Something’s gotta give …. why not let it?

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By now, we’ve all heard about Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau’s plea to the Canadian public for more help. She receives so many requests for appearances and speeches – and, one imagines, the mere pleasure of her company – that she feels overwhelmed. She describes having to choose between causes and events because she can’t support all of them – in her words, she “can’t be everywhere”, being the wife of the prime minister and the mother of three young children. Her dining room table has become like an office, she says, and she needs an assistant to help her handle it all.

Reactions vary. Some people are snickering over her plight, and have created a couple of snarky hashtags on the subject: #PrayForSophie and #SophieStrong. Others are enraged that she would dare ask for anything at all, considering that she already has a chef, household staff, two nannies and an assistant (in all honestly, one wonders what that assistant is doing at the moment). Surely she’s got time to open letters and grace functions. Rideau Cottage has 22 rooms. Can’t one of them serve as an office for Sophie? A few have suggested that she take some of her husband’s generous salary and pay an assistant with that, or that she start charging for her time so as to foot the bill for whatever she needs to keep the show on the road. However, a sizeable number of people are in support of granting Sophie’s request. She is already very busy, given that her presence as the prime minister’s wife is expected at everything from dinners to galas to international events – and three kids will keep any woman on her toes. On top of all that, she has lent her intelligence, charm and pretty face to increasing the exposure of a number of worthy endeavours. Anyway, doesn’t Michelle Obama command a staff of two dozen? Stop bellyaching and give her that extra assistant! Those who are hesitant to agree that Sophie should have an extra assistant, for whatever reason, are accused of tall poppy syndrome (or, less poetically, plain old sour grapes).

My own feelings on the subject lie somewhere in the middle …. It seems that Sophie’s heart is in the right place. She knows that she possesses a great deal of social sway, and she wants to use it to help others. She recognizes that, as the prime minister’s wife, she is in a unique position to share her considerable talents to the betterment of society. And it takes balls to ask for help if you’re not poor or abused or a visible minority …. In addition to all that, Sophie coming forward admitting that she can’t juggle everything people have tossed her way since her husband became our prime minister has shone a spotlight on the invisible work many women do and what it’s really worth. This is a good thing, since unpaid  (and, unless it’s Mother’s Day, unnoticed) work comprises a significant amount of what many women do with their day. Feminists have long lamented how often women carry the lion’s share of duties relating to the home and childcare and (increasingly, as gaps in the system widen) eldercare, in addition to bringing home half the proverbial bacon.

On the other hand, she’s not the only one – by far – who finds her days too short for the many calls on her time. Many people find it difficult to fulfil even their basic obligations to their family and their workplace without burning out. Many of these same people also make an effort to donate money and time to charitable pursuits. This money and time usually has to be diverted from other areas of their life. If I give $50 to the Salvation Army, I may not be able to give $50 to the Mission – or spend $50 on a new dress. Spending Friday morning helping our local food bank means I can’t show up at my daughters’ school to read to the kindergarten class or supervise a trip to the library, or stay home in my pyjamas and write a blog post. If I have a spic-and-span house, I’m probably serving hot dogs and dippable veggies for dinner. If, on the other hand, I’m making a beautiful meal from scratch, I probably havn’t cleaned the oven or washed the floors. And if I’m on a date with Ryan, an outing with my girls or a bender with my girlfriends, chances are that nothing is getting done. Because you can’t have it all. Nobody can. Not even the prime minister’s wife.

Choosing priorities is a fact of life for everyone. Nobody expects Sophie to go to everything, all the time. She’s only one person, and reasonable people know that. Sophie herself should have learned that by now. You can’t please everyone, so you must choose your priorities. (And isn’t that a great song? You’re welcome.) Finite resources are a reality of life. As for comparisons to Michelle Obama, she’s the first lady. That position doesn’t actually exist in Canada. Not to mention that America has ten times the population of Canada …. Michelle probably receives a hell of alot more invitations, solicitations and obligations than Sophie. Sophie wasn’t elected, Justin was. Some of her perceived duties may fall more in the category of expensive hobbies than necessities. She might just have to work with what she’s got ….

