Why Life Balance is a Feminist Issue by Mary Sharratt

The move to Portugal all but forced me to heal my relationship with time and productivity, to create a life that was sustainable and nurturing.

Hanging out in Obidos, the closest town to my village. Photo by Erika Mailman.

One year ago, I published my essay, The Grace of Letting Things End, about my bittersweet experience of leaving England in the wake of Brexit for a new life in Portugal.

One year later, my life in Portugal still feels radically new.

Time passes differently in Portugal. I set my intention, from the outset, to embrace this move as an opportunity to slow down and live a more authentic life.

My day-to-day life has irrevocably changed.

I’ve gone from being a livery yard customer in England, with all the drama and conflict this sometimes entailed, to becoming an independent small holder with two horses on my property to care for all by myself. Practically, this has translated into a lot more work, but also a lot more peace.

The ponies decided to help with the lawn mowing

I’ve also been devoting considerable time and energy into learning Portuguese. My husband and I have been taking classes once or twice a week for nearly a year now and are making slow but steady progress.

But the most deep-seated change has been to my whole relationship to work and life. In the UK, I led a very productivity-centered life, existing from deadline to deadline with barely any time to breathe in between. I often felt too busy and wrapped up in my projects to meet friends for lunch.

For years I have struggled to heal my dysfunctional relationship with time management, embracing lifehack after lifehack. I’ve all but abandoned social media. I’ve done my utmost to milk every single hour of the day in order to become more productive. This pattern led to disillusionment and epic burn out, something more and more women are facing, particularly those who balance the demands of their careers with childcare and other care-taking duties.

Even writers and artists can fall down the hole of the Cult of Productivity, taking the creative process, which is at its essence slow and organic, and trying to force it into an industrial process with regular, reliable yields that are judged on how well they can be monetized. Even the refuge of spirituality can be compromised if it’s just another task on a never-ending to-do list.

Thus, despite my official intention to slow down, I found myself trying doggedly to replicate my old hectic, tunnel-vision working schedule in Portugal only to discover that it just didn’t work here. I hit a brick wall. Because I couldn’t sustain the same level of busyness AND care for two horses AND learn a challenging new language AND keep my initial intention of slowing down and enjoying the life I moved here to experience.

Something had to give. The move to Portugal all but forced me to heal my relationship with time and productivity, to create a life that was sustainable and nurturing. No lifehack could help me anymore, because I’d already given up television. I don’t even watch Netflix.

We hear a lot about the Slow Living Movement, but actually slowing down involves so much more than decluttering your closet or posting pictures of photogenic hipsters in hammocks on Instagram.

Moving to Portugal forced me to slow down. Because life is slow here. It’s no accident that the Slow Food Movement had its birth in Italy, another slow country in southern Europe. Food is also big in Portugal. In fact, I like to joke that LUNCH is the national religion. No matter how busy or important you think you are, the whole world stops for lunch. Shops close. People pour out of offices and go to restaurants for beautiful, affordable meals. Proper, cooked meals, mind you. Not a sandwich or salad to be inhaled at speed. To say you are too busy to meet your friends for lunch in Portugal would be sacrilege. Even in the height of the pandemic when all the restaurants were closed, people went home for lunch and ate with their families.

Converting my visiting writer friend Erika Mailman to the religion of LUNCH!

Any culture that prioritizes good food also prioritizes human relationships. My social life here is unlike anything I’ve experienced anywhere in the world. I’ve met wonderful Portuguese people, such as our local Priestess, Luiza Frazao, as well as new friends from the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Columbia, the Netherlands, Israel, Russia, Germany, Spain, Poland, Hong Kong, and Belgium. My husband and I have made so many friends in our village. We can walk to each other’s houses and invite each other for dinner or go on long walks together. The other foreigners who move to Portugal have made the conscious decision to make time for friendship, not just shove it into a twenty minute “let’s meet for coffee” slot. I haven’t had this much fun since I was a student.

Other things are slow here, too. The post office can be painfully slow. My New Yorker subscription has gone AWOL and I’ve resigned myself to reading the digital version. Plumbers and technicians come when they come. Just when you think they’ve forsaken you, they manifest at your door. But then again neighbors I’ve never met before also show up unexpectedly with gifts of apples for the horses. One day an old man pulled his tractor up in front of our house and presented me with two sapling banana trees. 

What I’ve discovered is if I give up any notion of trying to control the clock or manage time, it becomes more expansive. When I’m with my horses or laughing with friends, time disappears and I’m living in an eternal now. The same is true when I’m deep in my writing flow or trying to speak my best Portuguese to thank my neighbor for the banana trees. In a rich and authentic life, there is time for everything.

Life Balance is a feminist issue, because too many women have been brainwashed by the Cult of Productivity for far too long and this has kept too many of us chained to a patriarchal machine that eats us up and spits us out when we’re too broken to go on doing anymore. Let’s rebel and meet our sisters for lunch!

Chilling with friends on a beautiful June evening

Further reading and listening:

Do Nothing by Celeste Headlee: how to work, live a value-driven life, and also have time for friends and hobbies.

Sacred Time by Christine Valters Paintner: how contemplative practice can heal our relationship with time. Highly recommended!

