Is anything all-consuming?

Maybe I’m just sensitive, but I’ve been reading a fair number of acknowledgements in books lately that talk of book-writing as an “all consuming” process. The writer thanks someone (often the wife) for taking on all duties at home so our hero could concentrate on writing. The writer apologizes to children for missing soccer games and dinners, so all-consuming was this book. I understand that book acknowledgements are a certain genre of literature — how many times have people used the phrase “So and so drastically improved the manuscript, but any errors are my own…?” Also, I’ve been known to call book-writing “time consuming” in my acknowledgements. But “all consuming?”

I read these things and I think two thoughts. First, that my life would be a lot easier if I had a more pompous sense of self (“I can’t empty that dishwasher! Can’t you see I’m writing this book?”) And second, since I’ve never had a life where writing a book could be all-consuming, it never has been. Perhaps if our dinner-missers had been a bit better about managing their time, and didn’t have some one enabling their all-consuming fantasies, they could have also eaten breakfast and lunch with their kids.

I was remarking about this at a “power playdate” I had recently with Amanda Steinberg, founder of DailyWorth (go sign up for their daily email if you haven’t already!) Starting a VC-backed business is also billed as an “all consuming” task. And yet here Amanda — who’s raised millions — and I were at 5pm on a Tuesday with the kids, somehow having broken free from our all-consuming professions.

Of course, some people claim parenthood is all-consuming as well. For the first few weeks, perhaps. Maybe months if you’ve got a colicky kid. Years, if you’ve got one with special needs. But for most children, even if you’re home with them full-time, eventually they start napping regularly. At some point, most go to pre-school. They hang out with your spouse or other relatives. They learn to play independently or learn to watch television. They go to bed, sometimes at early hours. And then you start to have space. First, it’s just to read a magazine article while the baby sits in the Exersaucer. Then a longer magazine article. Next thing you know, you’ve read the entire first section of the Wall Street Journal while your kids are playing in the basement. Then you have another baby (naturally). And the process starts over. But it does proceed.

To me, the idea of work-life balance means this recognition: that nothing is truly all-consuming. There is space in a full life for multiple identities — to be an entrepreneur and mother, to be a devoted volunteer and father, to be a loving family member and athlete and artist, or whatever you choose. We deny ourselves many pleasures when we think otherwise, and we enable our loved ones to limit their own lives when we let them claim that you “can’t” start a business and be an involved parent or “can’t” run a major company and have a family life too. You can. And many people do. That is worth acknowledging, whatever book acknowledgements say. 

25 thoughts on “Is anything all-consuming?

  1. Some of it is the “space in your head” issue. When I was finishing my dissertation, I was scarcely ever not thinking about it. I dreamed about it, I wrote code in my head to fit new models as I was washing dishes, I tweaked sentences in my head as I was pushing kids on the swings at the playground. I woke up in the morning thinking, “I’ll try this strategy to make my moderating variables behave more sensibly!” I did wash dishes and take kids to the playground, but I ate, slept, and breathed dissertation in the run-up to my defense. I’m not sure how much better time management would have made a difference: it was a big messy project and it required a ton of intense thought.

    Same way with early motherhood for me: the idea that I had gone and had myself an actual BABY blew my mind for months. No matter where I was or what I was doing, he was constantly on my mind.

    Maybe it’s a personality trait: I’ve always been the kind of person who picks up an idea and doesn’t let it go. Which can be both good and bad.

  2. I love this: “since I’ve never had a life where writing a book could be all-consuming, it never has been.”

    Because, yes- allowing something to be all-consuming requires someone to enable that, even if you don’t have kids. Otherwise, you’d starve.

    @Jamie- I’ve had many periods in my life when one project was so central in my mind that it is what I thought about whenever my mind had a chance to wander. But like you, I still did dishes. I cooked dinner. I wasn’t “consumed”. I was focused.

