A few years ago there was a Christmas advert for Boots, which featured two women bumping into each other in the street, laden with bags and notes, sneezing into hankies as they exchanged tales of busy-ness and feckless men-folk home abed with men-flu.
I think the message was supposed to be celebratory: wonderful mums, carrying on to make Christmas happen when all around them are slacking off. Thank God Boots is there, with its 3 for 2 selections of mugs and socks and dubious celebrity aftershave to help them out. It stuck in my mind, though, for other reasons: as a perfect example of how many women do interact with each other.
We have these daily fencing matches of words: “How are you?” “Oh, fine, you know, busy. You? ” “Oh, manic, you know…” It’s a contest, although I think often we don’t think of it as such. It’s a subtle, barbed duel of to-do lists and daily chores, competitive references to work and activities and commitments. We all say we’re too busy, and often we are, but why are we so bloody proud of it? Has having too much to do, being in a constant state of stress and worry and overload come to represent our value to ourselves and others?
It might just be me, it might be a reaction to the “hard-working” rhetoric that abounds at the moment, but I feel an increasing pressure to justify what I do with my time now that I’m not in employment. I reel off voluntary commitments and help lent to friends, cringing as I do so, in a kind of validation of my life. I feel forever on the back foot in conversations with friends who have jobs, even those who have enormous amounts of family support around them. I simultaneously resent the implication that I have endless amounts of free time to do things, even while recognising that I do have more hours at my disposal at present than most.
There are endless articles about de-stressing, about simplifying one’s life. Practising mindfulness, not being subsumed into the overwhelm of our cluttered daily existences. Finding time for oneself, being able to focus on the essentials. Yet when these are possible; when, like now, I do have time to cook from scratch and walk the children to school, it feels somehow like a cop-out, not a worthwhile end achieved. If I’m not demonstrably busy, and being paid for at least some of my activity, then I’m somehow less.
Does it matter? Even I can find few tears for the existential crises of a pampered, privileged woman who has had the luck to choose how to spend this portion of her life. At a broader level, though, I think it does: if we equate a person’s activity with their value, we risk losing sight of all the different contributions that make up our society, all the different ways in which a person can be of worth. That so many people have no choice but to live at a frenetic pace shouldn’t be a badge of honour.