Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task. ~William James

Monday, May 31, 2010

Done for the Week: Credit Where Credit's Due

Today is a national holiday, but not a blogging holiday.  I am committed to posting Monday through Friday, in good times and in bad, in sickness... 

...and neither rain, nor sleet, nor snow...

So while others are firing up the grill, hitting the links, visiting the cemetery, and whatever else they do on Memorial Day, I have been celebrating by doing some recreational reading before getting down to business.  

Last week held some surprises, good and bad.  I continue my struggle to live with the imperfect splendor with which I've surrounded myself.  I am sitting now on an aging wooden glider in my messy backyard, gazing at a lovely bank of irises and a blooming peony bush surrounded by yet-to-be-weeded mustard garlic and burdock.  I plan to get to the weeding this afternoon, but don't want to wait to recognize the beleaguered beauty of my flowers.  Or of my life.

So here's some of the good stuff that I got done last week.  

Done List--Week of May 24-30
  1. Continued Triathlon training; ran once, biked twice, swam once
  2. Finished The Help, by Katherine Stockett; The Stress Answer:  Train Your Brain to Conquer Depression and Anxiety in 45 Days, by Dr. Frank Lawlis;
  3. Spent time with two friends I hadn't seen in awhile, watched a movie and biked with my daughter, and went to Happy Hour with my husband
  4. Participated in family mowing marathon to reclaim yard-turned-jungle, using "new" rummage sale push mower
  5. Walked my dog almost every day, and my daughter's dog once
  6. Took my blood pressure daily
  7. Wrote 5 Morning Pages 
  8. Did some heavy-duty, middle-of-the-night mothering of one adolescent son
  9. Supported same adolescent son in deciding to quit his not-so-part-time job
  10. Helped other adolescent son buy his first car, and make a big decision about timing of schooling 
  11. Published 5 blog posts 
  12. Meditated 2 times
  13. Continued clean-up campaign
  14. Wrote 6 Gratitude Journal entries
Highlighted in green is last week's focus goal.  The week's biggest achievement with respect to this goal was to recover my kitchen sink, and to keep it (more or less) shiny and emptied each day--having managed to recruit my husband's participation, if not my children's, in keeping it cleared.  This is the first "baby step" in the Fly Lady's household recovery program, recommended to me by a friend.  While I'm not sure I have the stamina, or the personality to adopt her program wholesale, I am sure she has something to teach me about climbing out from under a decade of desultory housekeeping.  What she, and others recommend about taking change slowly is, I believe, important to much of what I'm trying to accomplish--what I am beginning to experience as something of a life-makeover.  So even if the sink was pretty much it for this week of olympic parenting and emotional work, fitted in around two part-time jobs and some socializing, I plan to keep going.  The clean-up campaign is once again my focus goal for the next week.  As the Fly Lady points out, it took me a long time to get where I am, and it will take some time to reverse course.

Once again, I have decided that the most important thing I did last week was to continue the triathlon training.  As I learned in reading Dr. Lawlis' book, aerobic exercise can help with brain rewiring, which can undergird the kinds of changes I am trying to consolidate.  And in the shorter run, it can burn off some of the stress byproducts that have invaded my body, and make life difficult for me and everyone around me.

And now for the weeds.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Procrastinating with Children: Staying Flexible Without Getting the Bends

I am late getting this post up today because I HAVE TEENAGERS!  My three-day time log, on which yesterday was Day 2, will ultimately show that I have spent several hours over the last two and a half days actively mothering these two humans-in-waiting.  That total includes two and three-quarter hours in the middle of the night rescuing three young people from their own bad decisions.  Only one of them was mine, but since I was out there anyway, it seemed only civilized to toss virtual life preservers to the other two.  I'd like to say I believe any other mother would have done the same, but I'm not so sure.  My kids appear to be surrounded by others whose parents are "on leave" from parenting, for one reason or another.  

