The Good Eye: On Productivity and Reproductivity
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A recent study of academic economists by the research division of Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis has suggested that women with children are significantly more productive over the course of their careers than their childless counterparts, male and female.
Assuming this study was formulated chiefly to shame me for my total lack of both self-discipline and children, I seized the opportunity to indulge in one of the greatest luxuries of a child-free life: wringing my hands over whether or not to have children. I confess I was primed for this latest bout of furious indecision by the last two books I've been asked to review, both of which discuss the impact of motherhood on a woman's writing career – 100 Essays I Don't Have Time to Write by playwright Sarah Ruhl and The Unspeakable by L.A. Times columnist Meghan Daum.
Daum calls the fact that her husband wants children and she doesn't the "Central Sadness" in their marriage. In our household, it's the Central Madness – as in we have both developed multiple personalities over the issue. There's the me that will feel sad if we don't have a baby and the me that will feel resentful if we do; there's the him that is so good with children and the him that would rather be making poop jokes than dealing with actual poop. Every time we sit down to discuss the issue, more personalities show up. Last time there were at least eight of us in the room, not including the internalized voices of our parents. If we get any bigger we'll have to start putting out a newsletter to keep everybody in the loop.
In a typical meeting, my husband (one of him, anyway) votes for adoption, whereas I (one of me, anyway) vote that we attempt to do it biologically, but equitably, with each of us bearing half the child. Kidding! I'm willing to take the last two trimesters if he takes the one with the morning sickness. Given my feelings about being pregnant, which can be summed up handily as "mortal terror," my visceral desire for a biological child just seems perverse. In my defense, it feels weirdly ungrateful not to try the DIY version, since my husband came out of a battle with testicular cancer in his 20s with plenty of functional, good-taste-in-music-having sperm.
Anyway, kids are far less likely to wreck my career than I am myself, just by working from home. I love working from home, but motivation is an ongoing challenge. In one of the lesser tragedies from Election Day, I sat in the dentist's chair with a mouth full of cavities and realized that I usually brush my teeth in the morning right before I leave the house. I haven't left the house in about six months.
I used to dream of the day when I'd sit behind a desk in a room of my own, making my living with words. Now that I have the room, complete with a stylish midcentury-modern desk, I will do literally anything to avoid sitting behind it. My self-sabotage knows no bounds. I will take a hot bath in the middle of the day. I will start drinking at noon. I will play simulated iPhone versions of Eighties computer games in bed. I will cruise Facebook for offensive opinions that absolutely require outraged commentary. I will make last-minute lunch plans, coffee dates for "networking" purposes, long-delayed doctor's appointments. I'll hop in the car and go to H-E-B when I'm past deadline, not because I need anything, but just to check if maybe they really do still stock our favorite brand of yogurt in the bigger size, and I'm just missing out because I keep going on the "obvious" days.
The truth captured by that study of highly educated and economically well-off mothers is that people on a tight schedule just work harder. I needed to replicate the results of the study in a way that didn't involve an episiotomy. I should probably have looked for a good calendar app, but if I were the kind of person who used calendar apps, I probably wouldn't be writing from home about caftans. My attempts to schedule my time tend to begin with a legal pad and end with a crane shot of me bellowing, "I am not a number!" The last thing I needed was one more failed schedule.
Back when I left the house occasionally to teach, I'd tell students who were having trouble focusing on their reading assignments to "journal their productivity." Keeping an open notebook by their sides, they were supposed to take notes on how long they spent on each task, as well as noting every little distraction as it happened, along with how they felt and why they felt that way. Having told countless students about this foolproof and totally made-up method, I decided it was time to give it a try myself.
It didn't take writing the words "mad at Facebook – 45 min." many times to feel a new resolve flooding my limbic system.
Checking in with my productivity notebook, I discovered that I generally have good reasons for being distracted, like being annoyed with my mother for something she did 15 years ago. After acknowledging my feelings, I was able to move on. My fingers flew over the keyboard. I revised for four hours straight, took a break, exercised, came back and started working on this column – two whole days before it was due. I felt an Anne Lamott-like wisdom coursing through my veins. This could be it! This could be my thing. I could write a productivity book! I began researching book proposals, then wrote "delusions of grandeur – 15 min." and got back to work.
Maybe productivity is a matter of acknowledging our limitations. Whether you spend your time around kids or cats, you are human. I am human. We are all human. The cats are human, even if they only talk to me when nobody else is around.