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Rest in the time of lockdown

Lockdown + holiday

I am writing this in the middle of the 2021 Sydney lockdown, which started at the beginning of the school holidays. This was bad timing for us as it meant we had to cancel our holiday to Port Macquarie. We were even on our way there when the Premier announced a press conference: we got as far as Gosford when we decided to turn around and come home again, because lockdown restrictions would have followed us there and we agreed it was better to suffer through lockdown in our house instead of our two bedroom flat AirBnb. So that was a long way to go just to eat McDonald’s in the carpark! When we returned home, my youngest complained, “This is the most boringest day of my life.” She did have a point.

For the next week, we stayed home, sleeping in, reading books and binge-watching things. My mother and her partner very kindly gave me my birthday present early, which was a subscription to Disney+, so we caught up on Pixar films, and Ben and I started watching The Mandalorian. I tried to deal my disappointment and subsequent depression but it was very hard: I haven’t had a leave-the-house-and-go-somewhere holiday in such a long time (which I know is such a first world problem)—in almost a year, really, though I’m not sure if I can really count the trip we took to Terrigal with a friend and her daughter during the September break last year as we were solo/tag-team parenting the entire time. I felt like I was on the verge of burnout. I also felt like I was being overly dramatic even saying that.

Still, I made lemonade with the lemons life gave me. After chatting with another friend about what she does with her kids, I made a checklist for the girls that contained a bunch of things they had to do before they were allowed on screens. It includes:

  • Guitar practice;
  • Chores;
  • Exercise/outdoor play for at least 20 minutes;
  • Reading a book for at least 20 minutes;
  • Colour/writing/drawing something for at least 20 minutes;
  • Making/building something creative; and
  • Tidying up.

The girls took to it pretty enthusiastically and didn’t even complain. If they completed everything (which sometimes happened by 11:30am), we let them spend the rest of the day on screens. That helped give us all a bit of a break—even though for me, I was only really taking a break from work work; the normal routine of housework continued uninterrupted.

Lockdown + work

In the second week, the challenge was adding work to the load. The girls continued with their checklists and screen time quite happily, while I fit my hours around everything else that was happening.

Then the Premier extended the lockdown and announced that all school children would be starting home learning. And I fell into a bit of a depression about cancelling all the birthday plans I had so carefully laid—the two-night sleepover the girls were going to do with my in-laws; the night out on the town that Ben was going to take me on; the trip to the cinema with my Marvel movie buddy to see Black Widow—and I feel so hard, I had trouble recovering. The prospect of returning to home learning didn’t help; I still had fresh memories of how that went the last time around. The weekend before, I spent an entire afternoon googling “pandemic parental burnout”, and that revealed two things:

  1. I wasn’t really burned out. (Not yet, anyway.) But I was probably on my way there.
  2. The number one piece of advice people gave to parents in lockdown and to people suffering from burnout was to look after yourself, look after yourself, look after yourself. That means carving out time for yourself and being intentional about doing self-care things.

“Well that makes sense,” I thought. But part of me also wanted to have a tantrum and scream and cry, “BUT WHEN WILL SOMEONE ELSE LOOK AFTER ME?” Being a parent means constant caretaking—giving, giving and giving some more. Furthermore, it’s not a reciprocal relationship: what you put in doesn’t necessarily come back. I love my kids, but I get tired of caretaking, and the thing with lockdowns is that the normal parental supports—school, after school care, grandparents, and so on—just aren’t there. You’re pretty much on your own.

(Except for screens. Thank God for screens. I mean it.)

Even though I bang on about mental health and have written and self-published an entire anthology about depression, I still find it hard sometimes to admit I have a problem. But I did share that with various people who prayed for me and who were very understanding—the sort of people who weren’t going to tell me to suck it up, that other people have it worse than me, and that I have nothing to whinge about it. They were sad for me and expressed their sympathy in helpful ways.

And in the end, my birthday was as nice as a birthday could be in lockdown: the girls and I livestreamed church; I caught up with various church people via Zoom afterwards (who wished me a happy birthday!); we ordered in sushi for lunch; we had a karaoke party in the afternoon in our karaoke basement (which my family weren’t too keen about, so I partied on my own for a bit and even tried doing a Facebook Live video that got pulled down for copyright infringement); we ate and enjoyed the Basque cheesecake I had made the day before; we ordered in pizza for dinner; and then in the evening, my Marvel movie buddy and I had a Teleparty and watched the live action Mulan on Disney+. And that helped me feel better about things heading into the new week.