My other near adult has needed many hours of help over the last couple of weeks, looking for a car he can afford; haggling with unscrupulous car dealers (playing sane cop to my behind-the-scenes crazy cop husband, as I tried to help my kid get a fair deal and a drivable car); and processing his decision to spend a few more months working to save money and preparing himself to enter the school that has accepted him.  It looks like he will end up with the car of his trimmed-back dreams, and I will end up with. . . a fairly severe sleep deficit.

But really, I wouldn't have it any other way.  These tag-end children are the ones brought to me in my second marriage by flukes and miracles, the ones I had no right to expect.  And I am proud and happy to be their mom.  I feel pretty good about who they are and who they are becoming, and about all I have learned along the way.  And I just plain (mostly) enjoy their somewhat quixotic company.  

However, my triathlon training schedule for the week is in tatters; my cleaning campaign is in retreat; my meditation routine has been curtailed; and I have the energy of overcooked linguini.  So I am going to give myself "props," as my kids would say, for continuing to keep the commitments I made 19+ and nearly 17 years ago to love and protect these nascent people; for being clear about my priorities; for being mature enough to roll with the permanence of changes; and for recognizing the need today to engage in some needed R & R for myself, with other tasks taking a back seat.  

This too shall pass, and I'll be saddened when it does.  I have passed on to my daughter, now a mother herself, the not-so-literary poem I clipped from an Ann Landers column when she was young.  Its sing-songy lines have stayed in my head all these years since, and though it's unlikely to be anthologized, the thought at its core still compels me.


My hands were busy through the day;
I didn't have much time to play
the little games you asked me to. 
I didn't have much time for you.
I'd wash your clothes, I'd sew and cook,
But when you'd bring your picture book
And ask me please to share your fun
I'd say "A little later, son."
I'd tuck you in all safe at night
And hear your prayers, turn out the light,
Then tip-toe softly to the door. . .
I wish I'd stayed a minute more
For life is short, the years rush past.
A little boy grows up so fast.
No longer is he at your side
His precious secrets to confide.
The picture books are put away,
There are no longer games to play,
No good-night kiss, no prayers to hear.
That all belongs to yesteryear.
My hands, once busy, now are still,
The days are long and hard to fill.
I wish I could go back and do
The little things you asked me to.
                            ~ Author Unknown

Though the portrait of mother and child is dated, and the language somewhat quaint, this poem can still bring tears to my eyes.  And it reminds me to be in these final moments of parenting minor children.

But I also need to remember, better than I have sometimes done, that my life, too, is flying by, and deserves my attention.  The things I neglect to do for myself, the opportunities I decline, can also leave me with regrets.  I, too, am a child of the universe, as are my children, with my own birthrights and promise.  And no one left to see to them but me.  I can't fill every minute with mothering.  In the spaces in between my children's needs and crises, I must return to my first responsibility, which is to myself.  I don't want my "empty nest" days to be "long and hard to fill."  I have to miss my children when they are gone, and their childhoods, but I don't have to miss myself.  So if now is the time to enjoy living with my kids while they are still at home, it is also the time to continue growing my own life.  

As soon as I get some sleep.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

This is My Brain on Procrastination

One of the books I am currently reading is The Stress Answer:  Train Your Brain to Conquer Depression and Anxiety in 45 Days, by Dr. Frank Lawlis.  This is relevant to my blog topic, because procrastination is depressing, and produces and reacts to states of anxiety.  It is also instructive because it deals with change, which I am attempting, in terms of brain plasticity.

