Unplugging and Work-Life Balance

The other night, the baby was in bed, the weather was lovely, and I asked David to come downstairs with me and hang out in the hammock. David’s never been one for sitting and staring into space with me (ruining many a perfectly good vacation moment, if you ask me), meaning a double hammock is the smartest thing I’ve ever bought. Once he’s IN the hammock, it’s hard to get out, so I’ve effectively trapped him with his own laziness. Marriage!

Anyway.

So we were lying together in the hammock, holding hands, watching the sun turn the tops of the trees pink, and listening to the birds sing their farewell song. I realized the moment reminded me of the best parts of my childhood, and that I hadn’t been able to just sit and enjoy my surroundings like this for ages. The hard work of unplugging was finally paying off, and for the first time in a long time I felt like my work was serving my life, instead of my life serving my work.

We all know that the American media landscape is currently obsessed with work-life balance. Every other second this year we’re discussing leaning in, leaning out, having it all, not having it all, and the time juggle. It is, perhaps, a particularly American idea, having it ALL. We’re the land of huge houses, huge cars, huge credit card debts, and hugely long working days, so we were never going to be worried about having just enough. Nope. We want it all. And we’re juggling and hustling and stressing and guilting ourselves as we strive for a goal that we are convinced isn’t impossible, even with kids (especially with kids!). And you know, that goal might not be impossible if the average American work week wasn’t 46 hours, plus another 7 hours at home, plus 18 hours a week on housework (I’m a failure, apparently…), plus an hour of commute time a day, and we were not spending 21 hours a week doing intensive parenting of kids (up from 10 in 1965, when the majority of mothers didn’t work outside the home). That goal might not be impossible if Americans didn’t take only 2–3 non-consecutive weeks of vacation a year (that they worked during). But if having it all means 53 hours of work a week plus 18 hours of chores plus 7 hours of commuting plus 21 hours of parenting plus only 2.5 weeks of (working) vacation a year, whelp. You do the math. (No, I’ll do it for you. If you add that up and assume 8 hours of sleep a night, that gives the average American a grand total 13 free hours a week, give or take. And by “free time” I mean time they need to spend eating and dressing themselves. Holy. Hell.) The American system is rigged for exhaustion and over work, and instead of lighting the system on fire, we’re playing into it by filling our hours with even MORE. More emails, more status updates, more websites to check, more guilt. More.

Apparently, as with all cultural questions, the French do it differently. (I didn’t even like Paris that much when we visited, so it’s annoying that they have all the good wine and socialism, and answers to cultural riddles.) According to Pamela Drunkerman in her book Bringing Up Bébé, The French strive for équilibre. Equilibrium. The idea is that a life should be balanced, with not too much of any one thing. Work, sex, marriage, (parenthood), a social life, pleasure—all aspects of your life should be present, but no one thing should overwhelm the other. Instead of a mad dash to be it all and do it all, to work a sixty-hour week and be the perfect mother with the iconic marriage, the goal is a balance that results in pleasure. The goal, in essence, is less. (With wine.)

Huh.

Last month, I wrote about my quest to unplug on weekends. I described the issue this way, “My problem wasn’t so much working in front of computers all day. My problem was the way my brain was reacting off of computers. My old, less jumpy brain was what I was missing. I missed that unspooling reel of thought. I missed writing longhand and not wondering if an email had come in while I was doing it. I missed staring up at the leaves on a tree and thinking about nothing in particular.” And said, “Even as I watch myself, and those around me, cramming our days with messages to check, alerts to read, and Pinterest boards to fill, I know those actions are not really our goal. We’re reading blogs because we crave smart conversation and connection. We’re pinning things to remind us of what our lives could be. We’re finding places online that we fit, to remind us of who we are. But at some point you have to stop pinning, and start doing. Sure, those pinboards of party ideas are great, but what’s really excellent is lying around the deck with your friends eating cake, not thinking about doing it.”

The tricky part was this: my brain has gotten used to the pleasurable feeling of the internet—of waiting for the next email to come in, of going from website to website, of looking for the next status update on Twitter or Facebook. At some point, my brain’s desire for the next hit of dopamine out-stripped why I originally loved the internet: finding and reading interesting things, meeting cool people. Because with so much content, so many tabs open, so many constantly updating feeds, I stopped doing what I used to do online: poking around and reading stuff. Alexander Nazaryan recently wrote a piece for The New York Times about how he uses the internet to soothe his anxiety, which, God knows I know a thing or two about. When his daughter was born, he went online to avoid thinking about the terrifying and huge change he just made to his life. He said, “I don’t want to call it addiction, to trivialize the suffering of alcoholics and compulsive gamblers. It is more like reliance, a psychological craving that will only be satisfied by the calming swipes of my finger across the smooth, shimmering screen of a device. Thus, as my wife was going into her tenth hour of labor, I was blasting through my Instapaper reading list, making sure I was fully informed about both the future of Syria and hipster mustaches. The next day, the first day of my daughter’s life, I was back on Facebook, wallowing in inanity like a pig in mud.” And he further noted, “I am far from alone. Some researchers are pushing for inclusion of Internet Use Disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.” Which makes me think we’re avoiding calling it an addiction to make ourselves feel better, if we’re being honest.