Lockdown + work + home learning

This week, home learning began. But we had a day’s reprieve as the teachers returned to work and figured out what to do for lessons. I spent Monday getting ready: I made a new “before screen time” checklist for the girls that added the home learning and drop the making/building element (though I did tell them that if home learning tasks overlapped with checklist tasks, they could totally check them off). I got an extension cord and a six-plug powerboard, and set them up at the other end of the dining table to where we eat in the back room of the house where we get the most sun. I moved our laptops there and set them up with headphones. The laptop my youngest used last year for home learning finally died (it was about 11-12 years old—good innings for a MacBook), so I made a separate login for Saski on my home laptop as I figured I’d be on my work laptop during home learning anyway. And then the new term began.

Laptops for home learning.

So this is how our days currently go:

  • I sleep in until 8am (which is truly the best thing about lockdown) and then read my Bible and pray before getting up and having breakfast. (I recently started using PrayerMate for the prayer part and it has been incredibly helpful.)
  • I look after the morning routine Monday to Friday and Sunday, which means getting the girls up (usually by 8:45am) and dressed, doing their hair, getting breakfast into them, reading the Bible with them and brushing their teeth.
  • We get stuck into home learning around 9:30am. Miss 10 is pretty self-directed and most of the time, all I need to do is make sure she stays on task instead of watching random things on YouTube or messaging her friends. Occasionally she needs a little help with maths, but that’s about it. I spend most of my time with Miss 7, who needs a lot more help—particularly with the tech side. I load up her Google Classroom and watch some of the videos on double speed on my work laptop just to stay ahead. Sometimes I’m able to do work around them (half an hour to an hour, though my measurements are imprecise), but it has to be more administrative things, like formatting Word documents or converting Word documents to HTML or updating websites—anything that can be interrupted, really, because I am interrupted every three to five minutes. Anything that requires more sustained focus—any sort of editing or writing—has to wait until the afternoon.
  • The girls are usually finished with home learning by lunchtime/1pm. I make them pack sandwiches for the entire week on Monday so that they’re ready for when they get hungry, and then I add some fresh veggies to round things out. For myself, sometimes I make myself something as I prefer a hot lunch in winter (e.g. I’ll do a large chicken soup, freeze half of it and then eat through the rest over the next three or four days). Or I’ll have leftovers or something.
  • Then after lunch, the girls will tackle the last items on their checklists and go on screens while I tackle my job, which I’ve spaced across the week so that it’s roughly 2-3 hours a day. (I also have some time in lieu up my sleeve that I use, plus my boss is super understanding. I don’t know how people who work full-time do it. One podcast I listen to suggested that one parent do the 6am-12pm shift with the kids while the other works, and then they swap for the 12-6pm shift, and I thought that sounded horrible.) In addition, I am trying to keep up the exercise on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays now that we have the space for it: my gym has been making their Zoom classes available to all members, and they’re downloadable, which means I can do them whenever I want. I’ve found it’s worked best when I do them in the late afternoon, and then I can have a shower and tackle dinner, or vice versa. I shudder to think how much muscle strength I’ve lost these three weeks as going back to the gym and handling weights again is going to be painful. But it’s better than nothing.
  • Then comes dinner at 6pm. I stick to my current pattern of making a three-night meal on Monday, a two-night meal on Thursday, a one-night meal on Saturday, and then we order takeaway on Sunday.
  • After dinner, Ben handles the bed and bathtime routine while I finish off any housework I might have been doing throughout the day (e.g. laundry); I make calls to people in my Bible Study group to check on them and pray with them; I catch up with a friend over the phone; I tackle the never-ending admin; and I do other things that are on my checklist—e.g. at least one lesson of Duo Lingo (Japanese), reading at least one chapter of a book, writing at least 100 words on my novel, and staying on top of Twitter.
  • And then after the girls are in bed, I watch TV—sometimes with Ben and sometimes not. (I am currently binging the fourth season of Angel on Disney+.)

Lockdown rest?

All the while I am conscious of what people and those YouTube videos on burnout have been saying to me: look after yourself, look after yourself, look after yourself. So I have been trying. I have been exercising, reading books, watching TV and keeping up with people.

Still, now that a lot of the rest-type things I normally do have been taken away, it begs the question, how exactly do people rest?

Good thing I read this book (very slowly!) a couple of years ago: Rest: Why you get more done when you work less by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang. I agree with his argument in theory (his argument’s in the book’s subtitle), but I also found the book infuriating because he focused primarily on the lives of male politicians, scientists and artists who were able to achieve and create great things in four hours a day while also resting a lot while ignoring the fact that other people were freeing them up to do that. Who was looking after their children, doing their laundry, cooking their meals and cleaning their houses? It certainly wasn’t them. The fact that Pang does not acknowledge the amount privilege involved in living lives filled with rest was so infuriating, I put the book down for a long while.

But I did find a helpful bit towards the end where he talks about things that actually help promote rest:

Sonnentag and her colleagues argue that there are four major factors that contribute to recovery: relaxation, control, mastery experiences, and mental detachment from work. Think of them as a bit like vitamins. Breaks that are high in all four are the equivalent of nutritious and nourishing meals; those that don’t are like empty calories. (p. 166)

Here’s a nice little summary of all four:

Detachment refers to mental disengagement from work-related thoughts. Relaxation implies low levels of mental or physical activation and little physical or intellectual effort. Control refers to being able to decide on one’s leisure schedule and activities. Mastery encompasses learning opportunities and challenges, resulting in feelings of achievement and competence. Of these four experiences, detachment seems to be most consistently associated with positive changes in well-being.

So I’ve been trying to work out how to implement all four into my life:

  • Mental detachment is, in some ways, the easiest, because it happens once I get pulled into a novel, a TV show or a movie (and to a certain extent, my novel). The difficulty is being able to do that for a sustained uninterrupted period of time.
  • Relaxation is harder to achieve because it requires being organised enough to get the stuff that needs to be done—housework, paid work, etc—out of the way to clear the time to actually do it.
  • Control: well, I’m a control freak, plus I’m a structured control freak, so imposing my own timetable on our days has been helpful. Where I need to improve is being disciplined in my use of time, otherwise it all falls apart into time confetti.
  • Mastery: I guess this is where things like knitting and exercise fall. I do like learning new things and getting better at them, and even though I hate exercise, I do get some satisfaction from having improved at something.

It continues to be a work in progress.

I have been becoming more mindful after reading about/researching all this, though. For example, I feel less guilty about stopping and reading a chapter of a book before starting the next thing for work. There’s something freeing about intentionally adding a little padding into the day—discretionary time when I am allowed to do something I enjoy instead of something I have to do.

Towards the end of Rest, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang argues for shorter breaks more often instead of longer breaks less often:

These results further undermine the idea that our mental energies refill with time, rather than through activities that promote recovery. They also suggest that we should reassess the role of breaks, and the rhythm of vacations, in our lives. Regularly and decisively breaking from our jobs, disconnecting from the office in the evenings and on weekends, and choosing to do things that are relaxing, mentally absorbing and physically challenging—in other words, engaging in a form of active rest—will promote recovery of our mental resources and make us more effective, productive, and focused. Rather than treating vacations as big, annual events that are completely separate from our working lives, taking shorter but more frequent vacations every few months provides greater levels of recovery. As Jessica De Bloom, a psychologist at the University of Tampere and vacation researcher, puts it, vacations are like sleep: you need to take them regularly to benefit. (p. 172)

I take his point. I’ve got holiday booked for mid-November—a housework-free, child-free one, even. God-willing, lockdown will be over, more people will have been vaccinated and borders will be by then, and I’ll actually be able to go. Until then, I’ll keep attempting this rest thing as best I can.

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Time for creative projects

Time for creative projects

As promised last month, this month I thought I’d write a bit about finding time to do creative projects. People often ask me how I do it—especially when they find out I’m a parent of young children. “Where do you find the time?” they say.

168 hours a week

The thing is, I don’t have to find it; I already have it. You do too. We all do. We all have the same amount of time in our lives—24 hours a day, 168 hours a week, 8,760 hours a year (and 8,784 in a leap year). We may feel like we have less (or more, though people generally don’t feel like they have more time). But in reality, we all have the same amount of time. It’s just that we all have different demands on our time.

See, we all have time, but we don’t always have control of how we can spend that time. A certain amount of time must be spent on certain things—housework (as I discussed at length in this post), eating, sleeping, commuting, working in your paid job, raising children, maintaining your relationship with your partner (if you have one) and so on. Some of that time is non-negotiable: if you want to earn your salary, you need to put in the hours and have something to show for it, or you’ll get fired. If you want your kids to grow up to be healthy, well-adjusted adults, you need to spend time feeding them, clothing them, talking to them, nurturing them, shuttling them to and from school and other activities, being there for them, and so on. And if you want to prevent your marriage from disintegrating, you have to spend time working on the relationship—checking in with one another, having fun with one another, being intimate, working through problems together, maybe even going to marriage counselling together. (Please note there is no shame in going to marriage counselling. It doesn’t mean you’ve failed; it means you’re willing to work on stuff. More couples should go—and long before they find themselves on the brink of divorce.)

That said, there is always some portion of time—no matter how small—that is negotiable: there are no particular demands on it and you can choose how you want to spend it. Most of us tend to spend that time on rest and recreation, which is a perfectly wonderfully way to spend it, because rest and recreation are important and restorative, and act as valuable fuel for the rest of your life. But some of us choose to spend at least some of that negotiable time on making art. And because that time is so small, often we yearn for more.

The thing is, for all for us, time is a finite resource: once it’s gone, you can’t get more of it. There’s no way to increase your 168 hours per week to 170. You can’t buy more. You can’t steal more. You can’t get time from someone else to extend your life the way that people do in that 2011 Andrew Niccol film In Time, where time literally is money. Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, “And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?” (Matthew 6:27). He’s right: you can’t. (Believe me, I’ve tried!)

