What We Talk About When We Talk About Our Daily Lives

Yesterday I posted about my daily routine. I wrote this as a way of documenting our daily life, so that years from now I can look back and see vividly and clearly what the rhythm of our life was like when we had a toddler. I kind of saw it as an entry in the baby book I haven’t been keeping up with. For that reason, it concentrates on the cute things my baby does and says, and the overall tone is positive. When I wrote it, I was doing what we all do when we make scrapbooks and use social media: we edit and put our best face forward. There’s no harm in that, except that in so far as I’m hiding the hard stuff and ugly moments, I’m sugarcoating and being fake. Last year, when I wrote about two days of maternity leave, a beautiful, lovely day and a miserable one, I did it to make precisely that point: we have our good moments and our bad ones, and it’s dishonest to pretend that the bad moments don’t exist.

I didn’t feel like writing out an entire ‘hell day’ post like I did last year, and honestly, my life now is quite a bit easier than it was this time last year, especially the sleep part. But if I were to write one, here are some of the things I would have included:

  • David tries to stay in bed after Cogan wakes up and I get annoyed with him because I have to wake him up to help me. I hate having to pester him to get out of bed in the morning; it makes me feel like he’s a teenage boy or something.
  • I don’t want to go outside with Cogan so he throws a tantrum and swats at me.
  • Cogan collapses into helpless tears on the kitchen floor because I can’t figure out what he wants.
  • I carry Cogan kicking and screaming away from the bathroom because he wants to get into a closet that has makeup and medicine in it.
  • Cogan cries and whines throughout the entire dinner and won’t eat anything, even though we keep offering him different things. We can’t talk to each other and eat as quickly as possible, in edgy silence.
  • Cogan’s nose is always running and has to be wiped every 5 minutes. He wears a soaked bib to protect his clothes from his drool, and every time I pick him up, it touches me. My shirt is covered in snot and slobber by the end of every day.
  • Our entire house is absolutely filthy. I feel like everyone always says their house is dirty, so this is not new. But unless you’ve seen a house inhabited by a toddler and 2 adults who work full time and are lazier-than-average when it comes to cleaning, you might not have an idea how dirty things can get. It’s not just the clutter of a kid’s toys, although that’s not insignificant. There’s the floor under the high chair that’s always sticky and littered with big crumbs. There are the half-finished reorganizing piles in the two bedrooms. There’s the film of scum and tiny hairs coating the bathroom sink. There are hair tumbleweeds in every corner. There are shrunken, stale Cheerios in crevices and inside toys and shoes. The worst part might be that honestly, this disgusting mess doesn’t bother me as much as it should.

There. Now it’s on the record: life with a toddler is not fun every second. There’s my contribution to honest, realistic discourse about women’s lives.

I also wrote my post in response to several other women who wrote similar things about their own daily lives. It’s fascinating to look inside someone’s life like this. But when I’d read a few of them, I started to see a few things they had in common, not in the days they described but the way they described them. The women all presented themselves as stylish, cheerful, competent, if occasionally frazzled, and most of all, deeply grateful. I really had to double check myself to see if my ambivalent reaction was a sign of jealousy or some other repressed ugliness. But I think the fact that these very different women wrote about very different lives in almost the same way has more to do with the way they were all trying to fill or fit certain expectations we have of women, especially mothers. I know I’m being incredibly picky to go on about the details of these posts, and I want to be clear that I’m not criticizing these women personally. I admire that they were brave enough to talk about their lives publicly. I mostly want to use these day-in-the-life posts, and my own experience of writing them, as a springboard for a discussion of expectations of women, mothers, and working mothers.

The very worst part about the posts were the constant humblebrags about how busy they are. This is something all working people tend to say, of course, because America’s workaholic culture teaches that busy = important. It becomes self-aggrandizing, while at the same time maintaining an appropriately feminine pose of servility. I certainly believe that these women fill their days with lots of productive work, but talking and, worse, reading about how busy someone is has become banal. I mean, maybe it’s ok for a post about daily routines to be a bit banal; no one’s life is roller coasters and fireworks every second. I only mention the banality of busy-ness because the posts perpetuate our damaging culture of overwork rather than questioning it.

Several of these women said of their unique balancing act, “it’s hectic/unconventional/messy/whatever, but it works for us.” Which made me wonder: what if it isn’t working? What if you’re barely hanging on? Then I guess you don’t write about your life on the internet. But wouldn’t that be a ton more interesting to read about, more raw and intimate? Instead of works in progress, the women presented their lives as finished products, which seemed somewhat fake to me. My daily routine has changed so much since my son was born, based on his changing needs for food and sleep. It seemed like we barely had time to get used to one provisional schedule when he started to show signs that he needed it adjusted yet again. If we’ve had one consistent failing as parents it’s been clinging too long to an old routine past the time when the baby was ready to move on.