The concept of brain plasticity--how its close friends refer to neuroplasticity--is finding its way into common parlance.  It even had its own PBS special.  Wikipedia tells us that

The brain consists of nerve cells (or "neurons") and glial cells which are interconnected, and learning may happen through change in the strength of the connections, by adding or removing connections, or by adding new cells. "Plasticity" relates to learning by adding or removing connections, or adding cells. During the 20th century, the consensus was that lower brain and neocortical areas were immutable in structure after childhood, meaning learning only happens by changing of connection strength, whereas areas related to memory formation, such as the hippocampus and dentate gyrus, where new neurons continue to be produced into adulthood, were highly plastic. This belief is being challenged by new findings, suggesting all areas of the brain are plastic even after childhood. . . .Decades of research have now shown that substantial changes occur in the lowest neocortical processing areas, and that these changes can profoundly alter the pattern of neuronal activation in response to experience. According to the theory of neuroplasticity, thinking, learning, and acting actually change both the brain's physical structure (anatomy) and functional organization (physiology) from top to bottom. 
This, of course, is great news for those of us old dogs who need to learn a few new tricks.  Like getting things done before they don't matter anymore.  

Dr. Lawlis's practical book applies what we are still learning about how the brain changes, and how we can promote and establish new neural connections to support the new behaviors we desire.  Since this blog is really all about behavioral change, I am keenly interested in what he has to say.

I figure my 45 day clock doesn't start until I finish reading the book.  But about halfway through, I have been particularly heartened by the framework for change that he presents, which consists of these 5 principles:
  • Principle I:  Neurons that learn together become attached.
  • Principle II:  Experience and need can change neurological bundles.
  • Principle III:  Suspension of thoughts or elimination of specific experience can allow neurological changes to happen immediately.
  • Principle IV:  Times of growth and change are opportunities for learning and relearning.
  • Principle V:  New pathways can be changed and improved.
In chapters on various manifestations of what Dr. Lawlis terms "stress storms," including anxiety patterns, attention deficit, obsessive-compulsive patterns, depression, and chronic worry (could I possibly exhibit all of these?), he employs these principles in outlining programs for change.  His programs are guided by research, his decades of psychotherapy practice, and his own experience, and are quite eclectic compilations which include, among others, use of music and rhythm exercises, breathing exercises, attention to nutrition and sleep, use of supplements, medication, psychotherapy, and use of a Bio-Acoustical Utilization Device (BAUD) and an emWave device.  While his gold standard would have us all submitting to costly brain scans of one type or another in order to confirm our problem patterns, he provides self-assessment scales which can serve as the "poor woman's" substitute.   

One of the most useful ideas I have picked up so far in the few days I have spent with this book is this, under the subheading "Hare Today, Gone Tomorrow:"
For real change with long-lasting success, the brain has to compile, rewire, and reshelve a plethora of new neural connections.  To achieve this, the process must be done consistently over time, and at an even, unhurried, deliberate pace.  
Heeding this admonition, I see that the change project in which I am engaged, with all its aspects, needs a bit more patience than I have been applying.  This recovering procrastinator is very grateful for my plastic (and ultimately biodegradable!) brain, which I intend to treat with a lot more gentleness and respect, given the miracles I am expecting of it.  And of me.  

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Paying it Backward: Surrounded by the Procrastinators I Helped Create

I have become aware in the past few days that I am living in the midst of procrastinating others.  Even my dog waits to eat his food, until he gets the proverbial "round toit."  

It is probably a truism of families that we partner with people who share or admire or can stomach at least some of our dysfunction.  We then go on to reproduce and nurture beings with similar predelictions, until we are swimming in a sea of whatever distressing traits we may eventually wish to discard in ourselves.  And thus, we pay the price in spades for our quirks and foibles, as they come back to bite us in the end.

My children have watched me struggle to get things done since they opened their eyes, though they also witnessed much ultimate accomplishment.  (I'm a busy little procrastinating bee!)  My eldest saw less of it, as I was younger and in a less stressful period of my life.  She is an inveterate list-maker and action-taker, relatively unscathed by whatever nature or nurture might have influenced her to be a putter-offer.  My second and third children, both boys, both still at home and sharing the pool of stress that has been my Calamity Jane existence for more than a decade, are another matter.  

