Today I was super-mother. At least by my standards; probably not yours. I thoroughly tidied the entire house – of course, you need ONE remaining room, don’t you, to shove all the bits and bobs in? I picked up every bit of paper from the carpets: Raihana is learning to write, draw and cut, and this means the entire carpet looks like confetti. And then there were the various odds and ends that are the greatest nightmare of all. Now, bits of trash are easy: pick up, crumple, toss. But odd screws, purple pencils, binder clips, … those are things that need to be individually placed in specific locales. Dozens of items.
All this, for a playdate for Raihana. Yes, I know it’s just another 5-year old but I don’t want Raihana’s friends’ parents wondering if their child should be wading knee-deep in confetti-covered carpets. She and her friend danced around each other happily, pulling ugly faces and giggling nonstop. The success of the arrangement was most satisfying.
Then I took Raihana to the grocery store, and hauled a ton of eggplant, plums, cherries, honeydew, zucchini, eggs … and so on. No delicious cheese puffs and no candy. In horrific 108 degree heat – horrific because it’s been going on and on for weeks – we headed back home.
Immediately I got to work getting Raihana her meal. I gave her 3 healthy meals today. I cut no corners. No shortcuts. No french fries, no unsavoury wet slaps of deli meats, no crackers, no hot dogs, even. Green beans, broccoli, rice, tilapia, and such like. I timed everything just right. I knew she would be hungry when we were grocery shopping, but I avoided the Burger King nearby, and instead offered her deli bread from the grocery cart. I worked to get her hungry, and waited in the corner to pounce with my healthful meal. It was very successful.
Then I gave her a happy bubble bath, and got her dressed within a few minutes of a home visit by a teacher. I allowed her a little bit of television so I could get dinner together – and that was a fun video on biology. I warmed the spinach-and-chicken curry I’d made the day before, cooked rice, made a salad for Svend – herb mix sprinkled with strawberries, grape tomatoes, sesame seed oil and sunflower seeds – he’d had a long week of fasting and commuting. Then I started work on a zucchini-goatcheese-spinach quiche. (No, this kind of volume is extremely unlike me. This is why this level of self-congratulation and self-satisfaction is unlike me, mostly). At 10 the quiche was ready to be sampled, and to be put away for the next day.
I thought to myself, Lord, I’ve had a good day. Raihana’s had fun. Svend’s had a hearty meal. They’ve both had healthy meals. I’ve cooked and cleaned my butt off. I’ve had a good meal too. And I mean, how much more productive can you get?
And then, as from several incarnations away, a dim thought crossed my mind like a dark cloud floating before the sun.
I didn’t get a lick of work on my writing done today.
When Raihana was at summer school, my schedule was: get R ready, drop her off, get my coffee, and write, write, write, until pick-up time. Frozen fish and fries. Steamed broccoli and boiled eggs. Laundry when necessary. In June, I felt satisfied when I surveyed my steady progress on the manuscript.
But with the 2-week break before the fall, this schedule came apart. I had to rediscover togetherness with my 5-year old. All day. All day, day after day. And it is sweet. Inexpressibly sweet.
Except when that thought crosses my mind.
Now, I mostly prowl around the edges of the day and night, watching hungrily for scraps of time, in 15-30 minute increments, where I can clean up Chapter 2, or prune the Conclusion. I take Raihana to Panera, and while she watches a cartoon on my laptop, I read the manuscript and make notes. I bring her home and stick a DVD in for her to watch, while I get some work done: soon, she will come to join me, rehearsing the show, adapting it to her own imagination, forcing me to engage with her, while I gaze longingly back at the raw text on the screen. Days like today are rare. I can almost never allow myself to immerse myself in my home, its order, food, an organic daily rhythm, Raihana’s needs and her imagination.
That’s when I am reminded of the inescapable dilemma of today’s woman. The precarious balancing act where each end of the balancing pole is an entire life in itself – a full time job. On the one hand, cooking, cleaning, maintaining a household, laughing and playing and reading with the child/ren, observing good bedtime hours, and so on. On the other side, writing a book while simultaneously working on a book review, preparing syllabi, teaching, advising, serving on committees, serving students, networking, conferencing, research, grants, oh and yes, reading books and articles to stay on top of the multitude of disciplines that are all my areas. Both of these must be done at the same time, and in perfect balance. And to have any sense of joy about it, they must be done WELL. If they are not, well, in this economy and this market, you know there is a throng at the gate waiting to devour the scraps that were initially thrown to you.
Of course, to be able to achieve this balance in any degree and with any quality at all, you have to have a perfect constitution: a continually productive mind; a congenial work environment; a strong and fit body; a merely moderate need for food and sleep (there’s not enough time in the day for much, and it’s better if you function like a camel for food and like a bear for sleep: wait till you get the chance.) And we all know that you must also have an audience for your efforts which is inclined to see the good you do, and disinclined to focus on your flaws. Merit is relative. And vested interests are ever present.
I am not the only one who bears the burden of such balancing. I am, in fact, a fortunate one among so many. Svend pitches in whenever he can. But the workplace for men is perhaps even less permissive when it comes to domestic responsibilities (“why? Where’s his wife? Can’t she pick up/care for/drop off the child?”) The matrix, the world of possibility that I am positioned within, is a crippling one.
I hope that one day, Raihana will grow up to not bear the burden of all of this in so inequitable a fashion as women bear today.
I hope that the worker of today, man or woman, becomes whole tomorrow – not divided, torn, and ripped apart at all times. I hope that the worker of today becomes a human being tomorrow – that the domestic, the caregiving, the parenting – these do not become the random bits and bobs of not-quite-trash that we brush under the carpet so that our professional colleagues think well of us. I hope that the worker is permitted real life, family, flaws, hiccups, less than perfect productivity – I pray that labor becomes joy, and I pray that our non-laboring lives regain their forbidden joys some day.