The work of “Life Admin”

I recently read Elizabeth Emen’s 2019 book The Art of Life Admin. Well, perhaps inhaled is a better verb to describe what I did with it. I got it out of the public library on OverDrive and read it while travelling with my four kids and husband during the Easter school holidays. This travel to visit family and friends in our respective North Island hometowns is a feat which requires a considerable amount of what Emens calls life admin. For example, how do I plan and organise to get a family of 6 to and from regional airports and bus stations that have no bookable maxi taxis or car rentals that seat more than 5? Or should we attempt driving, although the cost is considerably higher to take the car across on the ferry? How do you adequately pack enough clothes and baby gear but keep to carry on only for each child, within a weight range than can reasonably lug around themselves and could fit in the back of a 7 seater car, or on their laps? How do you negotiate diets and meal times for a family of six with various allergies in someone else’s house? These are the mundane admin jobs that have been occupying my mind of late.

And this is the point, really. These mundane admin jobs are jobs and they definitely take up mental energy and real time. Becoming a family of six has required a real ‘level up’ in terms of administration, partly because the country seems to be designed for smaller families. I knew this already — I have friends with 4 or 5 kids and I know I avoid family catchups because it’s too much work to think about keeping everyone entertained and fed! Having a family spread over 13 years also requires an insane level of life admin, since at one end I’m keeping track of menstrual supplies and the other end, nappies, with all the activities in between that occupy kids. After reading Emen’s book, I have tried to get through a few bits of life admin, and to recognise life admin as a thing that requires time and energy to do — it cannot just be pushed into the margins to do whenever.

Bullet journalling has been my go to strategy at work, and I have tried to incorporate more life admin into it. I recently created a habit tracker to track my baby’s sleep and feeds over several weeks, because  I could not identify a pattern and was finding it hard to work out whether and when I could hand him over to stay at home dad for sleeps. I also have added daily life admin tasks to my to do list: calling to get quotes for windshield replacement; sorting out a box of baby clothes (or delegating this…); booking in a ropes course for my daughter’s birthday; sitting down with the family budget with my husband; picking blood test results; ordering the washing powder that doesn’t wreck the nappies; listing too-small baby items on trade me… the list is endless, but if I do one or two things a day maybe it will get less overwhelming?

Here’s some things I’ve learned so far:

  1. Emens is right when she says Admin is sticky. If we start doing it we may continue doing it. But if we make it visible, we may also negotiate it. My husband had never really considered that with each of our other children I had, every 2 to 3 months, sorted all the baby clothes, stored some for future children, gave some away, found the next size up in storage, did the rounds of the other mums to get extra things I needed second hand, gave measurements of foot size and head size to crocheting and knitting relatives, purchased anything else we might need. This time round, I clearly said “this is what needs to be done, and it is not my job”. He has begun it, and done it in his own way and his own sweet time, but not my problem.
  2. Which brings me to the next point: delegating requires letting go. Whether it is delegating a task to a partner, a relative, or a child, there is definitely a process of letting it go and letting it get done differently. Occasionally I have panics over this or step in (I recently went through the family budget myself after years of delegating it; I do have to clean the bath once every few months since my kids don’t really prevent the mould build up with their less-is-best cleaning methods…). But for the most part, I am enough of a reluctant organiser to be comfortable with letting things go.
  3. Organising doesn’t make you friends or win you appreciation. My kids hate me on Saturday, when I oversee chores, meal planning, food purchasing. They just want me to do it invisibly and not to have to be involved. But they each have to choose a meal that fits with our vege supplies, and those that can write have to help write the shopping list. It’s kinda sweetened by being allowed to choose something for lunch from the supermarket deli but not really. My spouse appreciates this intellectually, but also doesn’t really enjoy having to make decisions about blind colours and insulation qualities, or pay out money for ring resizing or insurance.
  4. Which brings me to my next point: life admin actually costs money. I have realised as I have been getting my to do list nailed that it costs more. I realised that sometimes I am putting things off because I don’t actually have enough money: I got my wedding rings resized and my great grandmother’s ring repaired and it cost more than $300. Ouch. I organised quotes for the windscreen and realised we couldn’t afford it right now. I actually think we have saved a lot of money over the years by just avoiding these things….but then, meal planning and so on probably saves us money. And making sure we get better mortgage rates. And applying for state entitlements like Working for Families.
  5. The more stretched your budget is, the more life admin required. The amount of energy I put into working out a way to be at home with my baby and still get an income for the rest of the family was a lot. The amount of time to get the cheapest deal or to do some household renovation task yourself is huge. The time and energy planning for ‘fun’ activities with no funds is not small. And also, people want more from you. Applying for community services cards or the like involves form filling and bureaucrat chasing admin, for example. Rich people don’t do that.

It’s worth it though. Getting stuff done does make me feel good, and competent and adult. And exhausted. It really does never end. But trying to cultivate some enjoyment in crossing things off my to do list makes up for the energy required to actually think of a to do list. What I want to explore next is the ways that this kind of life admin is involved in everyday environmental activism.

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