My oldest son is presently conducting an advanced seminar just for me in relinquishing control over what is not mine to control.  "Do what I say, not what I do" has proven every bit as effective as we should have predicted, and the result is a soon-to-be-adult master procrastinator.  Less than three weeks from his arranged school start date, we are scrambling to complete a daunting set of postponed tasks required to get him where he purports to be going.  And we are trying to evaluate the portent of his delaying tactics.  Cold feet?  Developmental issues common to most young people, learning to get from point A to point Z, staying on task, and delaying gratification?  Practical inexperience?  Congenital or learned difficulties with time management?  General unreadiness, which would dictate a sensible retrenchment and pulling out Plan B?

Whatever got us to where we are, and wherever that turns out to be, the current state is intensely painful.  Yesterday's post detailed Dr. Neil Fiore's procrastination metaphor, which likened the situation my son finds himself in to having to walk across a board suspended 100 feet above the ground between two buildings, having himself set a fire in the building he is in.  I've been there so many times myself I don't have to imagine his distress.  And it turns out that I am in the burning building with him, captive to my overidentification/codependency, and the impact that his failure to plan is having on my time and resources.

I am learning on the job how to handle this one.  The level of difficulty for someone with my habits is high, as are the stakes.  What I need to do, for both of us I think, is to help him figure out how to construct or recruit a net, and not to become that net myself.  As he has told me, it is time for him to leave the nest, even if he falls out.  

On a recent stroller trip to the lakeshore, my two-year-old companion and I were watching a particularly graceful seagull up in the "'ky," and I observed no mother gull flying behind or below him.  Wherever that mother bird was, with her head under her wing or not, she has much to teach me.

Another lesson of this involuntary curriculum is how painful and stressful it has been for those who care about me, and those who must live with me, to watch me flail and wail and scramble to meet stretched deadlines and deal with the chaos of my own making as a habitual procrastinator.  I'm not sure what AA step this is, but I can appreciate its power. Hopefully, in helping my son I will help myself. And vice versa.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Procrastinating 101: No More Pyrotechnics

Chapter 2 in Neil Fiore's The Now Habit:  A Strategic Program for Overcoming Procrastination and Enjoying Guilt-Free Play is entitled "How We Procrastinate."  (Note, it is not "How To Procrastinate," which I would not have needed to read.)

What I took away from reading this chapter consists of two main ideas.  First, it is important to learn about how we delay acting.  In Fiore's words, "Knowing how you procrastinate is even more important than knowing why." [p.36]  And second, "Creating safety [is] the first major step out of procrastination."

In order to discover what we're doing and not doing, which, in Fiore's view, is largely a problem of time management, he would have us begin by doing something that "is easier than anything a book on procrastination has ever asked of you before:  simply procrastinate at your normal level for another week."  I can do that!

Ah, but the rub is that we are instructed to keep an inventory of every activity during our waking time for three days.  He suggests breaking the day into three or four periods--morning, afternoon, and evening, for example--and documenting what we are doing, and for how long.  Within reason, of course.  Not every bathroom trip, sneeze, and momentary mental lapse.  Just the main stuff.  Like "commute, 30 min.;" "lunch and socializing, 75 min.;" "clearing desk, looking for folders, 20 min.;" "breakfast in front of TV, 30 min.;""WORK, LOW PRIORITY--Cs."  He also recommends that we use Alan Lakein's categories (from How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life) of A (most important), B (important), and C (least important) to characterize our work efforts.  At the end of this three-day observation, we can total the amount of time spent in various types of activity, and divide by three to get a sense of our daily time allocations.  Fiore then directs us to study these "results," and to look for ways to "find" more time for priority activities, by eliminating time-wasters, and combining and rearranging activities to take advantage of higher energy periods.

I am going to try out this method for the next three days--beginning with tomorrow, of course.  (I am, after all, a procrastinator, or I wouldn't be writing this.)  My husband uses a similar approach to weight control--I call it his iPhone diet--in which he records every morsel that goes into his mouth, as well as every period of exercise.  Of course, he has an "app" which calculates calorie intake and expenditure, and tracks his adherence to a prescribed daily ration.  It has helped him to lose ten pounds since I started this blog.  I will be going low-tech, and using a chart created on Dr. Fiore's model, writing in my entries by hand.  And battling my inner child, who dreads this detailed assignment, every step of the way.

