Curtis Sittenfeld (Photo: Josephine Sittenfeld)
Curtis Sittenfeld (Photo: Josephine Sittenfeld)

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Curtis Sittenfeld: The secret to work/life balance? There isn't one

It's the question the best-selling US author is always asked. Sexist and annoying, yes, but understandable too. Here she gives insight to having kids, writing books and not washing her hair

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By Curtis Sittenfeld on

At some point during almost every public event I participate in as a novelist, I’m asked the same question: How do I balance writing books and being a mother? In fact, I’m asked so often that one recent evening, as I drove away from the venue, I thought to myself, "Wait a second – was I not asked tonight how I balance books and motherhood?!" In the seven years since I gave birth to the first of my two children, that may have been the only time.

When the question is posed (usually, as it happens, by a woman), multiple and contradictory thoughts run through my head:

Would you ask that of a male novelist?

Would you ask that of a female lawyer?

Do you understand that writing books is my job and not my hobby?

And finally…

How do I balance writing books and being a mother? How does anyone? Is there a way I might gain access to all the schedules of all the novelist moms in the country and thereby borrow their best practices?

All of which is to say I find the question annoying and sexist, and I totally understand where it comes from. In addition to there being – even in 2016, maybe especially in 2016 – ongoing confusion about women and motherhood and gender roles and childcare, there is also confusion, among the general public, about how a novelist’s life is structured, and this confusion isn’t surprising in light of the fact that different novelists’ lives are structured very differently; I am both relatively unusual and extremely lucky in working full-time, or full-time-ishly, on books without also teaching or otherwise supplementing my income. (My husband also works full-time; my income is higher than his, and his job provides our family’s health insurance.)

The most literal answer to the balance question is that I work from home; I pick up my children, who are now five and seven, from their respective schools (because I like seeing their classrooms and interacting with their teachers); and a babysitter comes to our house most weekday afternoons. The more personal and pungent answer is that from the time of my second child’s birth until her second birthday, I averaged two showers a week. Even now, if I see that twenty minutes are left before I need to leave for school pick-up, I’ll always write another paragraph instead of showering. This means my hair is often filthy; one day, I pretentiously but sincerely wondered if the babysitters and other moms at pick-up would think I looked liked Medusa.

There is plenty in our culture to make people, including but not limited to women, feel bad and inadequate, there also are choices we ourselves make about what we allow to bother us

But if I can be self-critical, I also let myself off the hook more than most women I know; it’s not just that there are things I don’t do, it’s that I don’t feel guilty about not doing them. I never throw dinner parties. I never work on craft projects, either by myself or with my children (I buy them markers, and I give them unlimited access to the printer paper in my office – what more do they need?!). My husband and I send Christmas cards erratically – we average every other year, which makes me worry a little that our friends will think they didn’t make the cut during the off years, but it doesn’t make me worry enough to decide that sending cards is a priority. I don’t dress particularly well and tend to binge-shop, buying a bunch of clothes every eighteen months or so; when I got fitted for bras a few months ago, the saleswoman complimented me on the surprisingly good condition of my bras that predated Obama’s election, but she also recommended purchasing new ones once a year.

Although I do go for a walk every day, sometimes with a friend, I don’t exercise more vigorously; to my amusement, I’ve twice been invited by magazines to write articles about my workout routine, and after I’ve specified how modest the routine is, the invitation has been retracted. As for socialising, I do it irregularly. In 2012, I met and hit it off with a woman named Sheena, and she suggested we get coffee. “I’d love to,” I told her, “but I can’t for six months because I’m revising my novel.” Now that Sheena has become one of my closest friends, I cringe when she reminds me I said this, but Sheena, who’s writing a novel of her own, graciously claims that I inspired her to try to be as protective of her time as I am of mine. And I do actually take pride in my ability to say no to various requests – my three-pronged approach is to assume I’ll decline anything I’m asked to do and to treat saying yes as the exception; to not reply in the moment but say I need to think about it; and when I ultimately decline, to be polite and sometimes apologetic. After my first novel was published in 2005, I received so many requests to read and “blurb” other writers’ books that I literally couldn’t honor them all – there wouldn’t have been enough hours in the day – and I suspect I developed my refusal muscle by necessity.

At the same time, I’m far from alone in discovering that motherhood has made me more efficient. On some days, I have only two and a half hours at my desk, and I’m determined to use those hours – in contrast to my pre-motherhood days, when I’d sometimes fritter away an entire morning reading celebrity gossip then start writing. And it turns out you actually can accomplish quite a lot in two and a half hours, especially when you’re not checking to see what Taylor Swift’s been up to.

Of course, none of this means that I’ve figured things out in any permanent, overarching way – routinely, both my house and my life are a mess. I drive around with expired license plate tags and pay credit cards bill late (yes, I know you can set up auto-pay with your bank – it’s been on my to-do list for about six years); I turned in my fourth novel a year after it was due, and it’s not lost on me that latitude is given to creative people for behavior that would, in other industries, be considered not just unprofessional but unacceptable. Because I enjoy advantages many women don’t, it would be unrealistic to hold myself up as an example of anything other than that you can have a flexible schedule, a fairly well-paying job, and still at times feel overmatched by basic adult responsibilities.

And yet, if there is plenty in our culture to make people, including but not limited to women, feel bad and inadequate, there also are choices we ourselves make about what we allow to bother us. Once when my younger daughter was three, she asked me if I was her nanny. The first thing I thought was, "Wow, Sheryl Sandberg never warned me this day would come". Then, on reflection, I decided to take the question as a compliment.

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld is published by Harper Collins and out now 

@csittenfeld

Curtis Sittenfeld (Photo: Josephine Sittenfeld)
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