Don’t Know How She Does It: Finding Time for Myself in the Din of Work

Sonia Bahl Author, women writers fest, women and me time

When you have a live-in helper—a Filipina—who puts German efficiency to shame, out-cooks your mother who taught her to cook in the first place, and cleans like she suffers from an obsessive compulsive disorder, you know the fairy godmother of housekeeping is on your side. Now add to that mix, a husband who is a hands-on mother and says he finds doing grocery runs therapeutic. At the very least, this means your kid will be speaking five languages and playing three musical instruments by the age of four. And you will have all the time to complete Stephen Hawking’s unfinished work, while throwing daily dinner parties with the casual, sexy aplomb of Nigella Lawson.

None of the latter happened. Not even close. Despite the dream live-in help and the supportive spouse. 

Like most creative work, mine has always stretched outside the boundaries of specific hours. As an advertising creative director working around the clock, travel, and zero me-time was the soundtrack (jingle?) of my life. Looking for the twenty-fifth hour was fun until it wasn’t. Flying to Hong Kong for a shoot, Singapore to edit, and landing back in Jakarta for a presentation became less exciting and more inconvenient when I had a one-year-old at home. I did have terrific support but I wanted more. More time.

Years later, while I straddle the world of screenwriting and authoring, I still want more time.

The kid is now part of an international grad programme but due to the COVID-19 situation, she’s back from Europe and working at home (Singapore) on Europe hours. Which means she’s literally on a different sleep-eat-work time clock. The spouse is on Europe time as well. I work a lot with India so that’s less significantly askew. We are in lockdown and we’re all just working. And eating! Our Filipina helper keeps the wheels turning (with some help from us). Perfect? I still need more time.

Here’s the irony: my husband manages to work, exercise, watch his Netflix shows, and spend more quality time with our daughter than I’ve managed so far. He, the self-appointed time management messiah, tells me: you focus on all the C-class stuff so you’re always short of time.

I want to write that off as mansplaining, but I know him too well to know it isn’t. He just happens to have a different modus operandi—and a (macro) mindset—that gives him the time he needs to do the things he wants to. I, on the other hand, never stop sweating the small (micro) stuff. But isn’t that the big stuff?

Is everyone eating right—if this means a grocery run between Zoom calls—greens aisle, here I come. I have a natural aversion for WhatsApp groups and yet I don’t exempt myself from the various family groups. I may not actively participate, but I make sure I wish, condole, say the right thing, pop in at the right time—it takes time! I try to do that in real life too. I’m sorely tempted to say no, but I still can’t muster up a proper no to the never-ending stream of pro bono writing requests that come my way, because people think I could just do it with my eyes shut. I need to let them know even Hemingway could not write a funny, creative mailer for your funky new product idea without sweating some blood. When my daughter decides to take a twenty-minute break from her schedule to zone out with Modern Family, I feel tempted to reschedule a meeting if she deigns to ask: Want to watch, mama? It probably wouldn’t make a difference to her one way or another. But it does to me. Did I mention, I also seem to spend an inordinate amount of time and energy personalising messages, gifts, life!

Be it an unstructured little person or a dependent elderly one, my first reflex has always been to shift my own priorities.

I’ve never been a helicopter mom or daughter, but a being there chip seems to have been surgically implanted into my DNA without prior knowledge. But how can these be C-class items? They just happen to be time vampires. I speak for myself when I say juggling and womanhood are stalwart companions—they feed off each other.

Even Michelle Obama recalls how she’d get mad at Barack for always finding time to work out when she didn’t have time to get her hair in place. She realised, despite who she was, like most women: “I have a hard time putting myself on my own priority list, let alone at the top of it.”

As for me, I’ll say this: sometimes it does take a little longer to get where I want to go, but I keep holding on to the C-class items that eat up my time. Maybe because they let me live with the gratifying measure of (my) time—the one that makes me tick.

The fantastically observant and exceedingly witty Allison Pearson—Don’t Know How She Does It—has a simple insight into why women may constantly lack time: “For men, life is a highway. For women, it is a roadmap.”

Born and raised in Kolkata, Sonia has lived and worked in Chennai, Mumbai, Delhi, Jakarta, Miami, Brussels, Johannesburg and Singapore. She is currently based in Singapore.