Following this truly lark-ish undertaking, I will advance to the next stage, which is a Procrastination Log.  In this jolly little exercise, we are to record (with or without iPhones) each instance of task-avoidance, noting date and time; activity and priority; thoughts and feelings; justification; attempted solution; and resultant thoughts and feelings.  One sample entry he gives is 
2/7 10:00 A.M.| Screen door, B| Can't I rest on Saturday?| Overburdened| Watched TV| Guilty; blamed self for laziness; fear wife's anger
After a few days of keeping this log, the next step is to look for patterns.  This appeals to the unemployed qualitative researcher in me, and should reward my nose-to-the-grindstone log-keeping.  I can't wait to see what I'm up to!

Finally, Fiore spends several pages describing the mechanism by which many of us employ procrastination to manage anxiety--thereby, ironically, increasing anxiety.  Using the metaphor of being asked to walk across a 30 ft. long, 4 in. thick, 1 ft. wide board, he shows how the perception of safety--in response to changing stakes--affects our ability to perform. In the first scenario, the board is placed on the ground.  In the second, it is suspended between two buildings 100 feet off the ground.  In the third, the building on the end of the board that we are clinging to is engulfed in flames.  And in the fourth, a safety net is provided, three feet below the board.

Fiore tells us that our perfectionism and "performance is worth" belief raise the board.  By procrastinating, we light the fire behind us, and lower expectations for our performance.  (It's okay to crawl across on your belly, or do whatever degrading thing you need to, to escape the fire and reach the goal of the other building.)  And he suggests that we can create the safety net by chipping away at the mistaken belief that perfect performance of the task is a matter of life and death, and represents our value as a human being.  

I agree that safety and self-worth are at the heart of procrastination recovery for me.  And I probably won't miss the adrenaline that has fueled so many races to the finish line, pursued by one impending disaster after another.  If I can just figure out how to tame my inner arsonist.  Stay tuned.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Done for the Week: Learning to Exhale

Last week was busier than I wanted it to be.  Most of the things that took me away from some planned relaxation time were happy events and opportunities, and most involved my immediate family members.  I probably need to make an effort to find and designate a few sacrosanct hours that I will yield only to emergencies (or "emergency" trips to Paris).  

The gift, and the burden of my largely self-determined schedule is its flexibility.  "Stay-at-home" moms have experienced the situation of having little respected, unassailable time.  And now that so many of us have become "working-from-home" moms, with other enterprises added to the responsibilities of motherhood, it is even more challenging.  But I am learning that the person I have the most difficulty with, the least likely to take my schedule seriously, is me.  This interacts with my seemingly congenital poor sense of time to compromise needful self-care, and desired accomplishment.  I continue to work on making more mindful decisions about unanticipated requests and invitations.  

Despite interruptions, and in some cases because of them, here's what I got done last week.

Done List--Week of May 17-23
  1. Began Sprint Triathlon training--completed Week 1 of 11-week program
  2. Finished The Night Watch, by Sarah Waters; Autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux, translated by Ronald Knox
  3. Took my blood pressure daily
  4. Attended one meeting
  5. Published 5 blog posts
  6. Meditated 5 times
  7. Continued cleanup effort, in small steps
  8. Had wonderful coffee date with friend I hadn't seen in 17 years--"power catch-up," and reconnection
  9. Helped my husband purchase and put up new bird feeder
  10. Went out for two Happy Hour dates with my husband (just for the extra practice)
  11. Wrote 6 Gratitude Journal entries
  12. Wrote 4 Morning Pages
  13. Phoned my Mom
  14. Attended friends' boat re-naming/birthday celebration
  15. Continued efforts to launch teenaged son; worked (with moderate success) on not nagging and not rescuing (target launch date, June 14)
  16. Supported other teenaged son with school and job issues; applauded his progress
  17. Had fruitful therapy session, accompanied by my husband
  18. Survived four days as "single parent," with my husband out of town
Last week's focus goal was to continue the cleanup effort begun the previous week.  I attempted, with some success, to add to each day's efforts--to keep up with dishes, laundry, picking up, and making my bed (since Gretchen Rubin's Happiness Project promises it will make me happier)--two cleaning/straightening accomplishments from my backlog of uncompleted (and in some cases un-begun) chores.  This goal was lost in the shuffle of social and family involvements from Friday through Sunday.  Prior to that, I managed to recover two separate sections of kitchen counter space; clean out my microwave; reclaim my half of our bathroom vanity; dust living room surfaces; and find the top of my dresser.  I am committing to this focus goal for at least the next week, since I expect that clearing the decks will enhance my mood, and prepare me to concentrate on more writing when my work hours change in a few weeks.