Instead, our task is to spend our time wisely—to make the most of what we have—what we have been given. As Moses sang in the Book of Psalms, “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12). We all have 168 hours per week; how are you going to use yours?

Daily patterns

That said, not all time is the same: it changes throughout the day. Or rather, our experience of it changes throughout the day. At the risk of repeating myself in this post, I’ve found the chapter on the daily pattern we all traverse in terms of our energy levels and output in Daniel Pink’s When: The scientific secrets of perfect timing quite helpful: after waking, we rise to a peak at around lunchtime, which is then followed by an afternoon trough (or “slump time”, as I like to call it), a smaller peak in the late afternoon/early evening and then a gradual decline towards bedtime. Contrary to what many in society might actual think, we are humans, not machines; we can’t be “on” all the time.

Our days follow roughly the same shape (peak, trough, smaller peak, decline), but as Pink also points out, we start that shape at different times, according to our chronotype. Some of us are larks and rise early. (I’m definitely not one of them.) Some of us are night owls and rise late. But most of us are what Pink calls “third birds”: we fall somewhere in the middle and wake—not as early as larks, but not as late as owls. (I know it sounds ridiculous, but I was rather disappointed to discover that I was a third bird and not a natural night owl, which is what I’d been calling myself). If you’re interested in finding out your own chronotype, do the Automated Morningness-Eveningness Questionnaire (AutoMEQ). If the results of that aren’t satisfactory, another way to figure it out is to fill out Pink’s daily tracker worksheet, which directs you to write down what you’re doing, how alert you feel mentally and how energised you are physically every 90 minutes. Depending on your chronotype, you’ll start the daily pattern at a different time of day to the rest of the population, so the shape of your day—the rise of your energy levels—may look slightly different.

Sleeping woman

Even accounting for the daily pattern, our energy tends to fluctuate in 90-minute cycles: Tony Schwartz of The Energy Project says these cycles are derived from our ultradian rhythm: we rise to a peak part-way through the cycle (which is roughly 90 minutes long—so the peak occurs at about 45 minutes in) and then decline towards a trough. He recommends taking a 15-minute break every 90-minutes before getting stuck into things again. He also recommends doing things (like resting) to boost your energy, as energy, unlike time, is not a finite resource, it’s a renewable one. (For more about that, check out his talk, “The myths of the overworked creative” or this summary.) Your energy levels are obviously affected by all sorts of things—how much rest you’ve had (or not had!), how much exercise you’ve done, what’s currently stressing you out, and so on. But according to Schwartz’s thinking, if you can manage and control those things, you can boost your energy and thus your productivity in the time you have.

That said (and as I said earlier), not all of us have total control over our time: our time is often shaped by external factors—even for those who lean more towards the unstructured/spontaneous end of the spectrum. The patterns of the day can end up falling into blocks that fit around, say, the 9 to 5 workday, the school run or the baby’s feeding schedule. I don’t see this as a negative: if anything, it’s a positive, because endless time actually isn’t actually that helpful for productivity. In fact, having endless time can be absolutely terrifying because it contains so much potential and it can be wasted in so many possible ways. Having pre-existing fences around your time is actually quite helpful in the same way that having good interpersonal boundaries helps you to thrive.

Making the most of the time

So to bring all this together, where can you find the time to fit in creative work? Here are a few suggestions that might be helpful, depending on your circumstances:

