Two weeks ago I made a New Years resolution, sort of by accident. It was the end of the semester, I’d just finished a pile of grading and was looking ahead to ten days of panicked administrative work, with a shoehorn or two of panicked research labour shoved down the sides. I suddenly realized it was Christmas time – aka, the winter BREAK – and I was about to be in a situation where, in the words of the great Dr Seuss, no break would be coming.
That’s when I REALLY started to panic.
I’m one of those lucky women who, at least on the surface, appears to have a really flexible life. My job’s only set hours are the time I spend in the classroom and in my office hours. I can ride my bike in the middle of the afternoon whenever the weather permits, and I can spend Monday mornings at yoga with a group of older women who are mostly retired. But there’s a catch: not having set hours, while sporting a type-A academic’s personality, means I’m hard on myself: I take on a lot of work and I value doing it thoroughly. So when I’m not in my campus office or in the classroom I am inevitably working from home, or racing between meetings with colleagues and artists across Southwestern Ontario. (I teach theatre and performance, and run the theatre studies major and minor at Western University.)
I also have no children, and currently no partner. Which means I feel added pressure to take on labour that consumes time which might otherwise be filled with child care or nurturing a relationship. That’s not to say I am unduly pressured or compelled by colleagues who are parents; for me, it’s also a coping mechanism. If I’m working I’m not thinking too much about the things in my life that are missing.
Because I’m relatively free of responsibilities at home (my dog is an exception; she is an old but sporty girl, and likes a nice walk, or two, or three, or four in a day…), I can spend a lot of time doing the sports I love.
(Like many singles, I’m obsessed with my companion animal. Emma visits the swans in Stratford, ON, and the Olympic rings in London, UK.)
I ride three times a week; I row twice a week (more in season); I swim, try to stand on my head at yoga, garden, and walk a lot (see above, re sporty dog). Like Nat Hebert, who writes in this space on Saturdays, I know my sporty lifestyle is a huge privilege, economic as well as social.
And I’m grateful for it, believe me. As a feminist, I am hyper-aware that women in particular often get short shrift in mixed households when it comes to sports time. I ride with a cycling club that is easily 90% men; our long ride is scheduled for Saturday mornings. I’ve often wondered aloud what the wives of my fellow (male) riders are doing while the guys cycle 100+km and have breakfast with their friends. Typically this musing is greeted sympathetically, but most have been quick to point out that the ride is scheduled early on Saturdays so that the married men in the club can head home for childcare and other household duties. Which is marvellous – but it also sidesteps the basic good fortune most men in the club share: the ability to leave the house at 7:30 on a Saturday, while their partners take the first childcare shift.
So my free sports time is a wonderful privilege for me, to be sure. But it can also be a burden emotionally.
How’s that? Isn’t sport a great emotional release? Without a doubt. But for me – and even more for working moms and dads I know – it’s easy to convince myself that sporty time is ME time, and thus I ought not to grouse about not having other time for me in the week. In other words: I tell myself that I should work hard when I’m not sportsing hard, because I’ve already taken this huge chunk of time for me, for my sports. That turns, perversely, into negative self talk, where I insist to myself I should buckle down twice as hard, nose in the screen, because lucky me has just been out for a three hour ride. Isn’t that more than enough “me time”?
No, it’s not. And thinking it is is not a healthy attitude, either. The three hour ride is a pleasure and a blessing, but it does not, and should not, substitute for “having a life”. It’s a great PART of my life – just like cooking, eating, walks with the dog, reading books, watching great TV, seeing friends, and sitting quietly with a cup of coffee or tea are all part of my life, or should be. Having a healthy life means prioritising all these things, not feeling guilty about enjoying them, and not worrying while enjoying them that I should really be working.
Which means, of course, that having a healthy life means working less. More than that: it means being conscious of overwork, addressing it, and then choosing to work less. Or, when required, insisting on working less.
We live in a world that now insists, perversely, on overwork as a norm. Everyone is working more for less; the unluckiest among us work all the time and are not even paid enough to feed, clothe, and house themselves and their families properly and safely.
(This is a feature of the economic system under which most Western governments operate today: neoliberalism. It’s a system in which the shareholder is the most important beneficiary of human labour, and workers are valued only insofar as they can generate greater shareholder profit. Banks and the wealthy benefit most from this system; most other human beings are the underpaid and undervalued cogs in its machine. Governments today depend on shareholder profit and bank-sector stability for their own budget success [and thus electability], and so generally support this system at the expense of workers’ rights.)
I fully understand that not all of us have the privilege that enables us to insist on working less – but that’s all the more reason for those of us who DO to insist, when we can, publically and actively, that all human beings should work only as much as is fair and feasible, and should be paid a living wage when they do.
Because it shouldn’t take a New Years resolution to have a life. Work-life balance is a human right. Somehow our culture, here in North America, has forgotten that. My hope in 2016 is to remind myself and all those around me of this basic fact.
A happy and healthy 2016 to you all!