Reality Bites. A Chronicle on Time, Productivity and COVID-19


I was meant to have written this article at least a week ago. I do so now with a mixture of urgency and anxiety, and wonder how far I’ll manage to get before dinner. As I type, I force myself not to look at the washing up that’s been accumulating since midday or the heap of clothes nobody remembered to fold and put away. I ignore the shouts of ‘Mum!’ coming from the other side of the door of my bedroom, where I do my writing, because I suspect that each ‘Mum!’ conceals a cruel question about the characteristics of eukaryotic cells or the proper spelling of numbers more than twelve digits long. And I make a superhuman effort to mentally block out the voice of my husband, who’s doing an Instagram interview for the news site he works for in the kitchen.

I myself have dozens of unread WhatsApp messages. Amid the barrage of jokes, audio, video, and information of dubious veracity, I know that messages await from teachers complaining of homework that hasn’t been turned in, worried or confused mothers, friends who have more free time than I do, relatives who want to know how we’re getting on, and colleagues who require urgent responses. I force myself to keep them in suspense for a while longer, whilst expending an even greater effort not to open any social media, the new Tamagotchis (hello, 90s kids and teens) demanding my attention and feeding off of the time I dedicate to them with large doses of guilt.

I think about that, about our relationship with time. As a translator, much of my work is measured economically based on the number of hours invested or assigned, and my productivity depends on how effectively I manage that time. Time and productivity are inextricably intertwined terms. And our relationship with both of them tends to be fraught with conflict. Insufficient time is a recurring problem for those of us who do piecework, with deadlines and urgent requests.

When coronavirus became a pandemic and Argentina began to apply social distancing and isolation measures, I had a fragile feeling of calm. I could keep working as always; my routine wouldn’t change all that much. I knew that, with my children at home, concentrating would be a serious challenge, but I could consider myself privileged: I wasn’t required to go out, and I wasn’t going to be out of work. I didn’t even have to think all that much about what was going on outside. Being shut in wasn’t an issue. My pre-quarantine routine already included a significant amount of ‘self-isolation’. My life took place more inside than out. With apologies for the serious exaggeration, I liked to think that, if there was one segment of the population who were really prepared to handle preventive, mandatory social isolation, it would be workers in the translation field. ‘Translators of the world, just do your thing’, was the call.

In point of fact, this naive, self-centered optimism didn’t last very long. I wasn’t wrong about one thing: My work obligations hardly changed at all. However, concentrating got harder every day. Everything was disjointed, out of place. New obligations joined the already-existing mountain of domestic obligations. I had to make sure the kids carried on studying and had something resembling a routine. Homework assignments multiplied. We had to establish new schedules and make our computers available so that our children could meet their obligations. Nor could we just leave them alone – they needed help. We have to be with them, accompany them. Quarantine isn’t a holiday, we’re reminded time and again. We know.

Adjustments are necessary, and there are lots of them. At home: We have to deal with home as well, of course. Clearing, washing, disinfecting. Isolating it from the virus, that invisible enemy lurking around every corner. The discourse of the authorities, the media, and of common sense is full of warlike metaphors. This is a war and we’re all soldiers. The enemy we must fight is inside our bodies. Wherever we go, it comes along. To win the battle, we need to isolate ourselves and obey, keep ourselves informed, know what’s allowed and what isn’t, reorganize in order to be able to do our shopping, take precautions. Take action, keep busy. Don’t let uncertainty win. Cook, but don’t get fat. Do yoga, work out, participate in some kind of virtual workshop. Take advantage of the time.

Who has time to take advantage of? I wonder, enraged. I get angry a lot. I notice this, and try to turn off the news. I hardly use social media. ‘The only thing you can do with time is waste it. But since the quarantine was imposed, it’s as if there’s some imperative not to waste time now that we have so much of it,’ I read in some article or other. ‘The idea that we can’t waste our time is one big neurotic illusion,’ another informs me. Productivity as a commandment, yet again. I find an article by Mariana Enríquez, one of my favorite writers, and I make note of one sentence: ‘I bristle at this demand for productivity when all I feel is turmoil.’

From feminist theorists, I learned that there is something known as time poverty, which can be measured as a function of gender and disproportionately affects women. In Latin America, women spend thrice as much time on unpaid domestic and care work as men. ‘It is important for women’s time not to become – as it has done throughout history – an adjustment factor that states utilize to confront the crisis and the new economic landscape,’ warns the UN Economic Commission for Latin America in relation to the pandemic. Reading this, I’m reminded of Virginia Woolf and the illusion of A Room of One’s Own. And I remember what Emily Dickinson once wrote: God keep me from what they call households. I wonder what Emily might have written about this quarantine.

The days go by. We’ve been in isolation for more than a month now. More than enough time to assume that my case is not an exception, and that we female translators (the overwhelming majority of the profession) were not all that prepared for this. Is it easier for those without children? I speak with a colleague, a female friend of mine who lives alone. ‘There are days when everything’s an uphill battle. I used to call it a day at 5 or 6 PM and go out for some fresh air, or to do other things, see people, to lighten up a bit. Now I’m alone with myself all the time. I can’t just turn off.’ She’s not having a better time than I am.

Not long before the pandemic, I had read Chez soi, a collection of essays by Swiss writer Mona Chollet. My purchase of the book now appears prescient. She writes about privacy, private use of time and space, the privilege of solitude. It interested me because I agree with the need to revalue domestic space and voluntary seclusion. I know that I share this feeling with many of my colleagues: No-one who hates the idea of being shut in could last long in a profession that requires one to work long hours at home. I never had trouble with that. To the contrary, I found going out harder and harder. However, in the last few weeks, I discovered that staying inside is only enjoyable if there’s an outside; the certainty that this outside, to which we can return when being at home starts to feel suffocating, really exists. More than ever, the suspension of that option and the transfer of productivity to domestic space make clear the ambivalent relationship the vast majority of women have with private space. An invisibilised territory, the home was historically a space reserved for the feminine universe, where the relations of oppression were reproduced and consolidated, where time can stretch out like chewing gum or take over our lives. Like Shirley Jackson’s Hill House, the home can be a refuge or a monster.

It would be better if I wrapped this up here. This is no time for the big questions. I only have two certainties: I can’t carry on as if nothing has changed, nor can I abandon everything and await collapse. I’ll have to carry on with the same uncertainty, but with fewer demands, to negotiate household duties and responsibilities, and try not to succumb entirely to the productivity imperative.

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