  • Schedule it in: Figure out your chronotype and the periods each day when you are more likely to be productive. It might be in the early morning before the break of dawn. It might be late at night after the household has gone to bed. It probably won’t be after lunch during the afternoon slump. Once you’ve worked that out, look at your daily and weekly timetable, and the natural rhythms/externally imposed boundaries they place on your time. See where you might be able to fit in some creative work—but make sure that these blocks of time are as close as possible to your most productive periods. It may not be possible, but perhaps there’s a morning or two—or an evening or two—that you can reserve for yourself. An hour and a half is ideal (bearing in mind your ultradian cycle—90 minutes). If you can’t manage that, see if you can squeeze in even 30 minutes. Anything is better than nothing. Once you’ve scheduled it, stick to it. (For me, I currently have Tuesdays child-free, so after I’ve finished drop-offs, I go to a café and write for a bit, and then move to the library and write for a bit longer. I usually stop around lunch time and try to spend the rest of the time on R&R.) You may not get much done in that 30 minutes. But remember that a little is better than nothing. And maybe once you get into the routine of things, you may be able to block out more time.
  • Use your incidental time: Incidental time happens in the corners: it’s the time you spend standing in queues, commuting to and from work, sitting around in doctor’s waiting rooms, or even watching your kids play in the playground. If you can, try to make the most of that time: get out your phone and scribble down some story ideas; let your mind chew over that plot problem you’re having trouble untangling; daydream and let those unrelated connections come together to fuel your creativity. It’s surprising how much creative work you can actually do in the corners of your time—often when you’re supposed to be doing something else. (Remember the Zeigarnik effect, which I talked about in this post.) I once outlined the plot for a children’s picture book on my phone while following my then two-year-old around the IKEA showroom floor. Normally parenting and writing don’t mix, but it did that time.
Subway passengers
  • Boost your energy: If you have no choice but to schedule creative work during slump time, one way to make the time work better for you is to make sure you take decent rest before you go into slump time. Daniel Pink has a list of helpful ways to reinvigorate yourself in When that don’t actually take up much time. But, as Tony Schwartz says, energy is a renewable resource, so boost your energy by trying to make sure that you’ve slept well and rested well before you embark on creative work during slump time. If that doesn’t work and your mind and body are still choosing to rebel, don’t beat yourself up about it. Instead, roll with it: make the most of it by using the time to feed yourself with creator medicine. Watch a movie. Read a book. Passively consume things that will enrich you creatively. And don’t feel guilty about doing any of that: it’s still creative work.
  • Be realistic with yourself: That said, often creative work is hard going—particularly when other things in your life are going poorly. It’s helpful to acknowledge all of that and be compassionate towards yourself, instead of beating yourself up for not meeting some arbitrary high standard that you’ve set for yourself. As David M Barnett tweeted, “Time to write is an under-acknowledged privilege that a lot of us take for granted.” Not everyone can write 2,000 words a day (particularly not those who have to get dinner on the table every night, says Ann Patchett!) Not everyone can clear some time to do creative work—particularly if you’re a single mother of three who works full-time. Some people have chronic health problems that mean they’re barely functioning for most of the day. Talitha Kalago, author of Half a Million Words in Nine Months: The time management guide for finishing your manuscript, struggles with a range of chronic health problems, but still manages to be productive in the time she has. If this is something you struggle with too, the following posts may be helpful:
  • Deal with time sucks: With limited time—specifically limited quality time—for creative work, we don’t want to be wasting it by video hopping on YouTube, getting sucked into games or scrolling endlessly through social media. Part of the problem is that a lot of our entertainment options these days are designed to be addictive: they’re designed to activate the dopamine/reward centres of our brain so that we experience an almost Pavlovian response when we achieve that “win” or receive certain notifications. Some of these things are also designed to be intrusive—to interrupt whatever we’re currently doing and grab our attention so that we’ll be drawn to our phones, instead of concentrating on the task at hand. If you suspect this might be a problem for you, there are apps you can install on both computers and phones that monitor and report your activity so you can see first-hand what is sucking up your time. But there are other ways to deal with time sucks. Try the following:
    • Acknowledge to yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing. Are you depressed? Do you have a psychological need for attention? Are you just bored? If so, maybe it’s better to treat your feelings in other ways that don’t eat as much time and that are more effective than scrolling endlessly through Facebook.
    • Limit your distractions during creative work time. Turn off notifications. Put your phone on airplane mode. Use Freedom to block certain apps. Create two logins on your computer: one for personal stuff and one for creative stuff. (This might end up being annoying, though; let me know if it works for you!) “DO NOT DISTURB” is your friend. If anyone tries to contact you, get back to them later; most of the time, it’s not urgent, and it’s ridiculous to make yourself available to everyone every hour of the day.
    • Be sensible: if you’re trying to work and you’re having trouble focusing or concentrating, or you’re finding yourself nodding off, maybe the problem is you haven’t had enough rest (and by “rest”, I mean both the sleep variety and the leisure variety; everyone needs to waste time sometimes because wasting time is an important curative for good mental health). Rest, as I said earlier, is valuable fuel for energy, so don’t neglect it.
Journal and earbuds
  • Do what you can with the time you have: It may not be much, but it’s all still useful and helpful in the long-run. Sometimes, as a way to warm up, I start with morning pages (from Julia Cameron’s The Artists Way), or I have a dedicated journal that I use for scribbling 100-word exercises—little scenes or flash fiction that aren’t for anything except my amusement only. Sometimes I just write about the thing I’m working on instead of writing the actual thing. (I feel like it’s the writing equivalent of sketching or doing rough layouts in comics, and I used to feel a bit embarrassed about it until I had a conversation with Louie Joyce, who pointed out that often the hard work happens at that stage, because you’re making key decisions about how things should look and work—decisions that pay off later when you’re building on that foundational work during the pencilling/inking/colouring stage.) As I said, it’s not much, but it’s still all valuable.
  • Supercharge your creative practice: For some people, showing up is all they need to do to get the creative juices flowing. For others, something more is needed. As I said in this post, sometimes setting timers helps as it puts a fence around the time and only locks you in for a short period, forcing you to be productive. Sometimes leaving things half-finished is an easy way in the next time you have a chance to work on something. Sometimes a bit of preparation is all you need: recently I’ve been struck by this blog post, “How I Went From Writing 2,000 Words a Day to 10,000 Words a Day” by Rachel Aaron/Bach and what she wrote about the triangle of knowledge, time and enthusiasm: once she worked out what she was writing before she wrote it (knowledge) and she figured out worked best for her in terms of time of day and length of time (time) and she identified the hooks that made her excited to write particular scenes (enthusiasm), her output went up in a phenomenal way. And this was while she was looking after a newborn!

