“Can’t you see I’m in the middle of doing something?” “I couldn’t write the number down because the phone call woke me up.” “I’ll call you later, I have to finish this now.”
These and similar responses are what almost every wife hears when she asks her husband to help her in some routine task or undertake a domestic mission that requires attending to.
Many women, this writer included, sense that behind these answers lies an unplumbed depth of self-deception, incapacity or, worse still, evasiveness. What woman hasn’t had to interrupt an action of one kind or another to attend to some ‘urgent’ crisis involving an injured child, a diaper that needs changing or a telephone call? What woman hasn’t continued cooking, filling the dishwasher or washing machine, packing a suitcase or unpacking shopping bags while continuing to conduct a conversation on the phone, answer a child’s question or attend to some other domestic duty?
It’s called ‘multi-tasking,’ and is as natural for most women as it is impossible for many men. I personally find it essential to have music on in the background as I work at the computer, and often have a cup of coffee and find myself thinking about undertaking a completely different activity, such as painting a picture, as I do so. Sometimes I even get up and do something about it and then return to my desk.
What is the reason for the inability of many males of the species to focus on more than one task at a time — something that most women achieve with relative ease? When do our brains develop in such a way that teenage girls can talk on the phone while painting their toenails and doing their homework but teenage boys can either play a computer game or do homework, but never both at the same time?
I leave it to the experts on the human brain to explain just how and why these traits have developed, and to tell us whether they are inborn or acquired, but I venture to suggest that these characteristics are the result of the way humans have developed since time immemorial. In the caves where homo sapiens once lived the men were generally not around, having gone to hunt or fight, and so it was up to the women to gather such edible grains and seeds as could be found while at the same time bearing and caring for the children and attending to the other needs of the tribe.
Remember Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden? Adam was nowhere to be seen, when the serpent tempted Eve, who was obviously one of those restless beings who needs to be occupied. With time on her hands she got talking to the serpent and the rest of the story is too well known to bear repeating. It’s obvious, though, that Adam was taking a nap, or contemplating his navel (which he may or may not have had) and had forgotten all about Eve and the ban on eating the fruit of the forbidden tree. Never mind, in true male fashion, he was quick to blame her for everything.
The Bible mentions women who took action in various ways (Pharoah’s daughter, Moses’ sister and guardian angel, Miriam, Ruth the Moabitess, Deborah the judge), but focuses mainly on the men, who were the agents of change and undertook tasks of national importance. However, none of this would have been possible had it not been for the women who bore the children and looked after them, attended to domestic duties, tended the flocks and herds, and kept the servants in order. Without the women there would have been no Hebrews to take out of Egypt or to fight to conquer Canaan. But all that is taken for granted and doesn’t warrant a mention in the holy book.
Perhaps the ability to focus on just one task has its benefits, and teenage boys grow up into adult males who are totally dedicated to a specific task, achieving fame, glory and riches in the process. That’s not to say that there aren’t any women who are focused on attaining a specific goal, though this often comes at the expense of other aspects of their lives. To the best of my knowledge, few men (other than one Israeli politician in the last few weeks, and he may have had a hidden agenda of his own) have sacrificed their career for the sake of home and family, though there are innumerable cases in which this has been the fate of the woman.
Having money helps. Money can pay for employing someone to undertake child-care duties and see that the household chores are done. As Virginia Woolf wrote in 1929, having a room of one’s own is well-nigh essential for anyone who wants to dedicate herself to pursuing intellectual interests (or the career of a writer in her case). And I’ll bet that there aren’t many women who have such a room.
And that reminds me of how I started my career (if you can call it that) as a translator/editor over forty years ago. I had a typewriter on the kitchen table, with a stand for the book or pages I was translating, two stacks of typed pages (original plus copy) and a dictionary beside me. When the children came home from school or kindergarten I would clear the things off the table, serve lunch (which I cooked as I worked), and restore the typewriter to its place when they had finished eating, to continue typing until 11 p.m., when the neighbours downstairs demanded that I stop. I’m not sure I’d be able to do that today.
But today the children have grown up and left home, which means that I finally do have a room of my own. And that’s where I manage to produce this blog, sundry articles and the books that I have published to date (and those that are waiting to be published). Now I no longer know which came first, the writing or the room, but at least the need to multi-task has abated.