In determining the most important item on the list above, I am torn between all of the relationship building items (#s 8, 9, 10, 13, 14, and 17--and maybe 15 and 16), and the biggest leap, which is item #1.  Ultimately, I decided that the one that is most outside my previous frame of reference may be most significant for me right now.  I should note that I have committed to go as far with the triathlon training program as I can, and have not yet signed up for the event I am considering, which is scheduled for August 16.  For now, the biggest hurdle before me is to figure out how to breathe while swimming.

And, come to think of it, I also need to figure out how to breathe while parenting, working, relaxing, and stressing.  I suspect it shouldn't be this difficult.   

Friday, May 21, 2010

Finishing School

In one of the first posts of this blog, I mentioned having considered "Finishing School" as the blog's name.  I had intended it, of course, as a play on words, since a traditional "finishing school" is somewhere I would never have been caught dead.  

In the historical sense, a finishing school was "a private school for girls that prepares them for society by teaching social graces and accomplishments."  Modeled after Swiss and British establishments, 19th century American finishing schools were intended to return a young lady 
home "finished" and prepared to grace her father's house and to enjoy the freedom of a debutante while she practiced the arts and graces learned at the academy.
'Northwestern Chronicle, July 3, 1884; St. John's University Record, 1:55 (May, 1888) 
American finishing school curricula generally included French, music and drawing, and etiquette (or "charm"); other subjects could extend to quilling (paper filigree), "the fine art of fainting," elocution, poise, English, and other, more academic fare, as some of these institutions went on to morph into women's "seminaries" and colleges.
The term finishing school is occasionally used in American parlance to refer to certain small womens colleges, primarily on the East Coast, that were known for serving to prepare their female students for marriage. Since the 1960s, many of these schools have become defunct as a result of financial difficulties stemming from parents [sic] decreased interest in paying for such an education for their daughters, and the rise of feminism making it easier [sic] for daughters to follow loftier goals. (From Wikipedia)

In any case, finishing schools being generally a thing of the past, and the blog name already taken, "Put it to Bed" was born.  But I remain in need of learning how to finish.  And not, with the exception of my kitchen cabinets project, wood finishing.

And so I am trying to develop a "curriculum" that will encourage the needed behavior, or skill, or mindset.  By way of establishing a benchmark, I observe that my alacrity in starting things is not matched by my ability to limp across the "finish" line.  And that's putting it mildly.  More than four months ago, I posted "Stuff I've Been Putting Off," which detailed some of the things I haven't managed to be done with over a period of several years.  Since then, I've completed one of the tasks on that list of 15.  I called my brother, more than a month ago.  But he "wasn't available to take [my] call," and hasn't responded to the message I left, so that probably doesn't count.  Of course, I haven't called back, either.  Suffice it to say, I am still "completion-challenged."

A potentially fruitful idea came to me this week, as I was struggling to work on my late-spring housecleaning project.  I watched myself buzz from cleanup task to cleanup task, like a bee suffering from blossom-mania and unable to light on any one flower.  And I thought that maybe there was something to be gained by practicing finishing, on a small scale, disciplining myself to work through to the end on things I take up.  Perhaps I can build a muscle of denouement in this way.  