The other thing that bothered me was how in Joanna Goddard’s series, almost every woman said that she did nothing whatsoever just for herself, or that she took no time at all in a typical day to devote to personal interests, hobbies, friends, self-improvement, or exercise. They said it almost proudly. With this background, I was somewhat nervous about telling the world about my habit of coming home for 45 minutes or so on my own before picking up my son from child care. The expectation is that working mothers must minimize the time their children spend at daycare, gladly sacrificing leisure time to be with the kids they miss every second of the workday.

Talking about the details of the daily routine opens us up to criticism from all sides. Someone is bound to judge the choices we’ve made and the priorities we’ve set. (I hope I’m not so much judging now as observing patterns and the way we’re all trying to fit impossible ideals.) We can never do enough work, or enough self-care, and we can never do enough for our children and partners, and when any one of these is compromised for another, it’s our fault for not being better at fitting 40 hours of work and fun into a 24 hour day. For example, we hear so much about the importance of exercising. I swear, every day I see a facebook link to a whole article that basically boils down to “exercise is good for you.” But when the daily realities of a parent’s schedule mean that time at the gym comes at the cost of taking a toddler straight from one babysitter to another, adding up to over 10 hours apart in a day, that starts to look like the parent doesn’t care enough about her kid. Doesn’t the mom want to spend time with her child? Does she really need to work out for her health, or is she just being vain? Isn’t it selfish to want so much time away from a kid, over and above what’s necessary to hold down a job? Those are the types of mean-girl questions people ask. Worse, they’re internalized as self-doubt and guilt.

While writing about my daily routine, I felt compelled to gush about everything good about our life that not everyone is lucky enough to have. A convenient child care arrangement, an easy commute, a child with an easy temperament who finally sleeps for over 8 hour stretches, local in-laws, two bedrooms, two cars. It felt especially necessary to go on about how great my husband is because he cooks sometimes, plays with our kid, gives him his bath every other night, and puts him to sleep every night, in addition to killing it at his 9-5 sales job. These things are true, and it’s only fair to give him credit, to celebrate him and be grateful for him and to him. But I feel like there comes a point where the gratitude becomes a show. My husband doesn’t need me to tell the world on public media that I appreciate him. He knows. We’re not one of those couples who posts “love you babe” on each other’s facebook walls to make sure everyone else sees this sweet little message. And besides, when my husband cares for our kid, he’s just doing his job as a parent, and is no more praiseworthy than I am. I think there’s value in being matter-of-fact about these things, because gushing sends a message of low expectations. And in the case of the other things, like our house, or our short commutes: who do I thank for them? They’re gifts that were dropped in our laps by virtue of the city we live in, more than for any other reason.

I think sometimes women adopt a pose of emphasizing their gratitude when they know they’re privileged or they want to express solidarity with those who are less fortunate. That’s laudable. But I think it’s more radical to make demands anyway, and include others in those demands. We all know how much worse things could be and that makes us hesitant to complain. The specter of other people’s troubles makes us keep quiet, until we’re like the starving kids at Oliver Twist’s orphanage, afraid to ask for more soup. Instead of getting scared when we see others struggling, we should get angry on their behalf. I want the same things for them that I want for myself. If I complain about my relatively easy circumstances, it’s not because I’m oblivious to my privilege or to others who have less. Rather, I’m expressing the idea that we all deserve more than we’re getting. We can be grateful without implying we’re content with the status quo. For example, compared to many American women, I was relatively lucky in my maternity leave because I had almost 5 months at home with my baby (unpaid). It wasn’t enough, and saying that is no disrespect to women who return earlier than that, whether by choice or necessity. That’s why I especially love it when discussion of work/life balance leads to awesome conversations about structural issues like US work culture and gender expectations, like it often does in the APW comments.

As I wrote my post, I felt compelled to justify things, because it seemed to me that readers were going to be looking for the things I’d compromised, the trade-offs I’d made in order to be able to have it as good as I do. I saw a glimmer of this tendency in myself reading the other women’s stories: “Of course she can do X, she has Y.” I think the most radical thing might be when we stop doing these little calculations and allow others to have great lives without ‘paying’ for them in some way, when we stop justifying ourselves and stop feeling guilty for being flawed human beings with needs of our own.

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3 thoughts on “What We Talk About When We Talk About Our Daily Lives

  1. Another great post! Thanks, Mary Jo — I always enjoy reading your thoughts. Delightful, truly. I linked your post on Gone Girl to my Facebook page, too. And I’ve shared some of your motherhood posts with my parent friends. Your blog is always a good read!

  2. Pingback: MeReader: Year Three in Review | MeReader

  3. I think it hits at this question: how can we be authentic without putting everything out there? Like a movie, blogs tend to skip over the boring and mundane bits. But it’s also even less authentic than a movie can be a times we expect characters to have flaws after all. How else would we think of them as heroes at the end?

    But this “I think the most radical thing might be when we stop doing these little calculations and allow others to have great lives without ‘paying’ for them in some way, when we stop justifying ourselves and stop feeling guilty for being flawed human beings with needs of our own.” was what I really appreciated about your post. It’s something I’m working on in my life right now, and in my writing. Just being real and owning it, you know?

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