    1. @Jamie and @Cloud- certainly things take up a lot of mind space. As I near the end of a book project, my mind wanders to it all the time, too. But no one is bringing me meals at my desk! I sometimes fantasize about getting a bit more ego-stroking in this household (“Hush, children — the author is thinking!”), but then I get over myself.

  3. Perhaps “dominant” or “extremely dominant” concern would be a better way to describe the kind of focused commitment that writing a book or dissertation requires. Also, I think we wrongly tend to generalize on the basis of the most intense parts of the process when we come to the conclusion that such a thing is all-consuming. The daily grind often looks very different from, e.g., the final push (which might in fact be all consuming)–we’re not constantly possessed by the muse of our big idea.

  4. I too think that “all-consuming” is a bit much – but I am certainly all for acknowledging help given along the way. Also, I would assume that not everyone who has written a book was in a financial position to be able to hire help for childcare and other tasks that would make it easier to have more “distraction-free” time to write, and maybe feel that a gushy acknowledgement is needed to adequately thank friends and spouses for all their help. I used to feel frustration over how much some moms (both famous and non-famous) appeared to be able to accomplish compared to myself – then realized that a. how silly is that, I need to focus on how best to live my own life and b. it is a lot easier to accomplish alot if you are able to hire good help – and there is nothing wrong with hiring help, it is just that some folks don’t have that option to the same degree that others do.

  5. I think in some ways it’s a luxury to allow projects to be “all consuming”, and maybe it has to do with the idea that supposedly women are better at multi-tasking than men are?

    I mean, wouldn’t it be awesome if I could let my papercrafting be “all consuming” and someone else could take care of my daughter, go to work, and deal with house stuff? But real life doesn’t work that way for me, so I fit it in when I can.

  6. For me it’s not all-consuming in the sense that I CAN’T break off to do something else like unstack the dishwasher or cook the dinner. It’s all-consuming in the sense that I don’t want to!
    For example, it’s 6.50 p.m. here now in the UK. I have been writing all day. I could happily write for another few hours, forgetting dinner and so on! I’m engrossed in what I’m doing.
    Though not engrossed enough to not get distracted by your blog!

    1. @Jennifer- very glad my blog is a worthy distraction! I know that when I was writing my thesis in college I got quite into it and would work until all hours, barely pulling myself away to buy a sandwich at the WaWa and the like. But I wrote 168 Hours and ATM during times of my life when, no matter how into my writing I was, it was not a really feasible option to shut out everything else. I like to see my kids most days, and since I know I’ll eventually run out of steam, likely around the time the kids would go to bed, better to stop a few hours early, hang out with them, then get back to work.

  7. Spot on! I was at a meeting last night and someone was going on about how they didn’t have time for this or that, and I wanted to hand them a copy of 168 Hours.

  8. This post resounded so much with me that I jumped right out of Google Reader to come say Thanks. 🙂
    For this especially, which is just exactly right: “To me, the idea of work-life balance means this recognition: that nothing is truly all-consuming. There is space in a full life for multiple identities — to be an entrepreneur and mother, to be a devoted volunteer and father, to be a loving family member and athlete and artist, or whatever you choose. We deny ourselves many pleasures when we think otherwise, and we enable our loved ones to limit their own lives…”
    So, so, so good. Always love your writing, Laura, and especially this post.

  9. I agree with the commenter who said it may be a personality trait. I think some people are able to compartmentalize their lives better.

    And I think moms are blessed in this way. We learn out of necessity how to operate by “batching” our tasks.

    1. I agree that motherhood has made me better at being able to walk away from an absorbing task. But… if we learn to do that “by necessity” once we have kids, then surely dads could, too? I don’t care how absorbed my husband is in his work, I’d be pretty mad at him if he decided that meant he didn’t have to help with the bathtime/bedtime routine.

