My initial response upon reading “The Busy Trap” in this weekend’s New York Times was a feeling of sweet revenge. After two weeks of working-mother angst prompted by the Atlantic’s “Women Still Can’t Have it All,” I was delighted to have the tables turned. Obviously it’s not just women who can’t have it all. None of us can have it all. In fact the wanting it all is a disease not specific to women or loaded on us by feminism but a generalized global pandemic that’s destroying us all.
The “Busy Trap,” after all, is written by a man and one who does not mention having children. And in his view a 23-year-old single man has a daily reality not all that different than a 40-year-old mother of three. “Almost everyone I know is busy,” writes Tim Kreider, “They feel anxious and guilty when they aren’t either working or doing something to promote their work. They schedule in time with friends the way students with 4.0 G.P.A.s make sure to sign up for community service because it looks good on their college applications.”
But after that brief moment of revenge/relief I began to feel pretty uneasy, because what good does it do me that men live this way too? So many lines in that story made me cringe in self recognition: “Even children are busy now, scheduled down to the half hour with classes and extracurricular activities.” And then this part, which really hit home: “Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life can not possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy.” My one quibble with Kreider is his insistence that this kind of busyness is a form of bragging, a one-upsmanship over who worked more hours, familiar from how my investment-banker friends from the ‘90s used to act.
He’s right that busyness is a choice, but it’s not a choice choice; it’s more like a condition we are passively not resisting, a trap we can’t see our way out of. This revelation came to me the other day when I talked to an acquaintance who is a book binder. I had visited him expecting a respite from my harried screen-centric existence, an afternoon full of unusual smells and textures. But his life was just as insane seeming as mine. He had clients hassling him on email to get projects done faster, lost packages he needed to track and an inbox that was equally oppressive. Everything is sped up; stay at home moms are just as manic as I am about getting through their day.
In my better moments I aim to live the way Katie Roiphe suggested in her Financial Times response to Anne-Marie Slaughter’s piece: We should embrace the chaos, screw the balance, revel in those days when we get home too late and wake up groggy to a toddler sticking Band-Aids on our half open eyes, and then steal some more sleep by handing over a box of cookies. But the same thought keeps coming back to me: I don’t want to be busy. I don’t want all my friends to start their messages to me with the sentence “I know you’re really busy but …” Anyone have any advice?