It’s difficult to find time to do creative work—difficult, but not impossible. Life can be very busy and very crowded. But even in the chaos of the day-to-day and your never-ending To Do list, you can still find the time. You just need to want to do it.

(P.S. For more on this subject, I also recommend checking out René Pfitzner’s post, “How do I find time to make comics?” and Mark McGuinness on “How to Find Time for Creative Work”.)

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Art work vs. housework

This month’s post was meant to be about finding time to write and make art—something that I know many people struggle with. But as I was writing about it, I realised that for me, I couldn’t really talk about art work until I’d talked about housework first.

I realise that sounds a little mad. (Welcome to my brain!) Housework is something we don’t usually like thinking about (let alone doing). Housework is boring: it comprises a significant chunk of my days and yet, strangely enough, I haven’t learned to love it. Housework is something most of us ignore until we can ignore it no longer.

But housework is essential to our wellbeing. It’s a necessary evil. It’s drudgery, but it has to be done—mostly for the sake of everyone’s sanity. A messy (overly messy, not normal messy!) chaotic home has a significant impact on the mental and physical health of its inhabitants, and that’s mostly due to the significance of the home. We may work outside the home, but everyone always returns to it at the end of the day in order to be refreshed and to recuperate for tomorrow. Home is the place where we relax—where we can be ourselves—where we can nurture ourselves and each other. Home has a massive significance psychologically: if our home burns to the ground, we feel that loss keenly—not so much because of our material goods reduced to ash, but because of our memories of the place and the emotional value we have invested in that place. Having no home feels awful and unsettling. In contrast, buying or moving into a home (“settling down”) implies a sense of security and stability. Home is about familiarity—knowing the quirks of a place, like where all the power points are located; the temperament of the kitchen oven; the way the light looks when it shines through the windows at different times of days; and the sound the building makes when it’s settling in the cool of the evening. Home is where we feel at home.

And housework is how we maintain that feeling of home being home. This is why cooking, cleaning, laundry, taking out the trash and so on are important. This is why parents all over the world make their children tidy up. This is why housework—boring evil drudgerous housework—has its own dignity, value and worth.

Washing machine

But historically (and this is the part that fascinates me about topic of housework, rather than the work itself, although I hesitate to talk about it because the very act of talking about housework feels incendiary—as if I’m about to start a gender war), it’s always been the lower classes who were responsible for housework: the poor served the rich and catered to their every need. The rise of the middle class has meant that most of us now do our own housework, and traditionally the burden of that has fallen to women. Certainly in the West in 1950s, that’s what being a housewife was all about—keeping an impeccable home, with housework occupying a whopping 32 hours per week back in 1965 (Jennifer Senior, All Joy and No Fun, HarperCollins, 2014, pp. 153-154). Arlie Russell Hochschild, in The Second Shift (which I haven’t read, but this summary makes me want to) found that, during the 1960s and 70s, taking both paid and unpaid labour into account, women were doing a full month of 24-hour days more than their male partners.

These days, accounting for both paid and unpaid labour, men and women are working almost equal hours, and male participation in housework and childcare, on average, has increased (Jennifer Senior, p. 53). (Side note: this is an interesting little statistic: each extra child adds an extra 120 hours of housework per year.)

But the division of domestic labour is not quite at parity. A 2015 study of working couples found that men who took a more or less equal share of the housework before kids added 40 minutes to their load around the time their baby had reached nine months, whereas in comparison, their wives had added more than two hours of daily work (source). Furthermore, mothers are more likely to multitask—usually with childcare and housework: one study found that mothers spend an average of 10 extra hours per week multitasking than fathers. Mothers are also more likely to engage in deadline-oriented time-pressured tasks—for example, getting the kids off to school, or putting dinner on the table. And mothers tend to identify themselves more as caregivers, meaning that they expend a lot more psychic energy on parenting, hence the current discussion around invisible labour and the mental load (Jennifer Senior, pp. 58-61). (Please note that these are all American stats; unfortunately the Australian Bureau of Statistics has not tracked Australian data for the past 10 years.)

