<B>A mother's balancing act</B> Toward the end of writing <B>Dispatches from a Not-So-Perfect Life</B>, a process that took three years, my deadline got unexpectedly moved up. It became clear that I would have to drop everything in order to finish on time. I couldn't stop my job teaching writing to Duke students because it was mid-semester, and I needed the paycheck. But I figured I could pretty much take a hiatus from everything else for two months. My back was against the wall, and my husband, an utterly generous man, agreed to take over the lion's share of housework and childcare for our two sons, ages five and eight.
Up until that point, I'd written the way most writers do: stealing time from job, family and sleep in order to write. My book, in fact, is about precisely these negotiations and hard calls. It features a woman my narrative self who is ambitious in several conflicting arenas that all take time and can't easily be multi-tasked. In order to finish this book, I would have to temporarily live a different life. Lucky for me, Duke's spring break fell during the two months when I needed it most. My students were headed to Fort Lauderdale to sunbathe, drink margaritas and have bad sexual encounters. (I knew these details from the short stories they wrote each semester when they came back.) I had different plans, though I was going to a writers' retreat.
At the retreat, I worked incredibly hard: 12 to 15 hours a day. Still, I had a lovely room with a gorgeous garden view. I got to make my own tea exactly when I wanted it. If I took a walk behind the ex-mansion that housed the retreat, I often saw people riding horses. When I got back, kind friends empathized. <I>You must be exhausted. Are you working all the time? Are you sleeping? Don't worry, it will be over soon, and then you can relax.</I>Should I tell them the truth that writing 15 hours a day was way easier than my regular life? Should I tell them about the horses? Of course I should.
"Actually," I said, "I'm doing really well. It's Duncan who's bearing the brunt of things."Quite frankly, my husband Duncan looked like hell when I returned. I hated to see him so ragged. His face reminded me of the faces of mothers I saw in the park when my children were babies and toddlers: pinched, exhausted, always checking their watches <I>how much longer will this day go on?</I> I couldn't see my own face at the time, but I knew it looked the same. While I was gone for 12 days, Duncan did what millions of women do each day as routine: work a job and single-handedly run a household with young kids. It was hard work, much of it invisible to the larger world.
<I>Dispatches</I> actually features a chapter in which I detail my anger at Duncan for not doing what I perceived to be enough domestic work prior to 2000. He left it to me, I felt, without seeing all that was there. Yet here he was, three years later, doing everything so I could finish this same book. That irony didn't escape me or Duncan.
I wrote <I>Dispatches</I> because most of the women I know are exhausted, and whether or not they have husbands, they're doing the large majority of work at home. And yet they feel guilty for not doing enough. I wanted to give voice to this exhaustion and guilt in the hope that my readers might recognize themselves and feel entitled to a small break.
My own break the only one I felt justified in taking happened because Random House pushed my deadline forward. Not to imply that writing a book, even with a lovely view, is easy. In my experience, writing is always hard work. That's what I teach my students; it's what I know to be true myself. Still, I told my sister that I allowed myself to do things at the retreat I never did in normal life: take long baths instead of lickety-split showers, eat whenever I was hungry, do yoga stretches at night. "I want you to be able to do those things for yourself without a book deadline," she replied.
"That's what I want for every woman," I said.
How do we get there? Because I'm a writer, I have to say that the first step involves telling the truth about what our lives actually look like. I was fortunate enough to temporarily leave my regular life in order to reflect on it, briefly, from a more peaceful point of view. <I>Faulkner Fox is the author of </I>Dispatches from a Not-So-Perfect Life: Or How I Learned to Love the House, the Man, the Child. <I>For more information, visit www.faulknerfox.com.</I>