spent today baking in preparation for school lunches and after-school snacks: chocolate sunflower granola bars; granola; banana muffins; bread. I didn’t feel much like baking all day, but put my head down and gutted through it–not unlike my run this morning–and it’s done, and I feel ready. The school bags are filled with supplies and new shoes. The lunches have yet to be made, but as part of our re-division of household labour, Kevin has offered to take over the packing of the lunches (YESSSSSS!!!!), as well as breakfasts, and Sunday evening supper–aka cooking with the kids. He’s also been noticing and doing dishes more frequently. I can’t express to you the difference this makes, but if you are the regular dish-doer at your house, then you will appreciate the change, too. The kids will pack their snacks on pizza day and sub day; I’m not sure whether we’ll also work to transition them into packing their own lunches more often. Baby steps. If I could get them to throw their dirty laundry into the basket, or down the basement steps in the direction of the washing machine, and to put away their individual piles of carefully folded clothes each evening … well, those seem do-able goals for the near future.
Wow. Some really interesting changes are taking place in my life right now. Changes are causing some conflict, and also opening up opportunities for discussion and potentially radical shifts (though I suspect these will be slow and steady rather than sudden and shocking).
This year, I’ve focused on my spirit, and that’s taken me to places of quiet reflection and also drawn out of me greater confidence and courage. My family has been noticing this is round-about ways, as I head out early in the morning to go for a run, learn how to swim, take time to bury myself in writing, head out as soon as supper’s on the table in order to take a yoga class, or set up the tripod and camera; all things that I am doing on my own, that don’t necessarily connect to their lives, and that might actually exclude them in one way or another.
Kevin and I have been struggling to find, in the midst of this extra-curricular activity, time to spend together. This morning it occurred to us that this is a problem of home economics. Kevin was the one who made this observation, not me. He observed that I am responsible for the bulk of the domestic work, and if I add in other work, whether or not it is of the paying variety, it means that my time becomes more and more squeezed. So I am writing down a list of all the domestic/household labour that I do (and that he does, too), with the idea that we work to split it more evenly, and also among the children, to some degree.
It’s quite a list.
Thinking about sharing this work, and therefore having time to focus more freely on the triathlon project and writing generally, brought me to a new revelation: I think part of me wanted to go back to school and become a midwife because then my time would be accounted for, my work outside the home acknowledged as important, and the family obligated to pick up (some) slack–because I wouldn’t always be there to do it for them, and with good reason. It is a little fantasy of mine to imagine children packing lunches for school and getting their own snacks after school, and then tidying up. (I did say it was a fantasy).
Kevin admitted that he has fallen into gender stereotyping–well, we both have. He works and earns the money, and I keep the home fires a’burning. Except I also try to squeeze in a side career, and it is indeed very squeezed. Partly this is practical: because he earns the money that keeps us afloat, his work-time isn’t optional, and mine, with its occasional grant/prize windfalls and trickle of odd-job cheques is nowhere near enough to feed and house a family of six. So, the divide has made sense. But we’ve also become trapped by it, and blind to it. Because of course my work will never add up to much if I can’t commit to or pursue freelance jobs that would require even moderate time commitment over and above what I’ve already carved out. And fiction writing is the kind of business that demands long-term investment, a risky investment at best. But without investment, it will add up to precisely nothing.
So, our question now is: how to go forward, treating what I do, outside of domestic duties, as work worthy of more time, and energy?
Thoughts come to me while I’m hanging laundry. Do yours strike during particular activities?
On an evening out with friends, recently, we came around to talking about chores (we’re all moms or moms-to-be), and one friend mentioned that she genuinely enjoys hanging laundry on the clothesline–she didn’t mean that she finds it a chore she can tolerate, or doesn’t mind doing, but that she genuinely takes pleasure from it. She described hanging the napkins together so they flapped in the wind like a prayer flag. And those of us who regularly hang laundry realized we often do something similar: making patterns, following interior rules about what goes where; in essence, creating something that pleases us aesthetically. Do you have rituals you follow, or patterns you make; or does another chore bring you a similar kind of aesthetic pleasure? I think it points toward the artistic impulse.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about a particular philosophical dilemma, which is related both to parenting styles and parenthood generally: I think all parents are occupied, whether consciously or otherwise, with finding a balance between individual pursuits and collective responsibility. (This is a societal question, too, and where you land on the scale is probably indicative of your political beliefs).
