Anne Helen Petersen, CAN'T EVEN

Anne Helen Petersen, CAN'T EVEN

Zibby Owens: Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Anne Helen Petersen: Of course. Oh, my gosh, look at your beautiful library.

Zibby: Thank you. Pride and joy.

Anne: It’s great that you can have it as your background on your Zoom call so that more people can see it.

Zibby: It’s true. I know. The rest of this pandemic, I’ve been out on Long Island. I ordered a bookcase because I had nothing to showcase books at all. This is my whole built-in library. I was like, what a waste, all those months. Anyway, congratulations on Can’t Even. So exciting. I saw you were all dolled up on Instagram, which is always nice to be able to — .

Anne: It was honestly the first time that I’ve done the full deal since May when I had to do a video appearance for an Adobe conference or something. I didn’t recognize myself. I was like, what is happening? I actually think I should do it for no reason a little bit more often because it reminds me of a different face that I have.

Zibby: Tell listeners, please, what Can’t Even is about and how it was based off of an article. What made you want to write it? I know it flowed out of you. I know you talked about it in the book. It just came out of your fingers. Tell us a little more about how it all got started.

Anne: I was really, really burnt out. This was the fall of 2018 leading up to and then after the midterm election. I think I had been burnt out for a really long time. It’s just that I refused to recognize what I was feeling as being burnt out. I was like, this is just how I work. I had reached a point where I was getting mad at my editors and crying. One of my editors was like, “You’re burnt out. You need to take some time.” I was like, “No.” I had taken two days, Monday and Tuesday before Thanksgiving. Of course I didn’t need any more time. The thing that I thought was wrong with me is that I couldn’t figure out how to do my errands, just the pettily stuff at the bottom of your to-do list. I just couldn’t do it. I was like, I’ll research that. I’ll figure out what’s going on with that. As I researched it, I was like, oh, yeah, I’m totally burnt out. All roads led to burnout.

Zibby: By the way, the things that you mention in the book on your to-do list that you weren’t getting to, they don’t even make it onto my list. The things you were beating yourself up about, I’m like, resoling my shoes? What? No. It’s not even in the realm of possibilities. The fact that you even had it on a list I think was a step up.

Anne: I love these boots. I want to wear these boots for the rest of my life. They need to get resoled. Otherwise, the cobbler gives you dirty looks when you bring them in. I don’t want the scorn of the cobbler. All signs pointed to burnout. Still, the diagnosis of burnout as it was clinically described did not match what I was feeling exactly. Clinically, they usually describe it as collapse. I wasn’t collapsing. I was still going. I wanted to try to figure out how to maybe expand that definition to describe a more societal instead of just clinical diagnosis. I try to look at my own life and where I had learned to work all the time and really internalized that ethos and then extrapolated a little bit more onto the rest of my generation. It was a personal essay that was long. I thought that it would function like a lot of personal essays, a couple ten thousand people would read it. That was not the case. Seven million people read it. When I thought of the idea that I expand it into a book, it was really straightforward to expand it both in terms of historical rooting to look what happened in the economy and in changes in childrearing patterns and all that sort of thing in the post-war period that affected our parents and burnt out boomer parents, and then also expand it way past myself and try to decenter that white, middle-class experience that I had.

Zibby: You talked in the book about a lot of your own, as you mentioned, personal stuff. It started as a personal essay. Then you sprinkled in just a lot of experiences of your own like your parents’ divorce. Tell me about how that exemplified this burnout, how systemic things in the environment and culture led to burnout culture now.

