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Don’t call me Shirley

February 28, 2012

Surely I am not a “single mother”, since my ex-husband lives a few blocks away and shares custody of the kids.

Skip this paragraph if you find explications of custody arrangements tedious. I have the children every Monday and Tuesday. Wednesday and Thursday they come to my house after school and then go home with their father when he picks them up after work–at around 7, usually–and spend the night there. Weekends we alternate. I made it explicit in the divorce agreement that my ex would be officially responsible for them every other Friday afternoon on “his” weekend, so that I can skip town to see my boyfriend, should I so desire, on Thursday evenings…but if I’m around on my weekend off, they come home to me that Friday as well. Sick days, snow days, holidays, summer days, all day, every day, are mine. This is not fifty percent, or even close, and I am paid child support as if we shared custody equally, but I don’t care. There is no such thing as a divorce agreement that both parties will find utterly fair. You choose what’s most important, and you let the rest slide; I wanted the kids with me more, and I therefore agreed to a custody agreement that might, on the surface, seem slightly skewed.

I’m not asking for sympathy or shared indignation–not at all. On the contrary, I want to make it clear that I knew exactly what I was getting into. When we separated, my younger son was in first grade. I had taken care of both kids full time since they were born. I could not fathom being without them for half of every week. Of course, I know now that kids–not to mention their clingy mothers–can and do adapt, and that mine would have been fine had my husband pushed for truly shared custody, or had I gotten a full time job and hired a babysitter, or what have you. At the time, however, I couldn’t imagine anything different. When everything went tits-up, I clung to the kids, and to my identity as their full-time mother, with desperate intensity.

But I don’t consider myself a single mother, not by a long stretch. To me, a single mother is someone like my mom–100% custody of the kids, virtually no child support, and a full time job. I don’t have any of those things.

Neither do I have a career. When asked what I do for a living, I mumble and fidget and twitch. This is actually an improvement; I used to tell everyone I did “nothing” for a living; since the divorce, I’ve tried not to be so cavalier. My kids used to think that their father worked and I stayed home to take care of them; they now know that both their father and I work, and both of us take care of them. I work more than I did when I was married, and he takes care of them more than he did when we were married; divorce has smoothed over the difference in our rôles. Still, there is a difference, and I persist in thinking of my ex-husband as a scientist and of myself as someone who has not quite managed to get her professional life (such as it is, or is not) properly underway. I have no one to blame for this but myself. I could blame the children, I guess. Technically it’s probably their fault.

Several weeks ago I decided to do what I have been talking about doing for years–namely, leave the house and go to the library on our town’s college campus, in order to work, uninterrupted by the telephone, undistracted by the internet, for three hours a day.

Three hours! It sounds like so little. It sounds like nothing at all. Sitting at a carrell with books and pencils and notebooks, writing in longhand, feels familiar and pleasant. I didn’t own a laptop in graduate school, and spent entire days in the library as a matter of course, reading, doodling, translating, taking notes, writing papers. The college library I presently haunt shares a kind of funky seventies-busy-carpet-weird-wooly-wall-hanging ambiance with the library I preferred in grad school, though the grad school library was much more densely populated. Where are all the kids studying these days? At home with their laptops, I suppose, while texting and inventing apps and hurtling along the information superhighway at speeds we old fogies can hardly imagine.

I thought, at first, that three hours was a little on the light side. Roald Dahl wrote for four hours a day, I read somewhere–which sounded like a pretty sweet deal. But given the years of sloth I was up against, I figured it was better to aim a little low; anyway, the real key was getting into a routine–putting on pants and shoes, leaving the house, combing my hair, and the like. Once I broke my Oblomovian habits, it would be easy to raise the bar by tacking on another hour or two. Best of all, I’d still have plenty of time left over for email, dicking around on the internet, talking on the phone, running errands with consoling-windows friend, and so on. I have from 8:30 until 3:30 every school day to play with. Carving a mere three hours out of that vast expanse of time should be a piece of cake.

It has been nearly impossible.

It’s very easy, when you work from home and on an irregular schedule, to think that you are the reason you never get anything done.  If only I were more disciplined, I have told myself during every single long dark night of the soul since my twenties, I’d have filed my taxes on time. Or sent in that form that’s overdue, or called that person back, or made (and kept) that doctor’s appointment, returned those library books, written those thank-you notes. I still lie awake tossing and turning, telling myself that it’s my own damnable laziness that’s kept me from turning my dissertation into a book, publishing more, writing more, studying more, learning more languages, and so on and so forth until I either fall back into the sleep of the wicked and unjust, or else morning comes.