This balance comes into play in virtually everything I do. Do I push my son to practice piano, or do I hope he will come to develop his own talents? Probably a bit of both, right?
Maybe I need to explain this idea in more concrete terms. I’m thinking about how families work. How very much I would like my children to walk to school together, and to take responsibility not only for themselves, but for each other. However, my eldest wants to walk with his friends: they have made a thoughtful plan for meeting and walking together. I am proud of his initiative, and glad that he has strong connections with friends. But I want him to be a helpful big brother, and I’d planned to have the three kids walk to school together next year. What’s the balance? This one is easy, because we’ve already worked it out. Albus will walk with friends. We have other options for getting his two sisters to school. In this case, we went with the individual, because it did not harm the collective.
I don’t think the balance between individual and collective is ever perfected. It’s an ongoing challenge. For example, I’ve also been thinking a great deal about how spiritual and artistic practice requires uninterrupted time. There’s no short-cut for this. In order to go deep, you need to enter into yourself while letting yourself go. This isn’t necessarily selfish, but it might appear to be, and certainly can feel selfish, when one is a mother (or father) to small children. Children are notoriously good at pulling you out of wherever you’ve gone–if they need you. And mine seem to need me a lot.
But there’s another issue: If I’ve arranged childcare and freed up time to work, what guilt I feel if the work that ends up getting done is invisible, even to me. If it makes next to nothing. If I sit and stare out the window. Writing a story sometimes appears to be a quick process, but I believe there is a great deal of invisible unknown work going on beneath the surface that makes the story possible.
One final thought from my laundry-hanging philosophy session. Practice, and consistently doing something, makes that thing easy to do, so that that what appeared impossible or even merely inconvenient proves otherwise. I am thinking of the snack-making. Nothing in the cupboards to pull out, so I whip together cheese and apple slices and raisins, in individual containers, and the kids love it. Nothing in the cupboards, so I pull out the popcorn popper and everyone watches the process, and devours the results.
Yes, it takes more time and effort, but not that much more. The difference is actually inside my own head. Does it feel difficult and hard, or possible and simple?
(I did not get up early most of this week, and I missed it a great deal. So, this morning, I did again, and went to yoga, and appreciated both the effort and the ease).
A recurring issue that’s been troubling me, lately: my children have begun asking why there are no women who … fill in the blank. Why are there no women who play hockey (in the NHL, in the playoffs, which are on every evening at our house). Why are there no women who coach kids’ soccer (thankfully, we found some women coaches to counteract that observation; but it’s still mostly true. It’s mostly dads out there on the field). I’m trying to think of another example of “no women who …” but can’t offhand. Anyway, it’s a good question. It reminds me that we aren’t, exactly, who we claim to be, as a society. Our relentless message is that girls can do anything, be anything, choose anything; and while it’s essentially true, there’s no counter-conversation about why so many girls/women don’t, and what, if anything, we should do about it.
If girls (and boys) can do anything, why, for example, are little girls supposed to wear pink and like fairies and princesses, and little boys supposed to wear dull colours and make truck noises and wrestle? Why are these gender differences so strongly endorsed, to the point of making little boys who once liked flowers and pink refuse to wear them lest they get teased for being different, and little girls, who once could care less what they wore, feel they must pay attention lest they get shunned for being different?
And, yet, there are some very real differences. For example, as AppleApple has observed, most women are not as physically strong as most men.
