Our Roles, Our Selves

February 11, 2007


This is my first time in a long time to be home alone on a Sunday morning, and I love it. Weekdays are for work and for chores; evenings and weekends are for Paul. It is only on Sundays when I feel like I have the RIGHT to say: “Sorry, honey, this is MY day for MYSELF.”

And so it is.

Isn’t it funny how we women often need an excuse to claim a day as ours? When our men want some “me time” for themselves, they often just click on the boob tube, settle themselves comfortably on a couch or on the bed, and become oblivious to the world around them. Like the TVs and the gadgets that are so critical to their existence, men can switch themselves on and off. One minute he’s watching the news, the next minute you’re discussing global warming and saving the world. One minute you’re watching TV, the next minute you’re making out. One minute he’s asking you a question, the next minute he doesn’t hear you because he’s so engrossed in the boxing match in front of him. It’s so easy for them to compartmentalize the different elements of their lives—and hop from one silo to the next.

I don’t think it can ever be that way for us.

I, for one, am an avid multi-tasker, who surfs the Net while listening to music while heating water for the bath while simmering the soup in the stove while drafting an article for a magazine or for my blog. All at once, I am homemaker, cook, writer, and myself. There is no compartmentalizing my day—or myself, for that matter—because I am everything all the time, everywhere I go.

Some people may perceive this as unhealthy, but, for me, it’s borne of a realization that I cannot disassociate myself from the roles that I play. I am wholly my roles, just as my roles are wholly a part of me—although I am sure that I am not just my roles. It’s just that I can never ignore them, or pretend for one second that I didn’t have them. Wherever I go, I am daughter, sister, aunt, fiancée, business partner, colleague, friend, and so on, rolled into one neat package. As the years go by, I will be adding more roles to that list, and there will be no turning back.

I’ve been reading a collection of essays by women writers titled, The Writer on Her Work, and there I came across the journal entries of a writer and poet named Michelle Murray. Throughout the mini-anthology you could see and feel the pain that she suffered while trying very hard to balance her roles. She was deeply in love with her husband, deeply devoted to her kids—and yet she loved her work more deeply than anything else, and there were times when she resented those whom she loved because it kept her from her writing.

One of her entries, dated October 24, 1960, was very empathic—a soul crying out in silent desperation:

Joanne {Greenburg, author of I Never Promised You a Rose Garden} asks, “are you fulfilled?”—without writing, that is. No, no—although, like her, I wish I could be, for everything would be simplified. My euphoria of the past six weeks has given way to restlessness and irritation as I fight, in vain, for a few free hours of silence for my work. The children remain marvelous, I am still committed to hearth and home—but, damn it, that is not all, not enough. I need time to discipline my spirit away from visions of material delight as I think of my new house, and time for reading, thinking and writing would relieve the necessity of making these visions carry so much of the burden of my imagination.

It is the writer’s curse, I think, to be so deeply passionate about the written word and the worlds around which it revolves, for I, too have often felt the need to get away from everything and everyone just to devote some time to writing. Notice that I used the word “devote”—as many writers do, because writing is not something that you just “do.” It is something that you pour yourself into; in a way, you need to empty yourself out into your work because that is what good writing entails. The moment you disengage yourself from your work, it becomes stale and meaningless.

Interestingly enough, my virtual mentor, Sarah Ban Breathnach, quotes some lines from the same book in an entry in her book, Something More, titled “Women’s Work”. This time, however, she presents a different take on this delicate tug-of-war between women writers (or women in general), their work, and the roles that we play:

In a collection of essays called The Writer on Her Work, Anne Tyler reveals how difficult it is to create around family life. Writing is her frame of reference, as it is mine [and mine!], but the same principle applies to any work we do. Once March a character arrived in her consciousness as she was painting the downstairs hall. She knew that if she “sat down and organized this character on paper, a novel would grow around him. But it was March and the children’s spring vacation began the next day, so I waited.” By July she was finally able to start. But even with the inevitable tug-of-war that daily life brings, the struggle and the stumbling toward Something More with children growing up around you brings hidden gifts. “It seems to me that since I’ve had children I’ve grown richer and deeper,” Anne Tyler confesses. “They may have slowed down my writing for a while, but when I did write, I had more of a self to speak from.”

This “having more of a self to speak from”, I think, is what makes me eager to embrace my various roles and to welcome the years ahead of me. In the past three years, as I’ve settled into the roles of writer, entrepreneur, partner, and homemaker, I’ve found that much of my growth and the maturity of my writing stems from the depth of my experiences. You see, unlike accountants or doctors or even lawyers, we writers cannot really work outside of ourselves; we cannot pull knowledge from outside a book and apply it to our professions. More often than not, our lives and our professions are woven so intimately that we cannot tell one from the other. We can only write what we know, and we can only write what we believe in.

As I embrace more of life’s complexities and unearth joyful simplicities from them, I know that I will be a better writer. And I know that I will be a better person.

This isn’t to say that I’m sure things will turn out perfectly, for nothing ever does. This is a declaration of my commitment to be wholly myself no matter where I am or what I am doing. My roles and my responsibilities may change over time, but nothing will change the fact that I am many things to many people, and I have accepted the fact that part of my Life’s Work is taking care of the people I love.

To end, let me borrow another passage from Miss Breathnach:

All mothers with responsibilities outside the home—Helen [a woman she had just written about], you, and I—have felt that terrible pull between our jobs and our children every day. The German poet Rainer Maria Rilke calls the challenge that confronts us the work of understanding. “Somewhere there is an ancient enmity between our daily life and the great work.” Acknowledging it openly is the first step toward making courageous choices. That’s why it’s important, when we select role models in life and work, to remember that we’re all human, even women who seem to “do it all.” The truth is, no one can do it all at the same time, and we all know that. So why not start calling women who appear to have achieved a balance between the various demands on them our reality models, keeping in mind that even they don’t walk the balance beams perfectly every day. It’s just that, when they fall, they get back up and try again.

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