The children were convenient scapegoats for many years–who can get anything done when preschool only lasts two hours? Then along came the divorce, an excellent alibi. But now, I told myself the other week, I have no plausible excuse. I planned to start Monday. Three hours, hell or high water. And three on Tuesday, and Wednesday, and so on. No excuses.

First, the good news. I have gotten to the library nearly ever day since I resolved to start going. I took Sunday off, because my boyfriend and his kids were here, and we’d had five kids and four grownups to supper the night before. But I even worked on Saturday, and the feeling I was going for–the peace and quiet and concentration, the written pages piling up, something that has been hanging over my head for six long years actually almost finished–these are all wonderful things. I’ve been fierce about taking the time, I really have, and I’ve looked forward to it. And it has made me feel better about the rest of my day. The only problem is, there are too many things to fit into the rest of my day. And that’s just an ordinary day. The things that crop up, the massive time-sucks that come out of the blue and have to be coped with right away? They seem to occur once or twice a week without fail. And when you’re actually trying to consolidate three uninterrupted hours so that you can work, those interruptions really piss you off.

They’re not even interruptions, really. They’re what used to fill my life. Resenting them is not the answer, because even though I’m not a single mother, I’m the only fucking person around here who can cope with, say, a broken-down car. Yesterday was the first day I wanted, badly, to go to the library, and I couldn’t. The whole day went down the tubes, and I was angry and short with the children, who were very sweet, and today was hardly better, and tomorrow I have to spend the whole day on my taxes and the financial aid forms for my son’s school. Another day wasted, another day lost. And at the back of it all is this terrible thought: If I can’t even make space for three hours of work, how the fuck am I going to pull this whole thing–this life I want, this work I need to do, this money I need to make, this project I’ve got to get going on lest I completely forfeit all self-respect–off?  It’s not a rhetorical question. For so long I thought this was the answer. What if it isn’t, and what if I’m utterly screwed?

Spring break looms ahead–ten days off for the older son, then a week off for the younger one, beginning the day the older one goes back. There goes March.

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19 Comments leave one →
  1. helena permalink
    February 28, 2012 11:27 pm

    Shirley, you jest!

    You not only have taken a useless fucking superpower (Ph.D. in shit no one but you and I care about) and turned it into an actual, viable career that is–no matter how marginally–profitable, at least in the technical sense of the word. And you mother your heart out and blog your heart out. You don’t need no stinkin’ 3 hours a day; that’s for the rest of us schmucks. ❤

  2. February 29, 2012 8:53 am

    This is the sinkhole I get in, too: fixated on the three hours, rather than finding the spaces, Adrienne Rich-style, where I can get spare scraps written. Obviously, spare scraps is not a viable long-term plan, but it’s not nothing, either. All-or-nothing systems are endlessly appealing to my broken brain (if I’m not reaching the goals I set for myself, then why even fucking bother? Et cetera). You’ve been working and supporting yourself and creating a career all along–this goal of three hours a day is awesome, and works to help you take yourself more seriously as a writer, but if you can’t realize it, it doesn’t mean you’ve failed, and aren’t “really” a writer.

    Or it had better not, because if it does mean that, I’m also screwed. And I don’t think I am. (at least not yet)

  3. irretrievablybroken permalink*
    February 29, 2012 8:53 am

    I probably didn’t express myself properly–basically I’m just amazed at how difficult it is to protect three hours a day from all the other stuff, when I’d been running around feeling like a lazy slob who never buckles down. There is something–a suddenly sick kid, an urgent errand, the piano tuner, the chimney guy, a broken fridge, a three day weekend–every damned time you turn around, it seems.

  4. Crale permalink
    February 29, 2012 8:56 am

    You just described the past 17 years of motherhood for me….interspersed with mildly impressive fits of ambition and topped off with moderate bouts of depression and anxiety. So if you, a successful blogger/writer/mother, think you can’t “get it together”….what hope is there for the rest of us? Is it too early to open my box of wine?

    All joking aside….you inspire so many and the fact that you share your trials and tribulations with us only helps us all to see that the “perfection” we seek in our lives doesn’t exist.
    By the way, I’d go with “Sisyphus” over “Shirley”…more apropos.

  5. irretrievablybroken permalink*
    February 29, 2012 11:23 am

    Surely, though, this shouldn’t be a big deal. I have more time than ever, a flexible job, partial custody, and my kids are big. Surely three hours a day should be possible!