So this morning, I finished cleaning the microwave before I moved on to writing this post.  Not perfectly, but completely.  And I am challenging myself to bring to conclusion the odious task of filing my son's homeschool transcript in the form required, instead of the form I earlier provided it in.  If this improvement effort doesn't make me more marriageable, perhaps I will better 
grace [my own home], and ...enjoy the freedom of a [more effectively recovering procrastinator] while [I] practice the arts and graces learned at [this] academy.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Joy of Checking Off

This morning, I have had to correct a double-booking, and I'm late for everything.  This will, therefore, be a brief post.  But nonetheless significant, as it deals with an important discovery I have made about keeping myself on track.  Of course, as with many such "discoveries," like fire and the wheel, others have been here before me.  So it should come as no surprise--but it does surprise me--that (drum roll, please) I get more done, and feel better about everything, when I keep a written to do list.  

Even though just about everyone who writes and speaks about procrastination and personal organization touts the to do list as an essential practice, I thought maybe I was different.  I tend to think of myself as the exception to many, though not all rules; as a bohemian of sorts.  And I have clung to my self-conception as a "flibbertigibbet, a will-o-the-wisp" (but not a clown, like Maria of The Sound of Music, whose song gives us these descriptions), a spontaneous free spirit who does not flourish under stricture.  And that persona does not welcome the routine of writing down tasks, and crossing them off when completed.  Or looking at a list when the day has passed, and seeing too few items checked.

But it turns out I was wrong.  In the past couple of months, I have been "list-less" as well as listless, for several weeks, corresponding to the time that I was sick and able to do only what was absolutely required while spending all available energy recovering.  I have recently returned, in the past couple of weeks, to keeping a daily to do list in the calendar purchased for this purpose at the beginning of this "year of wonders."  (Not to be confused with the excellent novel of the same name, by Geraldine Brooks, about a community, and one woman in particular, besieged by the Plague in 1666.) 

And guess what?  My mood has improved, and my focus has been activated, and my ability to get necessary things accomplished upgraded!  Who knew?  Apparently, some part of me (maybe the part with the overtaxed memory?  the part who has difficulty staying in my own life?) responds to the discipline inherent in this daily ritual.  

Probably another aspect of the to do list's utility to me is my anachronistic enjoyment of all  things stationery--pens of various styles and writing feel, paper products designed to stimulate organizational enterprise, and the process of sitting down to write.  And then there's the satisfaction of filling the little boxes with check marks--kind of like getting a little gold star.  Ah!  See, I'm good after all.  Or good enough, anyway.

And that turns out to be how I catch the "cloud" that is me and "pin it down."

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Politics of Housework

The men in my house don't look anything like the FDR types pictured here.  But despite my best efforts to cajole, bribe, instruct, and plead, they still exhibit this mentality.  Housework is something they "help out" with, at best.  And housework is something that gets in the way of the work I consider mine.

This week's focus goal is 
to make my home that of a happier woman.  So I can be.
This means that I am once again struggling with the politics of housework. 

I am dismayed, when I allow myself to think about it, that my life has taken a shape my younger feminist self would have found inconceivable. Its neo-traditionalist contours are not so very different from the domestic imprisonment that hobbled my highly intelligent, college-educated mother in the '60s and '70s. To be sure, the language and understandings of my marital partnership are more "evolved," reflecting an acceptance of the equality of rights of women and men. But the practice has never lived up to the words. 

The reasons for this are many, including an incredibly complex family structure of yours, mine, and ours kids; my exposure to radical feminist mothering philosophy and lifestyles through my study of midwives; the family-unfriendly environment of academia, in which I had planned to continue working; my husband's super-absorption in work and lack of basic skill (not to mention interest) in housekeeping tasks; my closely spaced last two children, who comprised my second family, and their particular needs; and, of course, the perfectionism that made it difficult for me to operate comfortably in two rival spheres.  But whatever the reasons for our present division of labor, I have never accepted its necessity or rightness.  It is not as it should be, not legitimate.  And I can at least claim to have married a man and raised young men who agree with me about that.

