When a dear friend of mine (single male, no kids) asked me quite innocently some weeks ago whether I was "doing any work these days?" I felt like I had been slapped in the face. I had been running on empty for a while, often feeling dizzy when working in the garden, forgetting what I meant to get when I went into another room, and with a general feeling of being rather overwhelmed. You see, I am a "stay-at home mom", so therefore - in the eyes of society - I am not working.
I felt this myself, despite the fact that I have three young children, one still in (cloth-)nappies, I am homeschooling my six-year old, I am in the process of planting a permaculture garden on our 3 acres block and grow almost all the vegetables we eat, I bake all our own bread, I cook from scratch every day, and I have no grandparents or other relatives around who might be able to look after the kids for a couple of hours so that I can get a break.
I was an academic in my former (pre-children) life, and the endless amounts of washing and cleaning, of wiping bottoms and feeding my insatiable boys (who seem to get hungry again as soon as they finish one meal!) simply don't seem to have the same kind of "work appeal" as typing away at the computer or lecturing a group of students.
Of course you can now say - well, that's your choice, so just stop whingeing and get on with it, or get a proper job! Believe me, I tried. For a while (when I had only two kids) I was teaching part-time at the university. Financially, this made no sense whatsoever - I ended up being worse off by the time I had factored in the cost of child-care, petrol and parking.
It also made no sense for my family. My younger boy absolutely HATED childcare - and actually, I did not particularly like the place, either, but I had no choice. The housework and the washing still had to be done even though I was spending less time at home. I was rushing out of the door in the morning and had to race back in time to pick the kids up. Every weekend was taken up with preparations and reading student assignments. The garden did not get done because I simply did not have the time. All that rushing around and driving all over the place also did not sit well with my ideas of a simple, environmentally sustainable life.
When baby number three arrived, I decided that I was not going to go back to work but stay at home full-time. Any parent who spends substantial amounts of time alone with their children knows that this is both hugely satisfying and extremely draining. Children, especially younger ones, need you all the time. They are always hungry, they want your attention, they don't have any concept of getting something done, and they truly challenge your own perception of yourself as a functioning adult. And when you mix with grown-up society, you have nothing to show for it, either - there is a limit to how much you can talk about mountains of washing; and the latest cute utterings of a 2-year old, while endearing to the parent, are not exactly of great interest to the "working" segment of society. Not that endless talk about cricket or office chit-chat is any more interesting, but it is certainly more acceptable.
I found myself subconsciously trying to make up for lost status. And of course I was yearning for intellectual stimulus, too, and I was happy to accept offers of "voluntary" (i.e. unpaid...) work such as writing for our local paper. What started off as an easy to do side-job quickly became a major occupation - research had to be done, the article had to be written in a certain style and have a certain length, there were deadlines to consider, in short: I was BUSY. But I also did not have the money to "outsource" any of the services I provide at home - the cleaning, the food production, the child-caring. And I was once again losing sight of my goal of a simple, sustainable life.
I felt tired all the time. I became more and more forgetful. I couldn't remember words or I would get them all mixed up. I felt like I was going mad. It was clear that something had to be done.
Just about around that time I heard our wonderful Governor General, Quentin Bryce, in an interview with Kerry O'Brien, talking about the futility of trying to be a "super woman". Here is an excerpt from that interview:
KERRY O'BRIEN: It's all there, get used to it.
You have had a stellar career, champion of women in a man's world, achieving real change, raising five kids, the embodiment of super woman in that sense in the '80s and '90s, as it was talked about then. But the reality of trying to be super woman can tear women apart, can't it?
QUENTIN BRYCE: It does, it absolutely exhausts them. For a very long time now I've been saying to young women, you can have it all, but not all at the same time. How important it is to take very good care of yourself, of your mental and physical and spiritual wellbeing, it's hard to do. It's easier to be a workaholic than to have a truly balanced life. It's very tough for a lot of women teetering on that tight rope of balance and balancing too many responsibilities.
KERRY O'BRIEN: You gave one insight as Governor when you spoke at a mental health conference in 2004 about your mid-20, when you had three children under four, you said, "I remember lying in my bed shrouded in fear asking myself how would I ever cope with my little baby, two toddlers, keeping my household running, my job, my marriage, my life, how easily I could have travelled down another road, I gained my first insight into mental health, how vulnerable we are, I had heard and read about breakdowns, suddenly I had a glimpse". Does it bring it back?
QUENTIN BRYCE: It does. It was a time in my life that taught me a very important lesson about the need for women in their families to put themselves on the top of the family agenda. That if a mother is well, a family is well. I became quite ill because I neglected my health and I ended up with quite serious pneumonia, and it's a lesson that I have passed on to many young women.
I decided it was time to stop and think. I learnt to say no. I resigned from my newspaper job. I stopped blogging for a while. I slowed down and re-focussed on what is actually important to me. I made time to read novels again, something I had always enjoyed but had not been able to do for several years because I had been too busy. I decided to re-label myself. I am not just a non-working stay-at home mom, I am a home-educator and permaculturalist. And I no longer think that being busy is a sign of a successful life.
A good life is a sustainable life. It goes beyond a greener lifestyle. It is also about balance and happiness and having time to enjoy the moment.