Anne: I read this really interesting book by Katherine Newman. It was published in, I think, the early nineties. It was about all of these different ways that boomer families oftentimes tried to compensate for ways that they were falling out of the middle class. So many boomer families, they had grown up in homes that had become middle class for the first time in the post-war period. Then just as boomers were entering the workplace in the 1970s, that economic stability started to disintegrate through a series of rolling recessions. You had these families — she follows this one family, I remember, that had been a Wall Street banker, got laid off, but still lived at that level even though he was laid off because they didn’t know how to live any other way but middle class, and went into significant credit card debt. I think that story will be familiar to anyone who’s had financial insecurity but cannot fathom not living the way that they’re living. I don’t mean lavishly, necessarily, but just having the accoutrements of middle-class lifestyles, so a house that you own instead of rent. If you’re living in a city, this is different. A house, cars, new clothes and gadgets and stuff for your kids, computers. There are ways that you could be so much more thrifty and really decrease your cost-of-living footprint, but that is unfathomable once you’ve come to that middle class. It’s a real psychological burden to shift classes, to go downward.

To connect this to my parents’ divorce, she has this whole chapter that is about what happened to women who got divorced during this period. They have incredible downward mobility because a lot of these boomer women stopped their jobs. This was one of the first generations that went, en masse, into the job market, but then many of them had taken a step back from the job market in order to raise their children and allowed their husbands’ careers to take precedence. When they got divorced, whether the kids are in elementary school or in junior high, the income — the wife doesn’t necessarily have a career and can’t restart her career where she left it or didn’t have one in the first place. The husband still has a career and can just continue going on. They’re living in two different houses, but they have to pay rent for two different spaces. The income level of that secondary house — usually, the kids would either be primarily custody with their mom or splitting custody. The experience of being a kid in one of those households, it just teaches you as a millennial, as a gen Xer, it teaches you a lot of lessons about, this is what happens if you don’t have a plan for yourself at all times, if you don’t know how to work at all times. At any moment, this marriage could go under and you could find yourself financially afloat. I certainly internalized that idea. I tried to expand on it in the book.

Zibby: I know at the end you say you don’t want to give an overwhelming list of tips and that those are kind of useless also. You do such a good job of outlining the hurdles. I feel like you did it with some — you were sort of pissed off writing this book.

Anne: Oh, yeah.

Zibby: You were, not venting because it was so well-articulated, but it was more just like you’re angry at the situation. You feel that there is sort of no way out unless everybody changes everything. That’s tough. What do you think can actually help, or are you doomed?

Anne: No, I don’t think we’re doomed. I don’t think that every last thing about our lives have to change. We don’t have to leave our homes. I just think that there are palliative things that we can do in our own lives to decrease our own personal burnout. You can try to institute better borders between the workspace and the rest of your life. You can have better digital hygiene in terms of, I delete Twitter off my phone on the weekend or whatever. All of those things are Band-Aids, ultimately, if you’re fighting against this larger system that is broken. It is always going to be the stronger force. The burnout inherent to that system is going to swallow you no matter what armor you put on to resist it. I think that there are those smaller things that we can each individually do. As a society, I hope that that anger and that frustration is contagious because I think that as millennials we have been taught to, despite our reputation, to kind of put our head down and be like, I guess I just need to work all the time. This is just my life. Instead, we can look at our lives and say, it doesn’t have to be this way. How can we together say that loudly and then also decide that we want change, not just incremental change, but societal change?

Zibby: What’s something in your dream scenario here, not to put you on the spot, that if society were to change — I know you reference everything from pensions and social security and parental burnout. I know there’s a lot of stuff. What’s one thing, maybe, that could happen that could make things better?

Anne: Mandatory paternity leave. We don’t even have mandatory maternity leave. The chapter on parenting burnout, I think anyone who reads the book will see just how angry all of these moms are. They’re just so tired and so angry. There’s a lot of resentment. A lot of it has to do with the fact that you’re doing all of these things that society has told you to do to be a good mom. Then you also just feel like in your home, in your heterosexual home, that it is really difficult to find anything close to an equitable labor split even with the most progressive of husbands or the most feminist of husbands. One thing that has been shown in other countries and to some extent in the US to actually sustain equitable splits of labor in the long term is if a father stays home for an extended period of time by himself with kids. What that does is it teaches fathers everything that has to be done in order to take care of children and run a household. That is something on a societal level that we could do to pretty radically reorganize the way that labor is split in the home that could have ramifications across society. Then also, government subsidized and funded affordable childcare would be a huge thing. Every parent I know is stressed out about finding reliable care. This is even pre-COVID. Reliable, affordable care, it’s really, really hard. Other countries have shown it’s doable. It takes a huge burden off of parents.

