We all know about Man Caves—those dens of masculinity you see in beer commercials where men go to retreat from the world of women and their talk of shoes, children, and equal pay. Men need to withdraw sometimes: I totally understand…even though the Madison Avenue Man Cave brand of manliness has a veneer of the clubhouse about it. We’ve all seen those commercials featuring a place where men watch a giant TV with other men and eat fatty snacks in big chairs.
Historically, men who wanted some alone time could take over a spare bedroom and make it into a study or build a workshop in the garage or a cabin in the forest, all with very little guilt. The thing all these manly spaces have, both solitary and social, is a societal acceptability that many women have come to envy.
If you’re a woman, and especially if you’re a mom, you might feel the need to be available to everyone 24 hours a day. I feel this acutely. When my son was a baby and I was the one with the breastmilk and the broken pump, there was no time off for me. And now that he’s 13 years old, when he comes down with a stomach flu at 2 a.m., it’s my name he yells as he runs, puking, to the toilet.
My husband is a genius at letting both dogs and children fend for themselves, whereas I, from day one of motherhood, felt I had little choice but to be a source of nourishment, fever abatement, boo-boo healing, lost-sock retrieval, and late-night existential-dread therapy no matter how rotten or long my day had been.
So there I was, spending the last two and a half years writing a novel on my days off while I sat in the middle of the living room surrounded by laundry that needed folding with the TV behind me giving a play-by-play of some sporting event, a dog pawing my knee, asking me to play tug, and a child shouting, “Mom! Drop everything, and come look at this cute thing on Instagram that I can’t be bothered to get out of bed to show you!”
When my writing days fell on school days and coincided with my husband’s days off, he would sit on the couch with his laptop, while I worked on mine. From the corner of my eye, I’d see him glance at me from time to time, which is married code for when is she going to stop writing so we can have sex?
When we moved to the two-bedroom ranch-style house we currently rent, it looked so humble from the outside that my son wouldn’t get out of the car and come inside. The only thing that got him through the door was me standing in the yard, yelling, “It has a man cave!”
It was just a bit of attic space above the garage, but it had a window and a secret closet. My husband can’t even stand upright in it because of the way the roof slopes on both sides. Jackson was gleeful. There was no question that we would squeeze our crappy old couch up there and the room would be his to plug in his Xbox and stay up with his friends without us bothering him or him bothering us.
But after a couple of years, he seemed a little lonely up there, especially when no friends were around. The cave is on the opposite side of the house from our bedrooms, and he got tired of darting across a dark living room at night to use the bathroom and feeling cut off from us. So he unplugged his equipment, carried it to his room, and arranged it all neatly on his desk. And then we had an empty little room on our hands.
“I guess we could use the man cave for storage,” I said. We have enough camping equipment, books, and records to survive the apocalypse, not to mention the toys my son hasn’t played with since he was 5 we can never get rid of because he insists it will break his heart.
“Why don’t you take it, Mom?” he said. “Turn it into a Lady Cave.”
My husband agreed. “Go write,” he said. “Make a million dollars.”
It’s difficult to overstate the joy I felt the first time I walked up those stairs, closed the door, settled into the chair I’d hauled up from the living room, and opened my laptop. I had my own room again. I felt like I was 10 years old and could make Barbie and Ken do whatever I wanted. I could unbutton my pants, not brush my hair, let my tea go cold, and stare at the wall for hours at a time, and no one would say, “Whatcha lookin’ at?” or “Boy, your hair looks funny.” Half-read books could pile up around me, and no one would care. No one would know. I could cover my eyes with used tea bags and go to sleep on my unicorn rug if I wanted, and I did. I did. It was the best nap I’ve had in years.
My focus improved too. I didn’t have to leave 50% of my brain on yellow alert anymore; just 10% would do while the rest of my brain, heart, and soul poured into my writing. I felt so unexpectedly focused, relaxed, and alive that I was now finishing chapters in two or three days instead of two or three weeks.
Some people find their focus in the midst of busy coffee shops or quiet library carrels, but I found mine while wrapped in a fake fur blanket in the room over our garage. Of course, due to its lack of insulation, it might double as a sweat lodge in the summer, or a good place to store a side of beef in the winter. But with fans, lamps, and a few strategically placed quilts, it was just the space for me.
I also found that my family members can take care of themselves in more ways than I expected. My husband taught my son to make his own grilled cheese sandwiches—a moment of pride for them both. My dog has learned to climb the stairs and fall asleep at my feet. And I finished the last draft of my novel in record time and with only a small amount of guilt, which I plan to sleep off on the crappy couch inside my Lady Cave.