“What do you do all day?” asked someone who reads my blog. “Why don’t you post more frequently, since you have so much time?” And then later, in a follow-up comment, this reader wondered why I hadn’t published that book I’ve mentioned I was working on. What have I been doing instead?
There it was: the question. The moment I’d been dreading.
When I had a baby, I chose to work part time and spend the rest of my time with my daughter. I am extraordinarily fortunate to have this option. It feels a little like a dirty secret.
I am embarrassed, sometimes, that I haven’t gone further in my career by now. I would prefer to have succeeded in ways so obvious and succinct that they would fit on a nametag. I would like to have fulfilled the potential that feminism and social change and modernity have given me. That my mother gave me. That my father believed I had just the same as my brothers.
I know the SAHM rhetoric—this is important work, too. Women’s work doesn’t always pay. You are doing something essential. You are doing the work of shaping an entire person! But it doesn’t stick to me, it slides right off. I feel like I’m cheating on my ambitious self with this new role. And yet I’m actively choosing it. I am unable, somehow, to not spend this time with my daughter, knowing I have the chance. I am unable to believe that work is everything, even as I’m unable to believe that motherhood is everything. I flounder somewhere in the middle, in a gray area where balance and confusion circle each other with territorial defensiveness.
I stared at the question on my phone while nursing my baby. I could practically feel my milk turning sour. I thought about how to answer as I tried for forty minutes to convince my baby that, no, really, she should have a nap. Finally, she was asleep, and I hadn’t eaten yet that day because there hadn’t been time, but under the microscope of the question, I felt abruptly like I was doing nothing.
I sat down at the computer, checking the baby monitor compulsively, and wrote back, explaining my schedule. See, I write these columns, and I work over here, too, part time, and I have these goals, which I am reaching for, and I don’t update the blog more than once a week because I want to take time to make the essays something I am proud of.
Implicitly, I was apologising to this stranger for not being the right kind of woman. I was clarifying that maybe I am a little bit closer to being that woman than I may at first glance appear to be.
It took me a day to realise that. Then I got angry.
And I realised something. I realised that this question is bigger than the balance of my days in my one little life. It’s for all of the women whose accomplishments don’t fit into a neat, impressive, single-word title. It’s for all of the women who can choose to do what looks like nothing to the people who haven’t cared for a baby or a child. It’s for all of the women who are doing something that doesn’t make money or doesn’t make the kind of money they might otherwise be able to make.
And actually, it’s even bigger than that: it’s a question about what it means to be a modern woman. What it means to be a “good” woman.
It’s the same question that magazines ask when they publish articles about “having it all.” We read about it in books about leaning in or leaning out. We are, as a culture, obsessed with what women are doing with their time. What women are doing all day. Are women living up to their potential? Are they opting out? Are they sacrificing their kids for their political career? Are they sacrificing their career for their kids? Who are they spending their time with? Is their time well-spent?
I got angry at myself for trying to explain my days to the blog reader. For always trying to explain to strangers, to the world, to my family, to my friends, to myself. For constantly searching for the right words to make my life sound like it fits into the right narrative so that everyone can agree it’s a good, successful, acceptable kind of life.
I got angry because it isn’t anyone’s business what I am doing all day.
Or why I choose to spend my days this way. It isn’t for the world to decide that caring for a chubby, backwards-crawling baby is valuable or a waste of time, or to evaluate my part time paychecks and decide if they count as enough of a contribution to the finances of my household.
It’s none of the blog reader’s business if taking care of a baby is really hard or really easy, and if my work is adding enough to the culture at large.
It’s none of anyone’s business if I am a good woman. If I am doing the things that they think a good woman should do.
When women are asked what we are doing all day, the next question, sometimes silent but almost always present, is “why aren’t you doing more?” We may disagree on what constitutes the “more,” but it’s always there, looming, bearing down, about to topple over and crush us under its bulk.
Instead, why don’t we look at what is actually being accomplished? We are doing different things from one another and different things even from ourselves, because we are full of surprises. We are doing so many things that change every day, every year, every stage of life. So many things that can sometimes be measured in grades and sometimes in money and sometimes just in the quiet satisfaction they produce that no one else gets to see.
So, what do I do all day?
I try to live the best life that I am able.
And now, damnit, I’m going to finally have something to eat, because I haven’t had time all day. After that, who knows? Use your imagination. I might be doing anything.
Kate Fridkis is the author of the new book Growing Eden, Twenty-something and pregnant in New York City, available on Amazon UK and iBooks AU.
- Daily Life