“What a circus act we women perform every day of our lives. Look at us. We run a tightrope daily, balancing a pile of books on the head. Baby-carriage, parasol, kitchen chair, still under control. Steady now! This is not the life of simplicity but the life of multiplicity that the wise men warn us of. It leads not to unification but to fragmentation. It does not bring us grace; it destroys the soul.”—Ann Morrow Lindbergh
A simpler way of putting this would be “Honey, I love you, but get the eff out of my space. You’re destroying my soul.”
Okay, maybe that’s just my interpretation.
When I thought about my efforts, as a writer, to create a home office, a space for myself, I thought about that quote from Virginia Woolf. You know–the one about women writers needing a room of their own. How lovely. How romantic. But it simply didn’t work for me. It didn’t have the right flavor and feel for my more Erma Bombeck-ish life.
Unfortunately, I found no quotes from her about etching out space and time to write while mothering, taking care of her house, and so on. She was probably too busy living that reality to really think, let alone write about it.
Come to think of it, I don’t read much Erma Bombeck these days because if I want to read about dirty houses, piles of laundry, and the ups and downs of family life, well, this is my reality and I lost the fascination with my “exciting” domestic life years ago.
But I do keep Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s famous book Gift from the Sea close at hand. She inspired many women in her generation to follow their dreams and gave a voice to their emotions and struggles. She also struggled to maintain her own identity–both literary and personal–in the immense shadow of her husband, Charles.
She was a mother and a well-respected writer. Her “circus act,” of course, was probably helped by the fact that she was wealthy. She probably had nannies for her children, maybe a few maids.
Most women writers don’t have that option. And for most of us, writing is more than a trade—it is a compulsion and a passion. So when you don’t have the time to write because say your children are taking up most of it, it’s not only a professional but also a deep personal sacrifice.
My husband and I purchased our three-bedroom home 14 years ago. With one baby, 1,400-square feet seemed plenty. One bedroom for each of us and an extra room for an office. That lasted about a year—or until we knew another baby was on the way.
Then I moved my desk into the dining room, where it stayed for awhile. I remember slipping Emma in the baby bouncer and dashing off a quick column or article to my editor to the bounce-bounce-bounce rhythms of the contraption. I also remember trying out the playpen and a dog fence while I worked and Emma played. As wily then as she is now, she eventually escaped.
And she stopped napping when she was about 18 months old. So working during naptimes wasn’t much of an option for me either.
The next step in my quest for workspace was a groovy desk/armoire in the living room, where I could work and sort of watch over both girls playing. We could close the doors on my computer and papers so the girls wouldn’t mess with them, and we could have some semblance of a normal living space when people visited.
In the meantime, we had decided to turn our sun porch into an office for me, with a little space for my husband, who, after all, has a rather large office where he works. Renovating the sun porch was no easy task. Between our lack of time (toddlers) and dwindling funds (one-income household, basically, with an unsteady freelance income on my end), it became an issue of a physical, financial, and time balance in our household. I remember a vivid conversation with an editor while I was in the middle of painting the walls. Finally, there was heat, flooring, and even lovely pond-moss green walls.
But as we finished the room, I began to worry. My husband liked it too much and was becoming enamored by this private room of many windows, books, and music. There was a gleam in his eye as he looked over my space. Okay, I told myself, hey, he’s worked on this room, too, and he works at an office, so he won’t spend A LOT of time in here, right? This was just another one of those compromises in a long marriage full of them. I’ve had to fight softly to maintain my space to write and think.
Well, at this point, a few years later, the office is the room he spends the most time in on the weekends and in the evenings. He loves it and now has a huge rocking chair in the corner where he sits and listens to music on his headphones. Every time I step around that chair to get to my desk, I think one word: yurt. Yep. you read that right. I am now longing for a backyard yurt.
You see, it’s not just him, but also my daughters who have taken a shine to my office. Many times, we are all crammed in the office together—the smallest room in the house. And I am not writing. It’s such a nice space that the whole family gathers there. This is a problem. In my quest for space to work, I find it’s also a search for acceptance and acknowledgement that my writing matters in my own house, to my family, as well as to the outside world.
So I eek out my space. However I can. And I won’t give up.
Sometimes the guilt sets in, and I adjust my writing schedule and tell myself I don’t need to be working when my family is home. On the other hand, when I’m on deadline or have an important phone or Skype meeting or interview, I give them fair warning. The door will be closed.
Sometimes my balancing act veers to one side or the other. Sometimes I spend way too much time writing and lift my head and wonder what the hell is going on in my own house. Doesn’t anybody else know how to unload the dishwasher? Other times, I’m on top of the house and the family schedule, and my writing suffers. Did I really send that to my editor?
This summer my balancing act is working by getting up earlier than the rest of the family so that I can write in peace. It doesn’t always work out. Even as I write this at 5:38 am, my husband is in his rocking chair, reading, and he just let loose with a loud sneeze. “Bless you,” I say. But what I’m really thinking is “Yurt.”