Mary Sharratt is on a mission to write women back into history. Her acclaimed novel Illuminations, drawn from the dramatic life of Hildegard von Bingen, is published by Mariner. Her new novel Revelationsabout the mystical pilgrim Margery Kempe and her friendship with Julian of Norwich, is now available wherever books and ebooks are sold. Visit her website.

The Other Side of the Mountain by Mary Sharratt

The author in the Dolomite Mountains in 2017.

I love my new life in Portugal and I’m so happy and grateful to be here. However, I have encountered one major roadblock–I simply cannot replicate my daily writing routine that I’d relied on in the UK for nearly twenty years. I used to get up and leap right on the page, but now I keep horses on my property and their care and feeding come first, before I even get my human breakfast. And horse care is the last thing I do before sunset. If once I was a morning writer, now I’m a late morning/early afternoon writer. Writing gets sandwiched between horse care. Creative ideas bubble up as I ruminate while picking poo in the early morning. I’ve had to find a new rhythm that fits my new life.

Many of us, particularly many women, are struggling to find their daily rhythm while balancing the demands of remote-working with childcare, home schooling, and elder care as we enter the eleventh month of our global pandemic. This can be depleting, to say the least. To make matters worse, the old boundaries between work, family life, and “leisure” have unravelled and become impossibly blurred. Many of us feel under even greater pressure to be productive during this time.

Experts preach that we need to manage our time, plan every minute of the day by making little boxes for each task in our daily planner. I have tried to do this, but always rebel in the end. It seems a pointless task to try to force the flow of my day into orderly boxes. Instead I try to find what rhythms work for me so it feels organic rather than forced.

Now as a woman in my mid-fifties, I feel I have arrived at the other side of the mountain. I moved to Portugal, in part, to slow down. To be less frantically obsessed about work and career. To take a step back from the whole competitiveness of the writing world that can be soul-destroying and completely antithetical to the creative process. I’m done running myself ragged in some misguided attempt to get ahead. Perhaps I’m losing my “edge.” Perhaps this is what it means to be literally “over the hill.” You’ve come so far on your journey that it’s too late to return to old ways of doing things or old ways of seeing the world–the view is completely different up here.

Due to the radical reset of the pandemic, I think that a lot of people are arriving at this place, regardless of their chronological age. At some point we reach a peak of life experience beyond which there is no going back. We have entered a new landscape, brand new territory where the old maps will not get us anywhere. We have to seek a new direction. We have arrived in the place where we can claim our power, our inner sovereignty, and live our life to the rhythms that work for us.

For me this means abandoning the cult of productivity, the pervasive belief that living to work makes us virtuous. That our worth is determined by our output. This cult is particularly damaging to women who still carry the bulk of childcare and domestic work–the whole second shift of wife work that goes unrecognized, unvalued, and unpaid. I believe the majority of male productivity gurus can only adhere to their monastically rigid schedules because they have an unpaid woman in the background doing all the childcare and mopping up all the mess.

One thing I’ve learned the hard way is that, if we let it, the cult of productivity will completely poison both our creativity and our spirituality.

The cult of productivity diminishes our daily spiritual practice as yet another demanding task on our to-do list, a result-oriented form of competitive striving. “I’m not a serious spiritual seeker unless I get up at 5:00 am to meditate. How else will I be on track to achieve enlightenment?”

Spiritual practice is by its very nature the precise opposite of doing or striving. It’s letting go, surrendering to a state of pure being and receptivity, relaxing into the divine luminosity welling up in our hearts.

As for creativity, international best-selling author Hilary Mantel, one of my great idols, has written one of the best essays on the writing process I have ever read. Writing world-class literature, for her, is not a matter of locking herself in her office for eight hours a day or adhering to a rigid word count but of finding the right rhythm.

“I have to grab a notebook and write before I am properly awake,” she writes. “The day’s writing starts to unroll in my head. It’s fragile and often a matter of rhythm rather than words.”

Mantel stresses the importance of writers trusting themselves, trusting their creative flow, rather than obsessing about productivity. Good writing is not a matter of “persecuting paper with ink or pounding the keys. . . . You can’t measure your productivity day-to-day in any way the world recognizes.”

Then Mantel spills her secret that cuts the productivity gurus down to size:




I feel shy of saying this, because to non-writers it sounds lazy–but if, seven days a week, you can cut out two hours for yourself, when you are undistracted and on-song, you will soon have a book. Unoriginally, I call these “the golden hours.” It doesn’t much matter where I find them, as long as I do. I usually work many more hours. But sometimes I wonder why.


When we step into flow, either creative or spiritual flow, we enter a realm of timelessness, where our calendars and clocks dissolve into oblivion. We lose ourselves in that rich inner world. And it’s not forced. It’s not imposed upon us. The flow carries us. May we all be blessed with golden hours.

Mary Sharratt
is on a mission to write women back into history. Her acclaimed novel
Illuminations, drawn from the dramatic life of Hildegard von Bingen, is published by Mariner. Her new novel Revelations, about the globe-trotting mystic and rabble-rouser, Margery Kempe, will be published in April 2021. Visit her website.


%d bloggers like this: