The seven-year-old cannot be cajoled or bribed to complete his long division home-schooling work. I swear he lost respect for me when I begged. Meanwhile, the five-year-old is learning how to drive a hard bargain: he’ll practise reading in return for episodes of Pokémon.
Like daily coronavirus cases, the number of incomplete home-schooling activities continues to climb. Neither figure is ever getting to zero so, for everyone’s sake, I’m trying something new: I’m giving up. Not on my kids or their education, but on my compulsive need to achieve, to be productive and to get things done. I’m embracing lockdown as the perfect time to quit my addiction to achievement.
I’m grateful I’ve got the privilege to be able to work from home. But trying to complete any task right now channels that Greek myth of Tantalus: an evil king doomed to spend eternity hungry and thirsty, tantalised by a nearby fruit tree that’s forever out of reach.
In our 21st-century spin on that tale, the schoolwork and the work work is right there waiting but the dramas of lockdown life mean that neither is getting done. I’m in pain, people.
Sure, lockdown won’t go on forever and – sorry, Tantalus – there’s probably too much comfort eating happening around here. But what kind of sicko gets high from crossing items off their to-do list?
People like me, and pretty much every woman I know, that’s who.
We’re the ones who tend to panic buy. Research from the University of Adelaide shows that the people stripping supermarket shelves bare tend to be parents, female, younger than 55 and university educated.
Makes sense, really, that being all over the family’s weekly schedule should make mum a natural-born hoarder in a pandemic. Plus we already know that the burden of care responsibilities is again largely falling on women’s shoulders this lockdown.
Then there’s the fact that plenty of us look to our work to prove our worth. As Derek Thompson observes in The Atlantic:
My sense of identity is so bound up in my job, my sense of accomplishment, and my feeling of productivity that bouts of writer’s block can send me into an existential funk that can spill over into every part of life.”
If that’s you too, then you might be what Thompson calls a “workist” for whom work has become a pseudo religion, which suggests a spiritual element to all our striving.
Long before the pandemic, the psychotherapist Carl Jung exchanged letters with Bill Wilson, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. In what sounds like a breach of patient-doctor confidentiality, Jung observed of an alcoholic and former patient: “His craving for alcohol was the equivalent … of the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness, expressed in medieval language: the union with God.”
For Jung, “spiritus contra spiritum” – meaning, roughly, that the only hope of conquering the drink was to get drunk on God instead. No wonder AA gets its recovering alcoholics to stay sober by appealing to a higher power: God, faith or whatever gives people meaning and purpose.
All of which means that quitting my drug of choice – achievement – may bring on a spiritual crisis. If my life isn’t going to revolve around what I (or my kids) accomplish, I’ll need to find something else.
But what? When faced with that prospect, the walls start closing in – and not just because New South Wales Health doesn’t want me out and about. I’m petrified to ask myself: who am I if I’m not my achievements?
I’m still working that out. But after two months and counting of lockdown, I’m picking up on the spiritual toll involved when an addict like me “leans in” à la Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, just a little bit too far into the workplace. Which doesn’t mean I’m giving up on my career, mind you. Far from it. But it’s good to be reminded that, for me, work can be a misplaced source of significance.
Instead there’s something to be said for the comedian Ali Wong’s response to Sandberg’s philosophy (though for different reasons): “I don’t wanna ‘lean in’. I wanna lie down.”
In 2017 Wong’s quip felt scandalous to a generation of career-minded women. But during a pandemic that has sequestered us in our homes and impossibly upped the ante on parental productivity, it’s the cry of the soul.
Lying down and giving up may be just what I and other achievement addicts need right now. And can we manage it? That might be quite an achievement.
Justine Toh is senior fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity and the author of Achievement Addiction.