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Wednesday, May 05, 2010

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Other Duties as Shall Be Required: A Mother's Work


Every morning, I pull out a 3 X 5 index card from a bulldog clipped deck, uncap my black felt-tipped pen, fire up my online calendar, and make my to-do list. Some items on the list are mandatory: keep a deadline or appointment, pay a bill, pick up kids. Others are more like the Pirate's Code; to be thought of only as suggestions. It's a given that some of them will be carried over to tomorrow's list, or the next day's, or the next day's, until the action has either been done, or done without.

While I was writing my book, the daily notation to "finish Chapter ___" loomed so large, it made the other to-do's seem manageable by comparison, even if I wasn't actually managing them very well. But with the focus off my manuscript--at least until I get the next round of edits--I've been amazed at how much work goes into keeping a household running--just functioning, I mean, never mind extras like decorating, entertaining, or deep cleaning. As Betty Friedan observed in the Feminine Mystique, housework will always expand to fit all available time and space. How ever much time you're willing to give it, is as much time as it takes.

I've had a little bit of time to give it these past two weeks, and I've mostly enjoyed the novelty of being able to check off a few more items from the list each day. But I'm well aware that the list is self-regenerative; that it's up to me to make sure big things don't get crowded out by the little ones. If you have to fill a jar with large stones and small pebbles, goes the analogy, put the large stones in first. The pebbles will fit into the spaces around them. It's harder to find space for the big stuff when you've already filled the day with inconsequential things.

Of course, the making of a home is not inconsequential. As Karen reminds me, it can be a profound discipline. I only have to sit in my friend Pearl's house to be reminded how essentially and immersively creative it can be. If homemaking is your vocation, I think it is a noble one. But it's not everyone's calling, nor is everyone who feels called to it, in a position to pursue it as such. I realize I am extraordinarily privileged to have the choice to be at home as much as I am -- or so I try to remind myself when driving around on a 90 degree spring day in a seven year-old minivan with a broken air conditioner. I could always be driving a new car back and forth to an office job, and working 40-plus hours a week. Lots of moms work outside the home full-time, by choice, necessity, or both. Like my friend Amy.

On Monday, after a full morning of making appointments, filling out paperwork, making the week's budget and menu plans, and the bare minimum of housework, I had an afternoon's worth of errands to run before picking up the kids from school. One of them took me near Amy's office, so we went for lunch. I told her how busy my days have been since wrapping up my book.

"When do you do all this stuff?" I asked her. I was genuinely baffled. I know she doesn't get home until six most nights. If you earn enough money, you can outsource some things, like the cleaning. But the administrative aspect of mothering --the calendar keeping, the appointment making, the planning, the financial management and the unbelievable amount of paperwork--you need to be a celebrity or CEO with a personal assistant to outsource that kind of thing. Or you have a wife who stays on top of it.

How do you it, I asked her. But what I meant was, how do we do it? How does any mom--whatever acronym she uses to describe her place of employment--manage the work of running a home, so much of which is taken for granted by society? How do you manage? What are the big things for you, what do you think of as the small stuff, and what's the stuff that falls between the cracks? What are the choices you've made, or the choices you wish you could make, about working inside or outside the home?

Bring out your jar of days. Show me how it's filled.



Blogger Amy B. said...

Puddled curtains are much more attractive than floor-length ones. Don't hem your drapes.

Ta da! I've taken I've taken one thing off your to-do list. Little things like this are why you should keep me as your friend.

1:36 PM  
Blogger Jomama said...

I agree--pooled drapes are in all the decorating magazines!

I use Google calendar, and snatch minutes away from my work day to cross off items here and there.

Keeping the calendar and To-Do list on Google have made it easier for my husband and I share out the tasks so that I am not carrying all the to-dos in my head all day long, everyday. That one change has done wonders for our marriage.

Cleaning falls off the list. Our house is pretty untidy.

And some good intentions, like buying gifts for babies born to relatives or friends far away, fall by the wayside until the spontaneous gesture become meaningless due to a lost time window. Some toys have gone to Goodwill unused.

1:43 PM  
Blogger ~Savannah B said...

I don't think it is so much how my jar is filled, but what shape the container takes each day.
Some days it is a tall slender vase, all grace and elegance, beauty and ease.
Other days it is a Mason jar, all hard work and utility, efficiency and productivity.
Most days it is a big clunky laundry basket I throw all my worldly possesions (or, all the ones on the living room floor) into, and push it aside to be sorted and organized.... tomorrow.

1:52 PM  
Blogger Hannah said...

I have a calendar in a prominent place on the kitchen wall, and the mantra around these parts is "if it's not on the calendar, it isn't happening". I find that if I don't publish all appointments and commitments to my VP External (i.e., my husband) he conveniently forgets all the myriad things that I as CEO must stay on top of.

