I am not sure when the phrase “taking a mental health day” entered the American vernacular but I am sure of one thing, which is that Peg Bracken absolutely knew what a mental health day was. She didn’t call it that. But she devoted an entire chapter to The I Hate to Housekeep Book to this concept, and furthermore, offered wise suggestions as to how to get through a grim, horrid day when one has no choice, when taking a mental health day is simply not an option.
I know for a fact that there are days when I basically can’t deal with the house I live in, or the other house I’m supposed to take care of (I am a landlord, and am therefore in charge of more than my fair share of furnaces, sinks, hot water heaters, and other mechanical things that can break). There are days when I think, “wouldn’t it be nice to own three different vacuum cleaners so that I wouldn’t have to lug my one good vacuum cleaner from floor to floor of the house? I might vacuum more, if I didn’t have to carry a vacuum cleaner up the stairs and down the stairs.” (This is, of course, total bullshit, I would still not vacuum the house as often as I ought to.) Today I was supposed to go do Good Works downtown. It is a cruddy, cold, rainy day today — the kind of weather I actually quite like, as long as I don’t have to do anything more than take my child to school and then take her home from school — and I was slated to do Good Works, but then something came up. Now I have to wait for a plumber to show up at one of the rental apartments to fix a kitchen sink sprayer that apparently has gone all Beetlejuice on the lovely tenants. (They’re being very good-humored about it, but really, it needs to get fixed.) Because this is the kind of thing where I am awaiting a phone call and will then have to drop whatever I’m doing to rush to the other house, I’m not doing Good Works. I’m also not vacuuming. I’m also not washing the floors here, because it’s a cruddy day outside, which means there’s no point: the moment the floor dried, it would be covered in wet leaves and footprints anyhow. I have made a few important mental calculations: I do have a vague sense of what we’re having for dinner tonight, no small thing. But I’ve not done laundry (there is some to do, but not enough to make up a proper load); I’ve not cleaned any bathrooms; I’ve not taken out the recycling. (I will do that, when I leave the house to go meet the plumber, I swear.)
If I thought I had more time, I would take one of Bracken’s perfectly reasonable suggestions, which go in two possible directions. There’s the “I cannot take one more step, and I am retreating to my cell, and you all can go screw yourselves for the next 24 hours” version, and the “ok, if I don’t do something, the world really will fall apart, so I have to get something done, let’s GET SOMETHING DONE.” The “cannot take one more step” version involves things like: climb into bed with your manicure kit and reading material of choice and refuse to leave until you feel recharged the next day. (This is great, but usually impossible, and, seriously, for me, one day would not suffice.)
The second option, which, Bracken points out, is usually the one available to the housewife, is to first think despondently about the lucky people who aren’t housewives but who go out to Jobs and Do Things in the Big World. Then, you must take some deep breaths (she says this in a non-Yoga Journal way, but in a more sassy, Celeste Holm kind of way), and face the fact that to everything there is a season, and your season may not yet have come, but that there is time yet, and in the meantime, you will, yes, face these unpleasant tasks, and do them. She observes that Freud always said he did his best work in a condition of moderate misery. Not that we’d really want to hold Freud up as a great model of anything in particular. But I think we can take her point.
So then the problem becomes, How do you motivate yourself to get this crap done. For example, the writing of thank-you notes. Possibly in your life you don’t write thank-you notes ever; if so, bully for you. In my life, I often have to write thank-you notes, and what’s more, I do it. There are a number of ways to force oneself to sit down and do this task, which isn’t particularly onerous but is quite time-consuming if you’re doing it well. Here is Bracken’s take on how to tackle this list of small tasks:
“Let us say you feel it’s important, for some reason, that tomorrow you make five dozen cookies for the Bluebirds, wash and iron the bedroom curtains [good god, at least I’ve never done that], write a long chatty letter to the family, and shorten a skirt, which is a frolicsome Monday for you, but there it is.”
The efficiency experts, Bracken says, would tell you to start by making a list. But that might slow you down. The random housewife will not be encouraged by list making. What the random housewife will do is make the list and go, “Well! There you have it! I made the list!” and then that will be the end of it. No: what you must do is start all of these things but not finish them, like so: you stamp and address an envelope for the chatty letter, and write the opening paragraph, and then stop;
then you organize the dry ingredients for the cookies and stop (I’d take the eggs out of the fridge, too, to give them time to get to room temperature — butter, too);
you take the curtains off the rod and throw them on the floor, and then set up the sewing machine for fixing up the skirt, and then the ironing board, and stop.
Now what do you have? You have a situation where you’ve GOT to deal with everything you started. And as long as you’ve got three or four hours ahead of you with no small children around, you should be able to tackle all of this. You would throw the curtains into the washing machine and turn it on; you’d get the cooky dough set up; while the cookies baked, you could write your letter to those cousins, while you sit at the kitchen table, so that it’s easy for you to jump up and turn the trays around; and while the cookies cooled, you could get the curtains dried and mended and ironed, or whatever the hell you had to do to the curtains. I don’t know if people actually launder their curtains, I’ve never laundered a curtain in my life. I’ve certainly never ironed a curtain.
No, wait. I take it back. At our last apartment, I did have little curtains in the kitchen windows that I did launder from time to time, because they did show dirt. But in ten years of having those curtains, I think they were laundered three times. This really wasn’t something that nagged at me, and god knows I didn’t iron them. So. I stand corrected, but only a little bit.
Anyhow: at the end of the three or four hours, the cookies will be cooling on racks by the window, the curtains will be taken care of, the letter will be written, and, ok, I don’t know what to do about the skirt, but presumably you’ve managed to get that taken care of, too. Is hemming a skirt hard? Damned if I know. But even if you haven’t finished every single item on the to-do list, you’ve definitely got the majority of them licked, which is impressive. In fact, it means (if you ask me) that you’ve earned the right to throw yourself on the couch with the magazine of your choice and have some cookies (screw the Bluebirds, they won’t notice if a few cookies are missing from the foil-lined shoebox of cookies) and relax for ten minutes before you pick the kids up at school
In the case of my day, I got the phone call from the plumber at 1.25 and ran to meet him at the rental. The problem with the sink took about 45 minutes to fix — not a big deal, we got lucky – and I managed to have some time after that was taken care and before I had to pick my daughter up at school. I wrote an email to the tenants explaining that their problem was, we hope, solved, and that everything else seems fine. I wrote email to other people in an attempt to clarify or solve Good Works-related problems. I was, basically, productive in a small way, not a visible way (the floor is still covered with cat hair, crumbs, and little bits of random crud), but in ways that had to happen. I picked up my daughter at school, brought her home, gave her a snack, and proceeded to make a fine dinner. The day ended and we all tumbled into bed weary and listening to the rain pounding.
But when we woke up today, the sun was shining. And I’m on my way to do Good Works in person. Maybe next Monday I will take a mental health day. (Who am I kidding.)