  6. February 29, 2012 2:27 pm

    If you have to break up the three hours then you do. If you have to sort receipts while the kids are doing homework, or write while they do so everyone is doing homework, then so be it. What if you carved out a smaller amount of time for days when shit sucks? So, unless someone is bleeding out the eyeballs there will be one uninterrupted hour, even on the vacation days (can the kids do an hour at a different part of the library?), but on “perfect” days or even semi-perfect ones you get your three? You can do this. I know you can. It’s just going to take some practice. And when you figure it out please write me a manual so I can do it, too.

  7. irretrievablybroken permalink*
    February 29, 2012 3:01 pm

    Yes, that is, and has been for years, my mode. I work after the kids are in bed, and so forth. I will still do that–the 3 hours isn’t for the paying work, which will have to fit in somehow around it. I’m really just amazed to find how the days get eaten up by stuff–which makes me realize that not staking out three hours a day (or whatever) is a guarantee against getting any time to work on what I want to work on.

  8. February 29, 2012 4:07 pm

    god, i hear you…and i’m glad you wrote this post. this is the first year that all three of mine are in school, but of course, the littlest one is only in for 9 hours a week, and it’s exactly as you say: there is ALWAYS something. i fantasize about being stephen king, getting up every morning and putting in the time before i do anything else, because i know i’m never right in the head if i’m not writing. but stephen king probably wouldn’t have gotten to be stephen king without tabitha, keeping the house and the kids and the rest of the shit from hitting the fan so he could work every day. and how many people have ever read one of her novels?

    i’m helped by the other comments, the suggestions to write when you can, even if you can’t do the routine. that’s why i started blogging: just to make myself write again, make myself sort of accountable to the handful of people who cared to read what i wrote. but i am a fiction writer, not a mommy blogger, and fiction requires long blocks of solitude, sustained concentration, and focus. those things take time. it’s very hard.

  9. February 29, 2012 9:12 pm

    I wonder sometimes if the solution is to schedule time for the unexpected, as impossible as that sounds. Because I set aside time specifically for violin building–time just for myself–but that’s the first thing that gets cut into when the things we don’t plan for crop up, like taking the car in for repairs or picking up a prescription. Maybe if I just blocked out two hours a day for that kind of nonsense I could use it as bonus time if it doesn’t get used.

    Or just accept that I will never get everything done. (But it’s so hard to admit defeat!)

  10. February 29, 2012 11:07 pm

    excellent. so relate.

  11. Kristina Alimard permalink
    March 1, 2012 3:19 pm

    Wow. I’ve followed so many blogs for so long but this, THIS, is the post that causes me to de-lurk and post a comment for the first time. By way of background, I have three little kids and I work, a lot. Around 60 hours a week. Yes, my husband helps a lot and yes, I have amazing child care but IMHO, the only way you can carve out those three hours a day to work is to let some of the rest of it go. The financial aid and tax forms must get done (that is what the hours of 10pm – midnight are for me) and the car has to get fixed, but the piano tuning and fridge leaking and vet appointments and window cleaning and vacation planning and dinner parties and hemming those pants you can’t wear because they are too long and transitioning the kids clothing from winter to summer and all of that just doesn’t get done in my house. And I have to be ok with that, or work less. It’s harder to let go of all of those little semi-important chores when you don’t have a boss hovering over you or an office away from home or a staff relying upon you to get in by 8am, etc (as I do) but until you do, the three hours of work each day will not materialize.

  12. March 1, 2012 4:03 pm

    I wish I had answers. I’m married, at least at the moment, but who knows what is coming… I work, he works and travels. And holy hell is it difficult for me to carve out those precious, precious hours. Getting to the gym means leaving the kid in child care longer or trying to do something at home, after she’s asleep. Pleasure reading and writing must be saved until after she’s gone to bed, after I’ve cleaned up, after preschool lunch has been made, laundry attempted, work email responded to… And when I manage to finally carve out that time, so often something comes up.

    I’ve the 500 pounds, so to speak, but without a lock on the door I’ve no power to think (apologies to Virginia Woolf).

    I appreciate your writing. It makes me feel slightly less isolated.

  13. March 2, 2012 11:17 am

    Protect your damn temporal turf! Pretend you get paid $100 an hour for the time you stay at the library. That’ll elevate it way above broken down cars.