I work at home, my kids go to a sitter two days a week, plus my oldest son is in preschool two additional mornings a week (and will start Big Kid School in the fall). I generally try to schedule errand-running for preschool mornings because the toddler and I get along just fine when it's only the two of us.

Other than laundry, dishes, and cooking, I only clean one day a week. And I bully my menfolk into helping out.

What falls between the cracks? That's an easy one - ME. It is so rare that I take time to myself... although I'm getting better at pushing for it.

1:53 PM  
Blogger Sarabeth said...

Is running from one crisis to the next considered management?

If so, then welcome to the Jones Household Management System - screaming into a home near you...

2:01 PM  
Blogger Mommafo said...

Wow, I just really love your comments!! You have some great readers. :)

My attempt at organization ends up on 20 different calendars. I'm not organized. And with 4 kids, I need to get my act together. So I'm enjoying reading.

2:03 PM  
Blogger Kyran said...

Mommafo, complimenting my readers is a sure way to endear yourself to me. I swear I have the very best ones. Welcome!

2:05 PM  
Blogger Pam said...

All or nothing seems to be the way I manage things around here - as far as the housework is concerned, anyway. I've never been much good at daily maintenance - I take the blitz approach. It means there's a slowly escalating level of irritation with dirt and untidiness, culminating in a time- consumingly thorough and tiring operation. It's a very inefficient way to organize (or fail to organize) myself, but at least I can see where I've been!

3:14 PM  
Blogger RW said...

It definitely got easier as my children got older. They are responsible for chores around the house. But, the laundry is never finished and it seems the dishwasher is going constantly.

We use a communication book on the island in the kitchen... from my old Starbucks days... any messages or important information ... permission slips, requests for funds etc... go in the book. Dinner plans, who makes what, in what freezer will they find the spaghetti sauce that sort of stuff.

We also have a calendar on the fridge that helps with the big picture planning.

My children know that it is OK to sit and read a book then to spend all night folding laundry.

11:55 PM  
Blogger Cid said...

We run a home-based business and I have a monthly dry erase calendar on the fridge, I put everything on it as soon as the notices come home from school and at the beginning of the month I "sync" it, my iPhone and desktop calendar and then I send all the relevant dates to my Other Half as well as the production schedule for work. Of course if you read my last post you'll see what happens when technology fails us. Back up, back up, back up.

My sons get calendars every Christmas and the eldest is learning to put his sports and school assignments on it, the middle keeps telling me if he had a phone he could better manage his time and the youngest, well, he just goes with the flow.

Already their future organizational personalities are coming out.

5:46 AM  
Blogger April said...

Thanks for the inspiration. I used your post to jump off into my own, linking back to yours.

9:02 AM  
Blogger Denise said...

Uhhhh, I don't know. Because I struggle with this daily. Having an unfinished todo list makes me batty. So this morning, one of my sacred kids-are-both-at-school-and-I-get-to-write mornings, I spent an hour cleaning out my closet and drawers because I couldn't stand the clutter anymore. Why did that sift to the top of the list today?? Not sure. Especially since the cleaning lady (me) has been on strike and refuses to dust this damn house.

10:19 AM  
Blogger Courtenay said...

i have often said, if you do this mothering job well, it will look as if nothing has been done. clean clothes will be put away; dishes all on shelves; mail sorted and filed. it's an invisible job. it's only visible when not done correctly - a bill not paid, an appointment missed, a pile of clutter.

i stay at home by choice, but there's many a day when i miss the camaraderie of a work environment. i think either way you play it, it's a catch-22.

kyran, i have so enjoyed reading your blog. you and i lead parallel lives; i have two boys (8 & 10) in scouts, baseball, and swim team. i write. i love to read.

your blog is an absolute jewel. you express things so perfectly, so beautifully; i love all the pictures; and your love for your family shines through.

i can't wait to read your book.

2:41 PM  
Blogger starrynightimpressions said...

This is what I learned in retrospect, that no one remembers the puddling curtains, the unmopped floor or all the other tasks that never get done, but time spent with your children will always be remembered.

10:31 PM  
Blogger Jomama said...

I think starrynightimpressions just nailed it! That sure puts your list into perspective, doesn't it? Kids Christmas Gift to be figured out just jumped to the top of the list, didn't it?

11:30 PM  
Blogger Mariellen said...

What starrynightimpressions said. My sister and her husband lost their second child aged 11 to a heart condition. The've had a house that in a permananet WIP state since forever. But the child had a chance to try so many things because his parents opened opportunities to their son without foisting any thing on him, and did many of them with him. Three weeks before his sudden and unexpected death he told his mother, "I dunno why momma, but I've been so happy recently." The curtain hems, I doubt any of them mention. The time you spend with them hiking is with them forever.

7:07 PM  
Blogger Crystal said...

I'm your newest follower. I've booked marked you so that I can spend some more time on your blog. Looks great so far. Hope you can zip over to and follow me back! Have a great Father's Day weekend

8:23 PM  

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