Writing While The House is Messy

There are people who at times express surprise at how much I manage to do. Looking after a small baby, a school-age daughter, writing books, blogging, running a small business, etc. Sometimes they ask my secret, and I say ‘well, I’m a really bad housewife.’

Jeff VanderMeer has cued up a discussion on women, writing, guilt, and domestic responsibility, both at the Booklife blog and on his own (the really good comments so far are on his own blog). Rachel Swirsky also comments on the issue at her own blog.

I’ve commented over on Jeff’s blog about my experience as the stay-at-home-parent-who-writes, and I know how lucky I am to have a partner who sees my writing as an investment in our future rather than something which takes away from time I should be spending on, you know, vacuuming. I’m sure he would prefer I spent a touch more time vacuuming, since we bought the robot vacuum cleaner and all, but he has always been remarkably non-judgemental about the whole thing, and shared the chores.

There are so many potential issues/problems/complications tangled up in the concepts of Guilt and Motherhood, Guilt and Writing Time, Balancing Paid Work and Writing, Balancing Unpaid Work and Writing, that I think it’s impossible for any person to sum it up in an all-encompassing way. I always find it interesting to read other people’s stories about how they handle that difficult balance, though, and how they deal with their own expectations, and the expectations of others, which often have a lot to do with gender.

Your story is obviously going to be different, not just depending on whether you are male or female, but whether you are partnered, who works outside the house, who doesn’t, how much housework you do, whether or not you have kids, how old the kids are and what their needs are, and just how clean you (or your partner) feel the house has to be anyway. It changes as circumstances change.

Natania, one of the commenters over at Jeff’s blog, refers to “good selfishness” which is one of the best concepts that a woman and particularly a mother can embrace. Having something which is yours, which you prioritise as a regular thing that keeps you fulfilled and sane in between the franticwork and drudgery and fairy dust of being a parent, makes you a better person and parent. It doesn’t have to be writing. But if you don’t have something, you can disappear into the job of being a “housewife” – like all forms of self-employment, art included, domesticity can take all the time & resources you put into it, and then some.

I spend huge amounts of mental energy justifying time to myself. Allowing myself to feel okay about the things I do, and not beating myself up about taking that time away from other things. It is easier to balance these thoughts right now because a) I am being paid for my writing, thus it is a job and can reasonably be prioritised and b) I am caring for a five month old baby which means I am able to tell myself that anything I manage to contribute to the household beyond that is a bonus, not a necessity. Other years have been much harder for me to justify the amount of time/energy I put into the writing life above and beyond my family’s needs.

There are a whole lot of gender issues tangled up in this. I have an awesome, supportive partner who is an eager participant in the hands on part of parenting, and who contributes substantially to the domestic job despite also being the partner who works a 9-5:35 job outside the home. He’s taken enough parental leave to know that just because he’s been at work and I’ve been at home does not mean I have automatically had an easier day than he has, and that in some ways getting out of the house and into the workplace is more of a break from family responsibility than I get for – well, at least another year. He does a lot to compensate for the fact that there are some parental duties he can’t share (breastfeeding) and others where I’m going to be the one on the front line (our daughter has been known to wake me up to do something for her even if he is up and about – not for any negative reason, just because I am her default).

Rachel comments on Jeff’s blog about how many people think they have equal share of the chores, but in fact both genders are bad at estimating this. I have no idea where we fall, to be honest, but I know that I am happy with the current balance.

Being a postgrad student trained me for being a parent, and a writer, and a business manager. My whole life has been about self-employment – I rarely work outside the home, and I’ve been setting my own deadlines since I was 16. It does fit in better with parenthood – there are a lot of issues that working (outside the home) mothers have that I don’t, and I feel profoundly lucky in that. But when I take a day off, I have a much longer list of things I should feel guilty about not doing…

The idea that your time does not belong to you, that other people are entitled to it, is a thoroughly dangerous one, and yet even the most feminist women discover upon becoming parents that this dangerous idea is now ruling their life. It is true for men who become parents too, I think, but I do believe that the ones for whom this is equally true are pretty rare cases. It is, however, becoming more true for men, especially the younger generations, as societal expectations slowly change.

Doing Nanowrimo this year this year was really interesting – our group was almost entirely women, some of whom are partnered, some who are stay at home parents, some who are single, some who work fulltime jobs. All of us were in constant states of negotiation, with ourselves and other people. Early on, we considered the possibility of getting away for a weekend retreat at the end, but it just didn’t come together. Every hour of writing time was bartered, or borrowed from somewhere. At the end, we celebrated with our partners and children, because all of them had contributed to the effort, even if by not putting (too many) obstacles in our path.

All any of us can do is our best (which is not the best we can possibly do in a pretendy imaginary world, but the best we can manage today).

(Note: my baby slept the whole time I wrote this post, and my older daughter was watching tv – supervised by her Dad. I only had to intervene once when she was hassling him overtly, and perform two food-related tasks for her. This feels ridiculously decadent. Also, I totally should be writing right now.)

8 replies on “Writing While The House is Messy”

  1. Kaia says:

    This is really interesting. I’ve been the housewife and was seen as a very bad one, but I claim this had to do with my partner at the time. If he, for example, dropped a box of tea bags on the floor he would LET THEM LAY THERE because he “didnt have time” to clean up before going off to work. I didn’t write back then, but I did try to be a good student, and, um, it didn’t work out so well.

    Having a partner that understands that being at home isn’t exactly easy either and takes a lot of time? You can’t beat that. Especially if you have children, I bet, though I can’t really say much about that…

  2. tansyrr says:

    Yeah, having a partner who a) takes a share of the domestic parts as a matter of course and b) respects domestic work and c) doesn’t use paid work as an excuse to avoid domestic work makes a HUGE difference.

    Well, just having respect generally makes a big difference.

  3. Melander says:

    Nano taught me to use my time better…. To use the moments I could find for myself doing something that gave me more energy rather than just slumping in front of the tv.
    This has inspired me to walk 10,000 steps a day – and the exercise’s giving me more energy. This month I’m aiming at 10,000 steps and 1000 words….. Now that the whole thing is in scrivener…..

    It is important that women feel able to have some “me” time. I really want to teach that to my daughter AND my son.

  4. tansyrr says:

    Mel: it’s absolutely important. Too many people (some of them not women) think that a good mother is one who spends all their time addressing the needs of their children – but a mother who addresses her own needs can’t help but be a better role model for the kids. And can get more genuine pleasure out of the parenting time.

    You’re right too – it’s easy to think about the important feminist messages to pass on to our daughters, but that’s only half the battle. Raising boys who respect and appreciate women is equally important, and something that contributes to making the world better.

  5. Melander says:

    Sometimes I think making male feminists, or boys who are aware of the issues of marginalisation is more important than addressing the issues with girls.
    Girls are going to come into contact with them one day, but boys from majority ethnic/religious/Socio-economic backgrounds/etc/etc may not experience it unless they are made aware of the margins and who gets shoved there. I do think about the type of partner/husband I want Monty to grow into and I hope our friendship continues. It’s questions about spiders tongues today maybe but it won’t be long…..

    And woe betide the first time he’s told “stop being a girl” or “men don’t cry”….

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