By Jenny Allen - Yesterday, watching the news while using the
elliptical machine at the gym, I tried to speed up my pace by...turning up the
volume on the TV. I do it all the time. I also regularly forget to unplug my
headset before walking away, treating my fellow gymgoers to the spectacle of my
jerking to a sudden, yanked stop.
I never laughed when people used to joke about President Gerald Ford not
being able to walk and chew gum at the same time, because I didn't really find
it that funny. I actually can walk and chew gum at the same time. But, truly, I
understand why others might find it taxing. When it comes to multitasking, I am
more competent only by a hair, and sometimes not even that.
Your best-selling book The Year of Magical Thinking chronicles your grief
following the loss of your husband, John. What surprised you most about
I did not expect the degree of derangement-both physiological and mental. An
example of the latter: Two weeks after John died, when I filled out a hospital
form for the autopsy report, I gave not my own address but that of an apartment
in which we had lived for the first four or five months of our marriage, in
More than once, I've found myself standing in my bedroom closet holding,
say, a screwdriver and a cup of coffee, as clueless as a sleepwalker about what
I am doing there. And I cannot answer the phone while writing an e-mail without
sending the message to the wrong person-or calling the person on the phone by
the name of the person I'm e-mailing.
Obviously, I am especially unsuited for multitasking; but I would argue
that, while most of us are doing it, none of us is doing it very well.
If you are playing a family board game while making cookies for your block's
bake sale, are you really playing a board game with your family, or driving
everyone crazy by jumping up to check the oven every five minutes? Why have
women signed on to do so many things at once? We don't, after all, expect men
to multitask. A man lying on the sofa reading the newspaper is busy. A woman
lying on the sofa reading the newspaper is underemployed and interruptible-a
signal her family picks up because she herself sends it out. We seem to
consider ourselves unworthy unless we make ourselves available to our family
and others all of the time-and there's no way to do that without cramming every
minute with two or three chores.
Consider the opening scene of a movie (I'm making up the scene, but we've
all watched similar ones): A woman drives a car full of noisy children to
school while soothing her harried boss on the phone while cooing at the baby
who's spit up in his car seat. This scene is not the premise of the movie that
follows, which is always about something else-extraterrestrials visiting the
woman's suburb or her husband's affair with his 20-year-old assistant or
whatever. This scene is there to show us life as usual before everything goes
kerblooey-Mom having a normal American day in contrast to the chaos soon to
befall her. But entire movies have been built around the premise of Dad having
this same day (because Mom died, or went to visit her sister). And these movies
are considered hilarious. Dad wiping up baby spit while talking to the boss on
the phone-how sidesplitting!
Of course, we women do not do ourselves any favors: "How do you do so
much!" we compliment each other. And: "I wish I could juggle as many
balls as you!" I think we should stop giving each other points for wearing
ourselves to a nubbin, stop comparing ourselves unfavorably to frantic
acquaintances who cannot sit still, even for a moment. Let them careen along at
hyperspeed while we stay in the slow lane. Maybe, when they get tired enough,
they will join us. We'll have them over for a night of our kind of
multitasking: doing our nails, say, while watching something really dumb on
television. Better yet, just watching something dumb on television. We'll call
it unitasking and invite others to join our new club.
Reprinted with permission from Hearst Communications, Inc.