On a Wobbly Bench
I sit on an unstable bench, one in a circle of six on a concrete slab. Around me prairie grass blows in the breeze. I have a moment of quiet on the first day of a ten-day writing fellowship on a farm. I wonder if one of the other benches might be more stable. But I don’t get up. I’m okay with instability.
The question of work and its value puzzles me. During the last few years, my daughter Stella’s flirtation with suicidal thoughts and most of the sharp objects around the house meant she needed near-constant supervision. I provided that supervision, along with a small army of therapists and a series of hospital stays. My husband Joe helps when he can, but like most people, he works in an office that has been whittled to a few standing survivors expected to do the jobs of their fallen colleagues and to answer email all night, all weekend, and holidays. When Stella couldn’t go to school, I cajoled her into doing schoolwork at home. I insisted on long walks with the dog so we’d both get out of the house, see things besides one another and our laptop screens. I haven’t had time for the kind of work one gets paid to do. I’ve scheduled appointments; driven to and from appointments; researched specialists when necessary; and hounded teachers, social workers and administrators to arrange a manageable school situation. To accomplish these things, I set aside work that paid.
Sociologists refer to these tasks as invisible work. Arlene Kaplan Daniels was one of the first to use the term in 1987, in the journal Social Problems. Society’s definition of work is affected by our understanding of three elements, she wrote: the difference between public and private activity; the importance of pay in relation to work; and the way gender influences how we see the legitimacy of work.
I went back to school for my MFA after getting laid off twice from editing jobs. The week I completed my thesis, Stella was admitted to the hospital. The night the manuscript was due, I visited the hospital with Joe and our son, Henry. I drove a little too quickly up the ramp in the parking garage, the sharp turns rocking away some anxiety. I wanted to be at home completing my thesis. I wanted to be with Stella all day and all night, to make sure she was comfortable and secure. In her room, surrounded by bare wood furniture with rounded edges and worksheets she’d filled in describing goals and self-care ideas, I tried to be present for her.
“I need sweatshirts,” she said. “And conditioner. And can you bring that soft brown blanket?”
As I typed her list into my phone I wondered how many hours more it would take to finish my schoolwork.
Two years later, Stella was thriving in a therapeutic school and I had time to be a little more of a person, a little less of a mom. So I applied to and was accepted to participate as a fellow in a writing workshop at Chatham University, where I got my MFA.
Stella, sensitive and wise enough to know what the last few years were like for her parents, got excited for me.
“You deserve this,” she said as we shopped at Target for a few things I’d need for my trip. I needed new underwear. Certainly I’d be a better writer with pristine garments against my skin.
I planned ahead to make sure my family’s ten days went smoothly. I reminded everyone of appointments and copays for appointments. At breakfast, as they sat at the table with cereal and frozen waffles, I gave a walking tour of the easy-to-assemble meal ingredients I’d bought. They nodded, half-asleep and unimpressed.
Among the things I didn’t plan for: Joe’s knee became increasingly sore as I was preparing to leave. He went to the doctor. He went for an MRI. And finally he scheduled surgery for the day after I flew to Pittsburgh.
I boarded my flight, dragging a suitcase weighed down with extra shoes and guilt. Would Stella be okay? Would Henry and Stella help walk the dog? Would Henry make it out of bed and into work on time? We’d had to ask a neighbor to drive Joe home from the hospital after surgery. Once home, he’d be on his own to get lunch and ice packs while Henry and Stella were at work and school.
My first day at the workshop started with a tour of the Eden Hall campus of Chatham. I was impressed with the use of natural resources, the intent to tread lightly upon the life that was already there. As if to prove the point, insects and birds nearly drowned out our guide’s voice. She mentioned Rachel Carson, an alumnus of Chatham known for the book Silent Spring, which investigated the links between pesticides and disease. Carson signed a deal for the book in 1958 and published Silent Spring in 1962. As she researched and wrote, Carson cared for her ailing mother and a grandnephew whose mother died. She learned that she had breast cancer, first in one breast and then in the other. Men in the chemical and medical establishment attacked her credibility and the idea that a woman could write about science.
“Carson,” our guide explains, “is a great example of someone who pursued her work despite serious obstacles.”
We met for the first workshop the next morning, in an aggressively air-conditioned room. I faced the window and a greenhouse where vegetables grow year round. I was surrounded mostly by young writers who’d entered graduate school immediately after college. During introductions, my phone vibrated in my bag. I ignored it until we took a break. As my classmates hurried to the restroom, I read a text from Henry’s boss.
“Is Henry okay? We called and it went to voicemail.”
He hadn’t shown up at work. I called Henry and got voicemail.
Worried, I texted Joe, who was on the sofa recovering.
“Henry overslept but he’s on his way to work,” Joe said.
Relieved, I relayed this information to Henry’s boss.
“Do you want me to punch him?” he asked.
I suggested a hug. Then a punch.
The second night we listened to a keynote speech on writing and risk taking. Afterward, we stood around and ate cake, talked about what inspires us, what frightens us. Pop music played quietly in the background. On my way out the door I heard “Let It Go” by James Bay, where he asks in a high voice, “why don’t you be you and I’ll be me?” I’d heard this song on the radio in my car, but with Stella usually in the passenger seat, we listened more to Childish Gambino’s taunt, to not be mad because he’s “doing me better than you doing you.” In that moment, hearing that plea from Bay, my curiosity was piqued. Does he seek a repair or an end to the relationship?
Joe plays indoor soccer every Sunday. It’s the high point of his week. He comes home happy and sweaty. He talks about soccer with friends. Being the age that he is, this talk often ends up at the pains he experiences in the days after the games. I’ve heard him say that he’d happily spend his week in a wheelchair as long as it meant he could play soccer on Sundays. Each time I hear this I think, do other people exist in this scenario? I admire Joe for the way he does Joe. He doesn’t get mired in guilt. But sometimes I take on extra weight to offset instability.
Joe does make sacrifices for the family. He could play soccer any day, or every day. He chose a time when our home is quiet, when no one has to rush to work or school. And in times of crisis, he shows up, no matter what’s going on at work. Or on the soccer field.
When I returned from Chatham, I revisited an essay by Rufi Thorpe about motherhood and writing, where she discusses other women writers and the ways parenthood and work brush up against each other. She cites Kim Brooks, who says it’s difficult to be an artist and a parent because an artist unsettles, the opposite goal of a parent. Jodi Picoult’s daily marathon of mothering and parenting starts at five in the morning. Zadie Smith advocates for more support for working parents. These women are contrasted with Faulkner and Tolstoy, who had children but made sure the children’s needs and noise never interrupted the work of writing.
Thorpe writes: “For me, the problem then, is not in some platonic incompatibility between art and motherhood, a conflict between the mundane and the celestial, the safe and the unsettling. The conflict is between the selfishness of the artist and the selflessness of a mother.” Selflessness leads her to feel invisible, she writes. Like the work she does is invisible.
Without me at home for ten days, my family ate out every night but two.
“Why don’t we eat out that often when I’m home?” I asked.
Joe looked at me sideways, and said he couldn’t make dinner because his days are filled with work. In my mind I insert the word visible into that sentence.
Our culture values you doing you and me doing me. It doesn’t value caretaking. In a 2015 study, the United Nations found that women take on three of every four hours of the unpaid work outside of employment: laundry, food shopping, appointment scheduling. The wage disparity between men and women could grow, the UN said, as populations age and women are forced to curtail their visible work for invisible.
Thorpe concludes her essay summoning the “lodestone that is want.” She writes: “There is no surer way to locate your self, if you have misplaced her for a moment, than to ask yourself what you want. And there is nothing more subversive for a woman to do than believe she deserves to get what she wants and to recognize in herself the willingness to fight to get it.”
Back in the family routine, with Stella about to start a new school year, Henry thinking about moving out, and Joe’s knee nearly recovered, I strive for some happy combination of Childish Gambino and James Bay, doing me and not sorry.
Above photograph: Skye Parrott