She was home alone.
Her husband was working. The kids were at Grandpa’s. She had 24 hours to herself and she had planned every minute of it.
“The clock was ticking and I wanted to make the most of it,” she said.
She left the house for the farmers’ market. She returned home and exercised “with the stereo on really, really loud.” She showered and left again, this time to shop for clothes. She returned and fixed the kind of lunch she could never fix for her boys - arugula salad with olive oil and salt.
She read the newspapers. She worked in the garden. She opened a bottle of wine. She read. She rolled into bed when she was ready.
“All day I had these spasms of panic. I was feeling like I had to wrap things up and get dinner for the kids, or whatever. It was like a tic, a knee jerk. Then I would realize that I didn’t have to stop.
“When I knew I would be home alone, I thought really hard about what I wanted to do. I had it planned down to the second. It wasn’t spontaneous. It was very premeditated, but no less enjoyable.”
Being home alone is a favorite theme in the fantasy life of a woman.
As she attends to the needs of others, she daydreams about pampering herself. Running to keep the schedules set by her husband and children, she wonders what it would be like to ignore the clock for a day. Interrupted continually by the sound of her other names - “Mom” or “Honey” - she wonders what it would be like to complete a task.
It is rare that a woman gets to live out this fantasy, but it is always at the front of her mind because if you ask her what she would do with an afternoon, an evening or a day to herself, she doesn’t have to think before she tells you how she would spend every minute.
“A cup of tea and a book,” my friend Nan says without pausing to draw a breath. “I would not use the time to catch up on chores unless somehow it was desperate. I would rather enjoy the serenity.”
Betsy likes to think she would use the time productively. “I’d file 10 years of papers, clean the attic and the basement, paint the upstairs. I’d tear out the rug on the back porch, wash all the windows and make a really good dinner.”
Yeah. Right. What would she really do?
“Go to bed.”
There seems to be a split, among women and within each woman, between doing the chores that nag her conscience, the things that have been on her list of things to do for years, and pursuing the little indulgences that are written on the private list she keeps.
Clean out a closet or read a book. Exercise or sort 10 years of family pictures. Shop for clothes or sort through the pile of papers on her desk. Make a pot of soup or wash bedclothes. Work in the garden or wash windows.
If she is truthful, she will tell you that any of these tasks is pleasurable if you know you won’t have to stop in the middle of doing them to make someone a grilled cheese sandwich or drive someone to a practice or separate rivaling siblings.
Doing nothing or doing chores, the women whose fantasies I collected were also doing things they can’t do in front of the rest of the family: listening to music their mate hates, renting movies in which the characters talk about relationships or wear period costumes, eating foods the children would never touch, packing away neglected toys, collecting stuff for a trip to Goodwill.
“I’d put all my husband’s stuff outside on the lawn and have an addition built over it,” says Pat, with triumph in her voice.
Everyone said she would read. No one wanted to talk on the phone. There was a bottle of wine in almost everyone’s fantasy.
Women more than men struggle with the idea of taking time for themselves.
They do not want to appear selfish so, lists in hand, they do and do and do for others until there is no time and no energy to do for themselves. Women struggle with the work ethic that won’t let them read a mystery until the house is picked up.
But present a woman with a chunk of time - the husband and kids are gone for the afternoon or for the day - and she will fill that time with the chores or pleasures she has been saving for just such an opportunity.
Dutiful to the last, she can’t bring herself to waste a day at home alone.