  14. Fidi permalink
    March 2, 2012 12:58 pm

    * My mom had an “unfair” custody agreement with my dad and later my sister’s dad. However, that’s what everyone wanted and that way there is less friction between the parties which in the end is best for the kids. When everyone is happy, nobody cares about fair.
    * 3 hours per day is way too much. Try for 3 hours every day, but dial down your goal to an average of 2 or 3 times per week.
    * I work full time and shit happens. Guess what. Work does not happen. When the car breaks down, I don’t get work done. Or I pay $$$ for me being able to go to work. If my work pays $$$, I spend it. If it doesn’t…
    * I never file my taxes in time
    * I am currently sitting at work, filling out insurance claim paperwork. No real work getting done right now…

  15. Anne permalink
    March 4, 2012 11:22 pm

    If it makes you feel any better, I get a lot of my “life” stuff done while I actually am at work (I work 40 hours a week). There is NO WAY I would be able to get it done otherwise, since a lot of the people I need to talk to are only available from 9-5 Monday-Friday. I also praise the powers that be for the internet, which has made my life SOOOOO much easier in so many ways. So, if I need to call the plumber, or schedule my kid’s dental appointment, or check on an overdraft at my bank, I tend to do it by stealing 10 minutes here and there during my work day. I feel unfathomably grateful that I have the kind of job where I have an office with a phone, a computer, and a solid door. I’m not sure how people forced to work in cubes get stuff like this done.

    Also, like someone else said above, a lot of shit (the more-or-less extraneous kind) just doesn’t get done in a timely way. For example, our engine light is currently on, buy my husband has ascertained that it is just the temperature gauge. Therefore, it will probably be fixed by the time next March rolls around, I’m guessing. Also, I tend to trust the people I’ve hired to do work in our house (like the plumber) and usually just leave a key for them. That way, my husband and I don’t have to use up precious PTO driving home to meet them. And our weekends tend to be filled with chore-like crap. This is the only way I’ve found to keep things running.

  16. Victoria permalink
    March 5, 2012 4:36 pm

    Edmund White, talking to Terry Gross, said that one of his students asked him if he should keep banker’s hours and write eight hours a day. White said, “I think you should write eight minutes a day.”

    He continued, “I write in the laziest way possible, at a cafe where I can ogle cute watiers, and only for a little while each day. But if I produce a page a day, at the end of a year that’s 365 pages, which is really quite a lot.”

    White is one of my favorite writers and, more to the point, prolific and successful, and I have no reason to think he was lying about the minimal diligence that got him there. I’ve heard other commercially and critically successful writers say that their goal is “a page a day,” and that they stop for the day when they’ve finished a page even if they’re in the middle of a sentence.

    Also, three hours a day is a LOT of time to spend on intellectually demanding work. Once I tracked how much time I spent studying for finals in law school, and the most time I put in in one day was five hours — and I was utterly, completely wiped out by it. I couldn’t believe it had only been five hours. If I hadn’t been keeping such careful track, I would have reported it as being more like 16 hours because I felt so brain dead at the end of it.

    I’m not encouraging you to cut back on your commitment, but, on those days when you can’t find 3 hours, you might try spending 15 minutes writing.

    You may find that you’re really productive in 15 minutes, or maybe you’ll just generate ideas for what you want to get done the next day, but either way, you won’t resent the kids so much at the end of the day, and you won’t feel as though you “wasted” the whole day.

  17. March 14, 2012 6:26 am

    So heartfelt! I think you are speaking for all of us, married or not, because to a certain extent we are all single parenting up to a point. My current strategy is to wake up at 4 a.m., write madly for an hour or so, then get 2 more hours’ sleep before being dragged out of bed by the kids, making breakfast, preparing their snacks, checking their schoolbags are properly done, scraping the windscreen, doing the school run etc. While my husband is still in bed. But at least I feel virtuous that, no matter what the day might bring (ill child to be collected from school, admin hassles that require being on hold for an hour, last-minute rush to the shops for something you’ve forgotten, a request for an urgent piece of work that pays next to nothing), I have done something for myself!

  18. Sarah permalink
    March 15, 2013 5:31 pm

    My girls are, now, 4 and 7. I have been at my postgrad degree since sept 2010! This year I had ONE lecture/seminar: 2 hours A WEEK with the little one finally at school. I thought I’d have a ball. I leave the rest to your imagination…clue? Breakdown. Mine. and of the marriage. T W O H O U R S A bloody W E E K!!!!

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