(In our family, we have one boy who makes very loud weaponry sound effects and who never took interest in any doll ever given to him; one girl who chooses her brother’s hand-me-downs over her own girlie options, most days, and who doesn’t like “princessy games”; one girl who would wear ruffled pink in perpetuity and who likes looking at pictures of fairies; and one boy whose favourite colour is pink, who pushes a stroller and gently tucks his doll in, and who likes to growl and pretend to be a crocodile attacking his older siblings. How much have they chosen for themselves, and how much has been chosen for them?).
Yes, a girl can grow up to be anything she wants to be. It shocks my children to imagine that this were ever otherwise; yet for most of human history, a girl could not grow up to be anything she wanted to be. Now, she really can. I do believe that. But just because she can, doesn’t mean she will. And the evidence does not match up with the story the kids are being told. They see it. It makes them wonder. Why are there so few women in any snapshot of world leaders? I am excited for this summer’s World Cup, but also realize, looking through my daughters’ eyes: there will be no women playing. And there is nothing comparable to point them toward. Thank heavens, they were able to see themselves reflected in our Olympians.
I haven’t done anything to change the balance, either. I had a good job before I started having children. Then I stayed home with them. That was nine years ago. I have benefitted from the unquestionable luxury of being a women who chooses to stay home with her children, supported financially by a willing and able husband. I don’t feel regret or guilt about my decision, and we’ve always looked at ourselves as a partnership, and continue to work toward an ideal balance of childcare and work, and domestic duties and pursuit of outside interests; but out of strict financial necessity, his work trumps mine. It has to. Would I have it any other way? Well, this is what I wanted to do. I got to choose, and I’m glad for it. It was a privilege to take this path. Many people would like to, and cannot, for a variety of reasons.
But, man, sometimes I would just like to go off to work in the morning, and leave someone else in charge. Someone else to do the daily laundry. Think up and prepare the daily meals. Schedule the appointments, contain the domestic minutiae.
Someone else could walk to school with an eager four-year-old and a fractious and contrary two-year-old who insists, simultaneously, on not riding in the stroller and not walking beside it. So we’re standing halfway up the hill, on a busy street, engaging in a mental tug-of-war … “Come on, honey. Keep walking. Or I’ll have to strap you into the stroller. Come on, sweetheart. We’re going to be late. We’re already late. This is driving me crazy. The kids will be waiting. I don’t want to have to strap you in. You need to walk, or else I’ll have to …” And on and on and on, inching, lurching forward, sometimes at full tilt, then coming again to a standstill, till finally the inevitable happens and we are so late that he must be strapped in (screaming hysterically) and I am running–and still arrive late. “Why were you late?” “I’m sorry. Do you remember that we have swimming after school today?” “I won’t go. I hate swimming.” “We have to go.” “But I won’t. I just won’t. I hate everything.” “Would you like a banana muffin? We baked them this morning.” [Translation: two-year-old howled for more chocolate chips while four-year-old and her friend mixed and poured batter all over the counter this morning]. Eldest daughter emerges, at last, very late. She’s holding a gigantic car constructed of recyclables: of all the days to bring home this project. “I don’t think you can carry that all the way to swimming, do you? Can you store it on your desk and bring it home tomorrow? Do you want a muffin?” She chooses to carry it. We’re late. We walk fast. She falls far behind. “I’m still not going swimming,” says the eight-year-old. “Okay, if you really don’t want to, you can wait for us in the stands, but unfortunately, I do have to go in with your little brother.” Silence. “Another muffin?” “I guess I’ll have to go then.” Two-year-old attempting stroller escape, thwarted by intrepid four-year-old, balancing precariously, with arms and legs akimbo to block all exit routes. More howls. More, “Maybe you could put that car in your backpack and rebuild it later?” More, “I hate this. This is stupid.” Finally, our destination. Eldest daughter races off to the bathrooms. We wait. We’re late. She’s back. We enter a changeroom. We’ve forgotten a hair elastic. Eldest daughter races to stroller to find one. We wait. Still late. She’s back. Two-year-old now naked. “Do you have to pee?” Yup, and he’s considering the floor. “Please, please, please don’t pee on me,” someone else could mutter while racing for the bathroom clutching naked two-year-old. On the way, observe the mother with two older children who has driven here instead of walking, talking quietly to her offspring, guiding them toward the pool with preternatural calm. Return with successfully toileted two-year-old to changeroom where own offspring are fighting over who should sit where. “I might have to start cursing,” someone else could say. “What does that mean?” “Nothing. I’ll tell you later. When we aren’t stuck in a public changeroom with holes at the top of the walls, and the judgement of strangers to guide us otherwise.” We emerge, eventually, store items in locker, trip over one another, why is everyone always standing exactly blocking the direct route to anything? Finally. Pool.
