It’s been a challenging week for a lot of parents, who’ve experienced uncertainty, concern and distraction, as the Omicron wave has swamped schools and daycare facilities—not to mention its spread through families and groups of friends. This obviously follows an especially rough two years for many caregivers, who’ve had limited structural support as their personal and professional lives have been deeply disrupted by the pandemic.
It’s seemingly both despite and because of this that a new book published last week by Eve Rodsky, Find Your Unicorn Space, is striking a cultural nerve. The book, endorsed prominently by Reese Witherspoon, is a manifesto for prioritizing personal creative pursuits—such as art, dancing, music, or learning languages—even amid all of the other demands of work and caregiving.
“Unicorn space is the active and open pursuit of self-expression in any form, built on value-based curiosity and purposeful sharing of this pursuit with the world,” writes Rodsky, a lawyer, consultant, and author of the bestselling book Fair Play, a guide for couples to equitably share domestic responsibilities. (p. 11)
Rodsky—whose own unicorn space involves writing books and practicing hip-hop dance—argues that without carving out such time to pursue their interests, parents—especially mothers—are less happy, healthy, and less able to engage emotionally with others around them. They’re often burned out.
Find Your Unicorn Space is both an argument for making space for a creative life when it might seem otherwise impossible, and a guide for how to pursue it. It’s perhaps not the typical business book we cover in these briefings, but it addresses an important topic for the caregivers we embody and work closely with. And it also suggests an antidote for those of us who have felt that they’ve lost something of themselves to burnout or the crush of work.
Rodsky notes that the persistent imbalance of household work done by men and women often makes it especially hard for women to imagine carving out time for personal creative pursuits. Remote schooling and the evaporation of a lot of childcare and organized kids’ activities has added to the pressures on mothers.
In her case, Rodsky sought to create unicorn space in a guest room for several hours on Sundays to write, telling her family not to disturb her. They continually interrupted, and she resorted to writing “Unavailable” on a post-it note that she stuck to her shirt. By explaining to her children and negotiating with her husband to have his own time away from family responsibilities on Saturdays, she was eventually able to make it work.
Rodsky says creating unicorn space involves giving yourself permission to be unavailable and to “burn” guilt and shame associated with putting yourself before others in the moment. (Before an extended business trip, she once literally burned paper on which she’d written the words “guilt” and “shame.”)
Rodsky proposes a framework for using unicorn space once you’ve created it:
- Curiosity—“What are you curious about?” is a question that can help you decide what creative interests to pursue. “If you feel happy, engaged, pulled into a flow state, that’s your clue that you’re on the right track,” Kennon Sheldon, a psychology professor, is quoted as saying in the book. (p. 139) Rodsky recommends listing out your personal values and rooting your creative pursuits in them.
- Connection—You’re more likely to persevere if you have a partner holding you accountable. And connecting your unicorn activities to other people can provide important feedback toward achieving your goals, while providing greater happiness and meaning. For couples, it’s critical to enlist your partner’s support.
- Completion—”You are not obligated to complete the work, neither are you free to abandon it,” Rodsky writes. (p. 294) She argues that pursuing your creative activity with rigor and specific goals is important, even if it’s an “unfolding process of imperfection.” (p. 263) Rodsky recommends considering what you want your legacy to be, and cites a researcher who asks people to summarize theirs in six words.
To be sure:
- Rodsky asserts that unicorn space is not about hobbies, which she says are “generally regarded as a superfluous nice-to-have that only comes into play after all the more important check box in one’s already time-constrained life are ticked off.” (p. 8) And she says that unicorn space is also generally not about your job, even if it’s your creative outlet. But the examples Rodsky cites often involve people switching careers to pursue their creative interests. And she stresses the importance of having ambitious goals for unicorn space activities that ultimately can turn them into something professional.
- The ability to create unicorn space generally requires being in a position of some privilege, especially now. Though Rodsky says that the people she interviewed who had greater financial privilege “typically had a harder time tapping into their creativity, whereas those with whom I spoke to with fewer resources were more likely to have unicorn space in their lives.” (p. 156)
- The book at times devolves into strings of quotes from people Rodsky interviewed and articles she read, with little in between them. It’s much better when she’s recounting extended stories or analysis.
- “If we want to avoid burning out, we each have to find time to step back; cultivate our curiosities, interests, and passions; and remember who we are apart from our jobs and our family roles.” (p. 21)
- “It is a mistake, and it will be to our detriment, if we reframe creative self-expression as a distraction, a privilege, an indulgence, or a simple additive to our lives during hard times. No, creativity is essential work. Still. Today. Tomorrow. And during the next hard time.” (p. 41)
- “Mothers specifically are celebrated for the self-sacrifice moments down at the bottom of the pyramid and shamed for doing things at the top like learning, pursuing interests, and having fun—everything that feeds our mental, emotional, and physical well-being.” —Leslie Forde, CEO of Mom’s Hierarchy of Needs (p. 100)
- “The pursuit of a creative problem is rarely easy. In fact, in order for it to be enjoyable it should be hard.” —Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, psychologist (p. 266)
- “For those of us who have children, it’s important that our kiddos see and experience us living full and actuated, meaningful and creative lives, pursuing our dreams at any age.” (p. 281)
The bottom line is that Find Your Unicorn Space is a reminder of the benefits of having creative pursuits in our lives, and an argument for prioritizing making time for them. It’s also a practical guidebook for making this work for families.