“Just sit and think?” the journalist asked, incredulous. She called me because a while back, I wrote a story about the power of niksen (that’s Dutch for “doing nothing”).
The idea of just sitting there and not doing anything was mind-boggling to her. She couldn’t even imagine it. But something must have resonated with people all over the world. To my great surprise, the article went viral.
“You started a trend,” she told me.
I was skeptical. I’d just come back from grocery shopping, my trolley full and heavy, my head swirling with deadlines. And I was tired of taking care of three children, a house, managing a business, and just trying to survive. I’ve also never been trendy so why would I start now?
While Americans work long hours and rarely take holidays, the reluctance to appear lazy applies to people all over the world, and women especially. Even if they worked fewer paid hours, it didn’t translate into more free time for them to enjoy.
A good woman, we think, is one who works from morning till evening. It’s even in the Bible: “First thing in the morning, she dresses for work, rolls up her sleeves, eager to get started. She senses the worth of her work, is in no hurry to call it quits for the day.”
While women have been expected to work, raise children, and take care of the house since forever, the pressures on them are not decreasing. On the contrary, we’re now expected to not just “have it all” but “do it all” too. This causes us to drink and become burned out, or even depressed. And a pandemic is not helping.
In response to this crisis, trends have come and gone, many of them putting the burden of finding the solution on the women themselves. Let’s take wellness, for example. Women are much more invested in self-help not because there’s something intrinsically wrong with them, but because society tells them they should constantly be doing something to better themselves mentally or physically: exercise, shopping, meditating, or jade rolling. I had no idea the latter was even a thing.
Women are told to engage in self-care not for their own sake but so that they can better serve others. You know, the thing about putting your oxygen mask on first before you can assist someone else. Except we don’t even get an oxygen mask.
When we’re not working or engaging in self-care, we can go shopping, or make an appointment at the beautician’s because these are acceptable things a woman is allowed to do with her free time. Sitting around doing nothing is not.
If we see a man sitting on the couch, we say he’s Thinking Big, Important Thoughts or resting. But a woman in the same situation would be defined by the things she is not doing: Being with her kids. Working. Cleaning. Exercising or in other words, working on bettering herself in some way.
Expectations on women’s work are higher than ever. Whatever we do, it has to be better, our houses cleaner, our children better-dressed and behaved. There is a refrain in the head of every woman which goes “I should be better. I should do more.”
As a result, women of all ages are experiencing exhaustion in great numbers. While work burnout affects women more than men, we are also experiencing the same issues from taking care of our families.
On top of that, women all over the world suffered tremendous guilt if they felt they weren’t being productive or if they weren’t spending all their free time on improving themselves.
But we all deserve breaks. Even my amazing mom loves nothing more than to lie down and do nothing for a while. And the same goes for me. I am anything but lazy. You don’t get published in the New York Times if you’re not willing to put in the work required to improve your writing.
But very often, when asked what I’m doing I’ll respond “nothing,” and it would be the truth. I refuse to feel guilty about it not just because I know taking real breaks helps my creativity and mental health but simply because I believe everyone deserves a break.
Women are not lazy. They do paid work, emotional work, housework, self-improvement work. They do all the work and they’re exhausted.
Luckily, the tide is slowly changing. As Amy Odell pointed out in Cosmopolitan, being lazy has become a feminist issue, and especially young women are now totally owning their laziness by dressing comfortably or expressing their disdain for exercise.
The pandemic has forced us to realize more than ever that societies are built on the shoulders of women. We worked harder than ever before, caring for children in distance-learning situations, keeping everyone in the family safe and healthy while trying to work from home, and worrying about our elderly parents. Now that we’re slowly, so slowly getting out of the pandemic, we deserve a break. Not a faux break that’s really about having to improve ourselves. But a real one. To daydream, read a book, or just lie down and do nothing.
Olga Mecking’s book, “Niksen. Embracing the Dutch Art of Doing Nothing,” is available on Amazon and everywhere books are sold.