Going online feels good, in the way that addictive behaviors often do. Going online makes me feel good right now. I can check for those emails, re-pin a few pretty images, and delay taking action on things by doing some more “research.” (Seriously. What amount of research do I really need to do on legging jeans?) I do this, and my brain lights up with pleasure. But that short-term rush takes prescience over the harder work of building long-term happiness. The search for that momentary dopamine high supplants the creation of real pleasure.

I thought I would be reporting back about how good I’d been at unplugging, and if it had helped solved that jumpy feeling of internet addiction. But it turns out, in the last two months, the changes are bigger than that. When I was a kid, growing up without a TV, I was regularly asked, “What do you DO with your time?” And my response would always be, “When do you have time to watch TV? I don’t get it.” If you don’t have passive media to consume, you just get on with living your life. You don’t ponder an absence; you just focus on what’s present. Set in that context, the changes in our lives in the last two months make sense. What’s really changed is the amount that we’re doing. I’ve kept up my needlepoint. We started a new chore plan (and the kitchen is currently spotless). I started project “Let’s get some postpartum clothes that make me feel hot” (which means actually going to stores with the baby in tow to try things on, because I don’t go online over the weekends). We cheered the baby in his jolly jumper. We spent time in the hammock. We started a massive Parenthood marathon (because I didn’t sign up for no TV). We made a lot of trips to the farmers market. I got into a good groove on doing laundry. And I learned two new hairstyles (after a lifetime of not knowing what to do with my hair) and am finally working to learn how to do the cat eye. Oh yeah, and we went to some parties.

Good stuff, right?

The thing is, as enjoyable as life has become, and as many cool projects as I’ve taken on, unplugging has been hard. I don’t want to pitch it to you otherwise. It’s gotten easier, but it’s something that usually takes vigilance. My brain has adjusted to the idea that in a moment of downtime, I should check something. If I’m sitting on the couch bored for two seconds, I want to flip through my Instagram feed, or check in on Facebook (even though I don’t care what’s there). So I find myself saying no, and refocusing on the moment a lot. I’m having to learn how to be bored again.

It also means that my time online is limited, and that I always feel a little behind. There is a lag time for me answering emails, these days (though after getting down to inbox zero on maternity leave, I’m still able to stay on top of things). And there are always things I mean to do and haven’t done yet: order something, check a blog post, flip through a specific Pinterest board, read an article. But it does mean that I’m forced to consume media more consciously. And as my brain has gotten used to working without distraction, it’s changed the way I use the internet. I’m writing this without other tabs open to distract me, for the first time in a long time.

But mostly, it’s changed my relationships. Jonathan Safran Foer wrote an op-ed for The New York Times last weekend where he said, “Everyone wants his parent’s, or friend’s, or partner’s undivided attention—even if many of us, especially children, are getting used to far less. Simone Weil wrote, ‘Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.’ By this definition, our relationships to the world, and to one another, and to ourselves, are becoming increasingly miserly.” And he’s right. As I’ve worked on unplugging, I’ve noticed more when we’re really present. I’ve noticed when I have to ask for David’s complete attention by asking him to put down his phone. I’ve noticed when he’s had to ask for mine when I’m busy checking email. And I notice those moments when we could be chilling with our kid, but are instead checking for Facebook updates we don’t even care about. Of course, it’s not always that simple. There are times when work needs to be done, and emails need to be checked, and God knows the baby doesn’t need us in his face all the time. But building a life takes the unspooling of time. Life is the moments in between. Looking around your kitchen and thinking about how it reminds you of your grandmother’s. Glancing over at the baby and seeing him go wild with glee. Having that long conversation with your husband. Being bored and seeing where that takes you.

In many ways, fixing the American system of ALL-ness is out of our reach. We can opt in or out of its insane hours and quest for more stuff, but it’s often hard to find a middle ground, or work to achieve structural change. But what we can stop creating false busyness, of trying to prove something with our frenetic energy. The New York Times article “The Busy Trap” contains a line that has become my new mantra. “If your job wasn’t performed by a cat or a boa constrictor in a Richard Scarry book I’m not sure I believe it’s necessary.” I have a job I really love. It makes me happy, and often it matters to others. But at the end of the day, I’m not a brain surgeon. I’ve had a lot of jobs in my life, and a lot of jobs that mattered. Some mattered in terms of creating joy (the Turkish coffee house), some mattered in terms of function (the gas station), some mattered in terms of money (the investment bank). But none of them, no matter how they were spun by my bosses, were life or death. We’re pros in this country at creating false urgency. And the internet has turned us all into our own mini-bosses: must check that email, must read that blog post, must respond to that tweet, deadline deadline deadline.

Unplugging allowed me to step back and get some perspective on what matters in the flesh and blood world. And it’s my kid, my husband, my friends, and doing work I love. It’s not if this particular blog post goes up late, or unedited, or not at all. It’s not responding to my endless social media messages. It’s not the tyranny of my email inbox. So much of my internal landscape is devoted to proving my enough-ness. I worked enough today, I contributed enough, it was hard enough, I was miserable enough. And what matters way more than the struggle, but the joy. It’s not the emails, it’s the glass of wine with my family.

I don’t have it all. But I do have just enough. And I’m aiming for équilibre.

****

Some of you vowed to join me in some version of unplugging or doing something on your pinboard, and I cannot wait to hear your thoughts.

View from my hammock, as taken on an unplugged Polaroid camera, by Jillian

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