To generalise broadly, part of the difference can be explained by the way that men and women are wired. Women are socially conditioned to see caregiving as an expression of love. Cooking is not just putting food on the table; it is nurturing loved ones. Tidying is not just clearing clutter and putting things away; it is creating a space in which family members can relax. Men, on the other hand, tend to view housework as just that: housework—menial labour that they’d rather pay someone else to do than do themselves. This means that a man’s refusal or reluctance to do housework can feel like emotional rejection to a woman, and a woman’s rejection of a man’s suggestion of hiring domestic help can appear ridiculous (Gaby Hinsliff, Half a Wife: The Working Family’s Guide to Getting a Life Back, Chatto and Windus, London, 2012, p. 92).

You can see why discussions about housework can be incendiary and can often end in bitter conflict, with working mothers and fathers competing with one another to prove who is doing more. (It was conflict over whose turn it was to empty the Diaper Genie that led Jancee Dunn to write How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids [Little, Brown and Company, New York, 2017.]) Gaby Hinsliff in Half a Wife quotes a study of full-time workers done by the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine that found that discussions over household chores made blood pressure rise faster than work meetings (p. 91). It’s because such discussions are as much about the worth and value of what each partner does, as well as the content of what they do, and the amount of what each partner does is therefore going to affect what else they can and can’t do—including making art.

So I find myself sympathising with Rufi Thorpe, who wrote in her essay “Mother, Writer, Monster, Maid”,

I have tried to say it to my husband; I have tried to say, “I hate my life.” I have tried to say, “I need help.” I have tried to explain why I am finding being a mother so difficult, but in the face of his questions, my explanations collapse. It isn’t exactly that spending time with the children is so horrible. I mean, sometimes it is, sometimes we have a bad day, but most of the time it is relatively pleasant: we go to the store, we go to the park, everyone is well behaved, the three-year-old says something cute, the baby does something new. The problem is not in what I am doing. The problem is in what I am not doing, which is writing every day, but which is also leading a life of the mind …

There are other ways too in which I am invisible. I often feel that the work I do around the house is the work of an invisible person. How else could my husband consistently leave his underwear tucked behind the bathroom door? His wet towel on the bed? Surely, he does not imagine me, swearing, swooping to pick up his damp, crumpled briefs with a child on one hip as I listen to a podcast and ponder going gluten free. He is not making a statement with his actions, saying, “Here, wife, pick up after me.” Instead, I think that on some level he believes that he lives in an enchanted castle where the broom comes to life and sweeps, and the teapot pours itself …

Male writers have often had children, but they have often famously refused to bend to them. On her twelfth birthday, Faulkner’s daughter asked him not to get drunk, and he refused, telling her, “No one remembers Shakespeare’s children.”

Tolstoy’s wife wrote in her journal:

How little kindness he shows his family! With us he is never anything but severe and indifferent. His biographers will tell how he helped the porter by drawing his own water, but no one will know that he never once thought to give his wife a moment’s rest, or his sick child a drink of water. How in 32 years he never once sat for five minutes by his sick child’s bedside to let me have a rest, or a good night’s sleep, or go for a walk, or simply sit down for a while and recover from my labours.

When I shared these anecdotes with my husband, he responded with horror. “But these men were assholes,” he said. “You can’t possibly want to be like them? Even fathers nowadays couldn’t get away with acting like that.” “Of course not,” I said, because it is hard to defend wanting to be an asshole. “But is it the price?” I asked, unwilling to give the discussion up. “Is the price of great art being an asshole?” He looked at me like I was insane. “No,” he said. “The price of great art is not being an asshole!”

The next morning, I picked his underwear up from behind the bathroom door and wondered if he was right. I will say this: it is probably easier to be an artist and an asshole. It is probably easier to get the time you need to work if you don’t care how it affects the people around you. It is easier to focus on achieving one thing than achieving two things.

I am aware that all of this comes across as hyper feminist husband-bashing, which is certainly not my intention (and it certainly must be said that my own wonderful husband does a wonderful job with his share of the domestic load and in appreciating and supporting me). I actually don’t believe that parity is always possible (or even desirable) when it comes to the division of domestic labour. Instead, I think it’s about fairness and working out what fairness looks like to each person in the couple. The division is affected by so many other factors—not just your ability and willingness to help, but also the status of your paid employment (if any); how flexible your employer is; how much each of you is earning (and how much the household needs in order to service a mortgage or take care of rent so that you can live within a reasonable distance of each other’s workplaces); the length of each person’s commute, and how that affects when you leave home and when you return to it; and so on. These are complicated discussions, and the solution for one household will not necessarily work for another household.

