"We're all busy," a friend of mine said recently. "Whenever you ask someone how they're doing, they automatically answer 'busy.'" It's true; men, women, even children, everybody's got too much on his or her plate. Every conversation seems to turn on a kind of one-upmanship of busyness ("I'm too busy to eat!" "I know exactly what you mean -- I'm too busy to sleep!") Busy is the universal excuse -- "I'd love to, but I'm too busy," "I wanted to do a better job, but I'm busy," "I'm sorry I'm so grumpy, I'm just stressed out because -- (wait for it) -- I'm so busy." Sloth has become the unforgivable sin.
And the moms I know, whatever their work-for-pay arrangements (full time, part time, or no time), are the busiest of all. Of course, some of that comes with the territory, but a good bit of it is self-imposed. We pile ought-to's on top of our own have-to's, and then we rush our children from one activity to another, spending hours coordinating everyone's schedules. It always seems like everybody has to be somewhere different at the exact same time, and competing activities are invariably on opposite sides of town.
Over-commitment is a virtue in our work-obsessed culture; it's necessary to prove that we're doing a good job. And in a world where we're defined more by what we do than what we are, only "work" is important. If we're not being paid for something, we have to put even more effort into it to, to prove that it's worthwhile. And so, as Judith Warner pointed out in her Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, the overwhelming boredom that Betty Freidan documented in The Feminine Mystique has been replaced by rigorous expectations of maternal involvement, starting with "floor time" for infants, and continuing well into elementary school and beyond, with carefully scheduled activities, volunteer opportunities, and school projects that seem predicated on parents doing the lion's share of the planning and execution. Being stressed out and busy proves to ourselves and to others that we're good mothers and that the work we're doing has significance. If you're relaxed, if you're not rushing around, if you're content, you're clearly not doing your share.
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When I was a kid, women's magazines often featured (in between Helpful Hints from Heloise and Can This Marriage Be Saved) tongue-in-cheek articles that encouraged their readers to respond to the question, "What do you do?" with an official-sounding faux title -- something like Domestic Manager or Childcare Technician -- which was intended to keep people from dismissing the reader as "just a housewife." In response to that same dismissive attitude towards "women's work," it now seems that we're determined to turn mothering into a "real job." (Fathers, who are still expected to be the primary breadwinners for their families, are largely exempt from this pressure. And isn't it interesting that "mothering" implies, not just giving birth, but doing the day today work of caring for a child, while "fathering" refers to the fleeting act of impregnating a woman? When fathers do the work otherwise referred to as "mothering," we describe it with the gender neutral "parenting.")
The hand that rocks the cradle may rule the world, but I don't think most parents can sum up their hopes and dreams for their children in those ubiquitous SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and tangible) goals that corporations expect their employees to make. In spite of a variety of charts, tools, and manuals designed to make parenting logical and organized, raising children remains messy, chaotic, and unpredictable. (The bits that are measurable and tangible are mostly unpleasant bodily fluids and cash outlays.) And this is as it should be; the important things in life aren't easily summed up and categorized.
Presumably, all this going and doing and working at mothering is meant to benefit our children. But if motherhood is a job, do we risk viewing our children as nothing more than products? Is this why so many mothers feel that their performance is being judged by their children's behavior and accomplishments?
We seem to have lost sight of the middle ground; there's perfection or failure, but no in between. This is reflected in the stress that so many mothers feel; either you're Uber-Mommy or a neglectful slattern whose children should be taken away. A similar notion crops up a lot in articles about the differences between the way our generation parents and the way our parents raised us - the writer often comments that if she spanked her kids/let them wander around the neighborhood unsupervised/fed them non-organic grapes/drank a single glass of wine while she was pregnant (the way her mom did) Child Protective Services would be at the door in minutes. There's no sense of perspective or scale -- if you're not meeting every expectation put forth by the latest experts, you're in danger of being laid off.
As a recovering perfectionist, I'm familiar with the despair that this all- or- nothing thinking can produce. At my worst, the desire to get it absolutely right just leads me to drop my basket in some spectacular fashion, because I'm paralyzed by my perfectionist tendencies. If I never get started, I never have to face up to the concrete imperfection of reality. And if I can't avoid doing something, I often wait until the last possible moment, so that I have an out. For years, "It would have been better, but I threw it together at the last minute," was my mantra.
I suspect that the epidemic of busyness is a similar sort of response. "I'm too busy" has become the excuse that rationalizes every missed opportunity, every disappointment, every time we fail to live up to the expectations we've set for ourselves. In addition, organized activities and lessons are specific, measurable, and tangible, and, for those of us with the cash, attainable and realistic. They serve as absolute proof that, however our children turn out, we tried.
Of course, my family is just as busy as everyone else's, and I sighed
with relief when summer vacation put an end to my stint as taxi driver,
teacher's assistant, and tutor. I was struck with the realization that
I'd been making my life harder than it had to be, and for the most part,
paying for the privilege. I vowed to take it easy this summer; instead
of a dizzying round of camps and lessons, we're going to play in the
backyard, hang out at the pool and spend entire days in our pajamas. It
may not last, but for one summer, I'm determined to be a lady of leisure.
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