Zibby: I’m still trying to digest the idea of mandatory paternity leave. This will sound very antifeminist of me. As a mom of four, I actually wanted to be with my kids. I don’t know that I could’ve been like, all right, honey, I’m taking off two weeks postpartum. I don’t know what I’m going to do, but you’re —

Anne: — Not two weeks postpartum. A lot of places that do this, it’s maybe from year one to year two, or year one to eighteen months, or eighteen months to two. It doesn’t have to be in those early times. It’s more just, it teaches — it’s not like the mom, necessarily, would have to go back to work, or if they don’t work in a traditional setting or something like that. They can do anything that they want as long as the male is primarily responsible for keeping the child alive.

Zibby: And not call it babysitting.

Anne: Exactly. You’re not babysitting your own kid.

Zibby: Even in your introduction, it was interesting because you were saying you don’t even expect jobs to last. You don’t even have the expectations that were for so many of us, assumptions. Now you don’t even have them. I feel like I don’t know how you would maintain any sort of positive outlook and inner equilibrium if you felt that there was no true hope. I know there are things societally we can do. Aside from you getting up and running for president, which maybe you’ve thought of —

Anne: — No, no, no.

Zibby: I feel like there’s still potential for joy and happiness in the context of societal frustration. I feel like I’m trying to make you feel better because I felt like you were so upset in the book. Now I feel like I’m answering your upset-ness.

Anne: I think the problem with burnout is it swallows joy. It swallows all of those moments that — for me, I knew how to find serendipitous moments of happiness in the corners of my life and that sort of thing. I think that both my exhaustion and then the way that we come to rely on our phones and Instagram as crutches during those moments, it takes your best intentions and cannibalizes them. That is the frustration. I was very careful to always ask all the parents that I interviewed for the book, I was like, “Tell me all these things that you’re frustrated about, but also tell me the thing that makes you so happy about parenting.” A lot of them were like, “There are all these things that I love about being a parent and I love about my kids. Because of all of these other stresses, all of these other instabilities, it makes it so hard to focus on those things.” What I think a burnout cure does is it offers relief from those sources of precarity that rob you of your ability to feel just genuine, simple joy.

Zibby: Speaking of genuine, simple joy, you must have had some of that when you saw that you had seven million views of your article.

Anne: It was very gradual. It accumulated over the course of several months. It’s a weird thing to go viral on that level. One thing about burnout and about, I think, what a lot of millennials — our experience is that there’s not a lot of space to feel even those ups and downs. The way I try to describe burnout is that everything, the highs and lows, vacations, non-vacations, everything flattens. There’s a lot that bears similarity to some symptoms of depression. Also, if you’re just trying to get through every day, it’s hard to feel catharsis. I think back wistfully all the time about my time in college when you would study so hard for a final and then take the final, and then you’d be like, and I’m done, just that incredible release. You’d always get sick. I would always get sick.

Zibby: I would always get sick, yes.

Anne: Your body is letting down its defenses. Then I would go home. This is a very rarified, privileged experience to be able to go home. I didn’t have to work over break. I would just sleep so much and recover. Then it would be long enough of a total break that I would come back to school and be just so excited to be back. You really have that moment of incredibly hard work, achievement and catharsis, recovery, and return. How many of us have anything approximating that in our lives?

Zibby: I will tell you, I got divorced six years ago now or something like that. I split custody. I have more of it. Every other long weekend, I don’t have my kids. In my head, I know that I have a point now where I actually can relax and get sick and do all that stuff, which I didn’t have for years and years. My oldest kids are thirteen. No, I guess I wasn’t divorced six years ago. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. The point is, that was introduced into my life after many, many years of stay-at-home parenting. I was like, oh, my gosh, I finally have this little break from the rainstorm for just a few days so I can catch my breath. I found that I came back as a far stronger mom. If we’re going to put our little wish lists out there for how to help society, I don’t think mandatory divorce is the answer, but —

Anne: — That’s the problem. If the only way for you to get those moments is a divorce, that shows that something is wrong.