The point of all this is to raise the discussion in the first place. I suspect that, for most women, the amount of time consumed by housework is going to have a far greater impact on the amount of time they are able to spend on art work than men spend—simply because women tend to carry the lion’s share of the domestic load. When I look at my male contemporaries in comics (many of whom are fathers with children around the ages of my children), I don’t see them having to wrestle with these sorts of issues. (Maybe they’ve got it all worked out already!) But as Rachel Power says in The Divided Heart: Art and Motherhood (now titled Motherhood and Creativity: The divided heart),

To create art once you have children requires the commitment of more than one person. With kids in the mix, if I wanted to retreat, it required the cooperation of my partner … a situation I found both humbling and infuriating” (Red Dog, Fitzroy, 2008, p. 14).

Often the conversation is more fraught when it’s the mother wanting to create the art, rather than the father, which is why Susannah Windsor Freeman has a whole section in The Busy Mom’s Guide to Writing: Maintain your mommy-groove and achieve your writing goals on how mothers can get their partners to support their writing. Note that this is a topic that usually isn’t found in most writing books written by men.

Green salad

Until domestic robots become much more capable (I confess I look forward to the ubiquity of the laundry folding machine), we’re kind of stuck with housework and the various (and possibly gendered) discussions around housework. And when it comes to thinking about how to make time for art work, in my opinion, the key is to try to keep housework at an acceptable level. Here are some strategies for you (and your partner, if you have one) for how to do that:

  1. Divide and conquer: This is the strategy advocated by Stacie Cockrell, Cathy O’Neill and Julia Stone in Babyproofing Your Marriage: How to laugh more and argue less as your family grows (Harper, New York, 2007). You make a list of everything that needs to happen (and when they say everything, they mean EVERYTHING—even those pesky little tasks you usually forget about, like gift-buying and wrapping, keeping on top of children’s birthday party invitations and the school newsletter, and monitoring homework). Then allocate each task to someone. Of course, this may require some negotiation. If there’s something one of you particularly likes doing and the other doesn’t, it’s easy. But if both of you don’t like doing the thing, some bargaining may need to happen. Once you’ve divided and conquered, monitor how things are going and revise your lists regularly.
  2. Stick to a routine: Sometimes it feels overwhelming to get it all done. I combat that by only doing certain chores on certain days. For example, when it comes to laundry in our household, Mondays are for towels, tea towels and face washers; Tuesdays and Saturdays/Sundays are for clothes; and Saturdays are for bedding. With the cooking, on Mondays I make a meal that lasts for two nights; on Wednesdays I use the slow cooker and make something that might last for three; and on the weekends, I do simple meals, or we get takeaway.
  3. Be more efficient in the way you do the housework: Susannah Windsor Freeman likes to take this approach. So, for example, do your dinner meal prep at lunchtime; draw up a meal plan for the entire month (or have a rough one in your head!); order your groceries online and have them home delivered; make good use of your slow cooker and scale up your quantities so that one meal can be used for multiple nights; pack lunches for several family members at once (I make a sandwich for my youngest for the following day at the same time that I make sandwiches for my eldest to take to school); and hang out your laundry with clothes arranged by person so that you don’t need to sort them later.
  4. Set a timer: A friend of mine likes to take this approach: she sets her timer for 15 minutes and does what she can during that time, then leaves the rest for later.
  5. Reward yourself: Combat the boring evil drudgery by doing something nice for yourself. At the moment, I motivate myself to do housework by promising myself I can listen to podcasts; the content certainly makes the task way less dull. My mother-in-law told me she would reward herself for a job well done with a Mint Slice.
  6. Outsource: This is particularly worth doing for tasks that neither you nor your partner want to tackle. Hire a cleaner. Take your car to the car wash. Get takeaway occasionally. Pay someone to put together your IKEA furniture. When it comes to time versus money, it’s usually better to choose time.
  7. (Related to 3) Co-opt the kids: The Harvard Grant Study, which is the longest longitudinal study of humans ever conducted, found that professional success in life comes from having done chores as a kid, because you learn to see beyond yourself and take initiative. Furthermore, the earlier you start, the better! So even though it can feel easier to just do things yourself instead of nagging and nagging (and nagging), there’s value in getting your kids to help out around the home. Not only does it help you in the short-term, it really does help them in the long-run. (Not sure what your kids can handle? In The Busy Mom’s Guide to Writing, Susannah Windsor Freeman devotes a whole section to listing chores by age group.)
  8. Lower your standards: Obviously your home needs to be comfortable enough so that it doesn’t drive the inhabitants crazy. But it
    doesn’t have to look like something out of the pages of Better Homes and Gardens either. Around here, the vacuuming still gets done every week (either by me or our wonderful life-saving cleaner) because we all have dust allergies that make us more prone to illness. But I quite happily neglect the decluttering, and the mending regularly piles up in the corner.
  9. Institute a housework Sabbath: Choose one day of the week and work towards minimising the housework that happens on that day. This will probably mean getting the housework done on the other days or outsourcing, but it will be worth it because it will give you a well-deserved break.

Now that I’ve said my piece about housework, I hope to tackle the topic of making time for making art next month. Stay tuned!