      1. @Cloud- I think you’ve hit on what caused 90% of the fights in my marriage during our first year of parenthood. I’m never done at 6, but once we had a kid in daycare, someone had to be done at 6. And that someone was inevitably me. It’s not that I didn’t want to hang out with my son — during much of this time I was visiting the daycare at lunch to nurse him — it’s that I perceived this as a lack of respect. I think my husband perceived it as my job being flexible and the daycare being close to our apartment, so it was more convenient for me.

  10. some days you ore or absorbed in one thing or one role over another.. nurses hours like 3 long long days are great if you can swing them.. women more than men though have to make it fit and do so and are probably better workers for it. … guys can get away with “but I’m not done yet can’t tear myself away much more than women and that is oppressive!”

    1. I think guys “get away with it” because the women in their lives let them. It’s always a negotiation in our house but we bring it up explicitly each time – who does pickup, who does dropoff, who is doing bedtime, etc etc. Otherwise I could “suffer in silence” and just do it all myself, but I don’t put up with that kind of shizz.

  11. 1) With children, someone’s career has to give during crunches. One mom I know heads the wave research center at our local university. She could make last-minute pilgrimages cross-country, etc. because her husband took a postdoc job that allowed him to cover for her. She would NOT have the same accomplishments as a single parent, regardless of her intelligence. While her job isn’t “all-consuming”, she has to make her family life fit around her work, which includes Senate committee meetings 3 timezones from the optimal location for wave research. She can also get by with 5 hours of sleep each night. Not all of us can.

    2) A friend who is a historian made time for his children during the evening when they were small by writing after they went to bed, as you do. At age 70, he’s writing what he expects to be his final book. (He’s well-known enough to be the default quote on wikipedia.) He is a widower with no children now, and during much of his book, he put in 12+ hour days. He had a limited sabbatical and wanted to make the book as good as it could be. In his case, the task was all-consuming, because he no longer has family that requires his time.

  12. Thanks! This helped me catch an error in my thinking. I was assuming that because I don’t have projects that are “all-consuming” it’s because I’m doing it all wrong. Actually, it’s because I’m not so selfish as to believe that my husband would enable me in that way. I can be a productive and successful person even if I am not all consumed by a project. That’s good to know!

    1. @Joy- I think it’s good to know! One wonders how many women (usually women — wives, mothers) have enabled “all-consuming” fantasies over the years. As women have started to enter different professions, we’ve learned they don’t have to be all-consuming. It turns out you can be a doctor, for instance, without a stay-at-home wife.

      1. This illustrates the importance of female “critical mass” in a profession. One of the reasons electrical engineering and computer science are so unfriendly is that they lack critical mass. At <10% women, managers CAN require employees to work crazy hours and they do, as discussed in this month's Society of Women Engineers magazine.

  13. Thanks for this post, Laura–I’ve been a bit intimidated by the idea of the “all-consuming-ness” of book writing, and of striving for excellent writing in general. I have many things I love doing and am responsible for, and I don’t want to give them all up to finish a book! I’d lose my mind, and probably my writing would suffer as well. However, I do need to devote a tiny bit more time to my writing projects than I am now!

    1. @Kathy- I think what has helped me is realizing that book writing is a task like many things are tasks, and it can be broken down into doable chunks. You do research, you make an outline, you write a certain number of words to each point in the outline. “Write 2000 words on the history of lawns and the amount of time people spend taking care of them” is a doable task. It doesn’t need complete and total mental freedom to do, nor does it need an infinite amount of time. It probably doesn’t need more than 3 hours. So you schedule that for a 3 hour chunk of time, and then move on to the next point. You do a lot of editing, of course, and big chunks will have to be re-done later. But editing is a doable task too. “Edit first half of chapter on housing” can be scheduled for a particular day. It obviously crowds out a lot of other things, but book writing does not require a suspension of all else in one’s life. Maybe if I were writing the great American novel but even literary types eventually have to sit down and crank something out.

  14. I think it’s much easier for a man to have that all-consuming work/passion because women are often more willing to stand behind his goals/passions and take care of the home stuff.

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