In raising boys, I had hoped to improve on the previous generation of men's behavior and competence with respect to the necessary work of making and keeping a home.  If words, and repetition, and various training methods were effective, I would have succeeded.  But I didn't count on the in-their-face example of a powerful male, and my own battle fatigue.  So having read and tried* several methods, employed various charts and systems of rewards and consequences, and lectured endlessly (according to my kids) on the subject of women's entitlements and men's responsibilities, I still find myself most days up to my knees in other people's stuff and left-behind messes.   

The responses I have tried to this ongoing household disaster have included:  1) nagging--not my favorite, or anyone else's, and anyway, not effective on any more than a momentary basis; 2) doing it all myself, with whatever voluntary help emerges--this approach leaves me smoldering with resentment, and also very tired; 3) giving up, and trying to work around the squalor--but then I am mired in chaos, and CHAOS (Can't Have Anyone Over Syndrome, aptly named by Pam Young and Peggy Jones (the self-styled Slob Sisters) in their book Get Your Act Together:  A 7-Day Get-Organized Program For The Overworked, Overbooked, and Overwhelmed); and trying, Against Medical Advice, to reinstitute past systems that have worked for brief periods--this strategy flies in the face of previous experience, or seen another way, expresses eternally springing hope, not delusion.

One of these past systems was to disallow my children's guests from visiting until said offspring pitched in to make the house presentable.  As time has marched on, however, "presentable" got redefined to meet the standards of other teenagers, mostly males, and I became more concerned about my kids' needs for social contact with reasonable associates where I could have some oversight.  If I had counted on embarrassment to dissuade them from trashing the bathrooms guests would need to use, or the bedrooms they would close themselves into, or even the refrigerators they would raid, I had misplaced my trust.  My kids are either so secure (and so male) that they assume they will be seen as the cool people they actually are regardless of the wet towels and discarded clothing on the floor, the toothpaste in the sink, the unscoured toilets, etc.; or they are so supremely lazy that they can't be bothered.

I have also tried posting clever "reminders" where family members and guests alike can see them.  For example, over the counter that noone can apparently remember to wipe off, this sign:  
Dear Human and Porcine Occupants,
Thanks for leaving this area covered with food remnants, beverage spills and coffee grounds.   
Sincerely, Mortimer Mouse & friends, Abigal ("The Queen") Ant & Associates.  
 And this, over the toilet:
The Management Thanks You For Your Cooperation, As Our Maid Service Has Been Terminated!!!
And a far ruder version, when this one didn't work, specifying aim requirements and threatening exile to the neighboring gas station facilities for noncompliance.

But at this juncture, in response to my own mental health concerns, my priority is results.  I plan to do whatever works to return my home to a state I can live in, with or without help.  I am not above, though I might be beyond, nagging, charting, signage, bribes or embarrassment--which by the way, didn't work with me when I was a non-male teenager.  (My mother once brought a priest into my bedroom to dispel his notion that I was a mature and spiritual being.  I got up the next day, in the midst of a profusion of belongings and refuse, and began writing a short story about the scene!)  

I will do what it takes--though in the interests of the marriage I value, with all its imperfections, I will refrain from employing what my husband calls the Lysistrata tactic. 

If I, and most other women I know, have lost this battle, for this generation, I hold out hope for the next.  But I am breaking out of this stalag of untidiness, and reclaiming the ordered and aesthetic pleasing ground I've lost in the process.

* In searching the library catalog for the titles of books I remember reading, I find they seem to have been superseded by one I wish I’d read, called Chores without wars : turning dad and kids from reluctant stick-in-the muds to enthusiastic team play, by Lynn Lott, Riki Intner.  Their 2005 edition, Chores without wars; turning housework into teamworkdrops the name-calling and the culprit identification for a more cooperative approach.  I prefer the first subtitle.