Zibby: That’s true. More evolved couples, perhaps, could’ve had some sort of — I don’t know. I think you’re right. I’ll just get away from my own situation. Having the breaks now has been absolutely lifesaving to me. I don’t think I could even have this whole creative pursuit in my life and all this stuff without the sleep and the regeneration. Not to brag.

Anne: Totally. You’re not alone. Also, other parents have told me that they want to be better, more patient parents. If you’re so tired, you’re just kind of at this baseline of annoyance. You don’t like the sort of parent that you become. That’s hard. I find that sometimes in my relationship where I’m like, I’m not being the partner that I want to be right now. How do I try to fix that? Usually, it’s take a nap.

Zibby: I remember in college when I would get so worn out and so tired from studying and all this stuff and I’d be like, should I take a nap or should I go to the gym? Should I take a nap or should I go to the gym? I was like, I don’t know, I only have thirty-five minutes. Now I have thirty-four minutes. Now I only have thirty-two minutes. Let me try to take a nap. Oh, no, now I can’t sleep.

Anne: That’s the thing. This is such a great example of the optimized way that we approach our time. When you’re like, I have thirty minutes to nap, that’s the only time I have a nap, and it becomes such an overdetermined, like, I have to nap right now, that I can’t nap ever because you’re like, I have to do this thing right now. It doesn’t work.

Zibby: This is why I never nap. This is literally it. Unless I am so tired that I somehow just basically fall over or I’m reading to a kid or I’m reading to myself and next thing I know all the lights are on and I’m sound asleep. Yes, that’s a problem.

Anne: When your body tells you. Your body forces you to say, it doesn’t matter if you don’t have time for this.

Zibby: Naptime, ready or not, here we come. Oh, my gosh, that’s funny. You have Can’t Even out there, which is so exciting. What are your ambitions now? Do you want to be political? Not necessarily the president. Do you want to try to affect societal change? Do you want to keep writing? Do you want to focus on this? What do you think?

Anne: I’m not a policymaker. I like reading other people’s policy suggestions, but that’s not my expertise. People have a lot of expertise in that area, and familiarity. My PhD is in media studies. I love reading history and synthesizing ideas and trying to figure out what’s going on. Why are we acting in the way that we are acting? I guess you could call that examining ideologies of a given moment, that sort of thing. I think that my next project is going to do with work from home and the brave new world of hybrid working from home and how you can prevent it from sucking your life into it. It could be a real way to even become more burnt out or it can help us think about how to reorient our lives away from work, which might be revelatory. Still trying to think through some of the first steps on that.

Zibby: I love that. I actually have found with so much more stuff going on at home that all of the stress of logistics and running around has taken a big burden off. I have all this extra time and energy now that I’m not racing from place to place and figuring out how to get all my kids there. Now it’s like, okay, you do your thing right there.

Anne: I used to travel so much for work and for speaking stuff and that sort of thing. I think for a lot of people who have been slowed down by the pandemic generally — obviously, when we can start moving around a little bit, I’m going on a vacation, having our actual vacation as soon as possible. I can’t see myself returning to that level of franticness. It’s one of the small silver linings of all of this, is some perspective.

Zibby: It’s true. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Anne: This is what people always say, but I really think sometimes you get really precious about writing and are like, I have to be in the right place. It has to be the right kind of writing. It needs to be good as it comes out. I am a big proponent of just barfing on the page and then coming back and editing. Write a lot.

Zibby: Awesome. Thank you. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” and for our little therapy over anger and society and divorce and all the rest. Congratulations again on your book coming out.

Anne: Thank you so much. This was great.

Zibby: Bye.

Anne: Bye.

Anne Helen Petersen, CAN'T EVEN