I suppose I’m also somewhat disappointed in Sophie for her approach to having it all. As a working wife, and mother of two children, there are many times when I feel like I just can’t do it all. So I don’t. I keep the house reasonably clean and the food decently healthy, and I try to make eye contact when my family is talking to me. Sometimes, I do special things, sometimes I just get by. Something’s gotta give, as they say, and I don’t have the option of plugging the dam with another assistant (I don’t even have one). Isn’t that a more realistic approach? To say that I can’t have or do it all, so I’m going to move my resources around until I’ve covered the basics, and then pick an extra or two if time and things warrant? Maybe the expectations dumped on the average woman wouldn’t be quite so heavy if more women said no, rather than begging for help to achieve the ridiculous and perpetuate the myth.

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Lived-In

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A sign I pass several days per week really irritates me. It’s an advertisement by Alterna Savings on the main level of the building I work in – for loans, I guess? I don’t even know, because I don’t want to dignify it with a detailed look. It says “your living room shouldn’t look lived-in.” For one thing, the ad is playing on a weakness common to many people – the desire for shiny, new, different, perfect. For another, the ad is implying that your living room (and, by extension, everything else in your home) is an exhibit. A thing to look at and admire rather than use and enjoy.

Our living room is a lovely place to be. It’s got two big, comfy couches and a blue armchair. None of them match. The armchair is a little rickety. We don’t know how old it is; it was salvaged from the area surrounding the dumpster in the basement of the building I lived in 13 years ago. I have always hoped that nobody died in it …. In spite of its dubious origins, it’s a favourite of Ryan, and his father, too, when he visits. People who like to sit in corners like this armchair – it is placed just-so. You can see everything that’s going on but you can’t necessarily be spotted right away yourself. We bought the checkered couch shortly after we were married. The arms of the couch are somewhat smudged from fingers covered in oil, chocolate and newsprint, and the cushions can no longer be turned over to hide stains – the stains are on both sides. The cushions are a little woolly. But that couch gives me amazing naps. Sleep has never come easy to me, but – for some reason – that couch embraces my body and eases my mind. The red couch is enormous. We bought it when we moved to our current house. It’s a bit too big for the living room, and almost got sent back to the furniture store, but then we warmed to it. It’s got plenty of room to lounge, to stretch out – and plenty of room for several people to squeeze in. There are lots of plants for the daytime and candles for the evening. A big window lets in generous pools of sunshine during the day and features a glowing street at night. There is a scuffed set of coffee and end tables. There’s a fireplace with a cracked grate and at least one loose tile. There’s a battered piano and an overflowing bookshelf. Several drawers stuffed with craft supplies, and a well-scribbled set of table and two chairs, for when inspiration strikes one of our budding artists. It’s definitely lived-in – in the best way. When we are there, we feel a richness Alterna Savings wouldn’t understand.

The terribly frightening, sad stories coming out of northern Alberta over the past few days does nothing to lesson my ire with that sign. Nearly 90,000 people made a harrowing escape from the burning city of Fort McMurray, with flames leaping behind and alongside them, taking with them only what they could fit in their vehicles. None of the survivors interviewed appear to have mentioned what’s new and expensive. They’re talking about the parks where their children played, gardens, photos, wedding dresses and baptism gowns and baby booties, World’s Best Dad mugs, homemade birthday cards with crooked lettering, beloved views and trails, church picnics, school plays. Memories, lived-in and loved ragged. Watching their painful ordeal, feeling the heavy loss of what these people will never get back, has given my own life a sudden preciousness. It has given that sign a heightened vulgarity.

Today, I attended a choral celebration. Several elementary school choirs came together to sing for their teachers and families at Notre Dame High School’s auditorium. Bridget and her choir have been practising for weeks for this. As with any children’s performance, there were lows. Two choirs appeared to be composed entirely of tone-deaf kids, in fact. But there was so much heart in each school’s offering – and there was a wonderful feeling in the air. At the end, all the choirs joined in singing “Dona Nobis Pacem” and “It’s a Small World”. Every surface in the auditorium is scuffed and scratched, and the chairs don’t match. Like every high school I’ve ever been in, it smells like sneakers, hormones and dust. But the music, and the sight of all those earnest, happy faces, filled me with joy. I was lifted to a higher place. My eyes welled with tears and I let them fall unchecked. As I drove home along the lumpy spring pavement, past sidewalks with weeds pushing through the cracks and construction and graffiti, and pulled in next to my scruffy lawn, I was overwhelmed by the beauty of my lived-in life. I wouldn’t want it any other way.