This is only half of the tale.
Now, wouldn’t it be nice to have someone else do that instead? Wouldn’t it? Or, maybe not. It is good material, after all.
It’s what I do.
And this afternoon, someone else (our babysitter) is walking to school on my behalf … in the rain, no less. I almost want to stop her before she heads out the door and say, go on home, I’ll do it, don’t worry. It’s my job.
Have you seen him in his Strawberry Shortcake hat? He accessorizes with pink mittens, too. These are his choices, and I support them! The photos of Fooey were taken by her sister; I wanted to show how she’s posing for photos these days, very deliberately. I think it’s an effect of being photographed so often, and also of watching me photograph myself for the 365 day project. I often set up the camera and fool around with various poses and backgrounds … it can take quite awhile, and the kids are used to the beep-beep-beep of the ten-second timer going off, and run to check out the resulting picture. They’ll report, “That’s a good one, Mommy!”
Today, I have some news. It’s not of the good variety, but on the other hand, as I think my way through it, it’s not of the bad variety either. ParentDish, the Canadian version for which I’ve been writing regularly, is going on hiatus while the company retools the American site. That means I am temporarily out of regular writing work. My last column will publish tomorrow. The reason this news is not altogether bad, upon reflection (thank you, hot yoga) … well, a couple of reasons, actually. 1. Over the winter, I have been writing very little other than my columns, and have found it hard to focus, in the few extra hours available, on poetry or short stories. I will enjoy doing that again. 2. I also need to consider whether I would prefer to publish under a pseudonym were I to write a column like this again. Recent posts have gotten a number of comments, some smart and thoughtful, and others a bit hostile and weird. It’s made me go hmmm, if nothing more. I don’t mind having time to reflect on this. 3. There might be a third reason. I can’t remember it. It’s almost time to head to school.
The days go.
But CJ and I had a lunch date with Kevin today, and I thought, walking over in the breezy sunshine, of the great fortune of time that is mine. And I thought of that poem from a few posts back: “This is what the living do.” We get to walk in spring sunshine, and see another spring burst into bloom.
Writing day: organizing and planning for future interviews and columns, which takes more work than one might suspect. It’s the background hidden labour that will bear fruit down the road. Today I have almost too many ideas. Which is better than too few.
Something I’d like to figure out for my own children: how to involve them in the larger world, how to bring into their privileged and comfortable lives a desire to care for others, to be aware of need and sensitive to it; and to accept help, too. To treat everyone with dignity and respect. I’m not sure how to write a 600 word column on a subject I haven’t got a firm fingerhold on myself; but I want to know more. Where in my own life am I lacking this kind of compassion? How can I find time and space to do more? Where to begin? Small, I’m thinking. (Shoot–I should have accepted that cough candy from the Mormons
When Kevin broke his knee last winter, and I was run ragged trying to keep up with the demands of our life, I realized that despite my most sincere wishes otherwise, doling out seemingly endless help wasn’t bringing out the best in me or making me a finer, more patient person; instead, I felt squeezed like an empty toothpaste tube. I had nothing left to give. A smile to a grocery store clerk felt like more emotion and empathy than I could manage. But I still believe it’s always possible to give more, just in increments, like the way your body can stretch just that little bit farther when you’re holding a posture in yoga and following your breath.
But it comes to me: without that breath, farther isn’t possible.
Maybe that’s the key.
Oh dear. My morning has been thrown out of whack! Have to fly. Unexpected arrivals all over the place today.