Editor note: I found this post languishing, forgotten, in my Drafts folder from about a year ago. It’s a bit wordier than I like my posts here to be, but I figured that, at this time of year, at least some of you might feel like reading something other than year-end wrap-up posts. But, never fret! I have some of those coming up too! So, read on at your own discretion. Or come back next week to see my favourite outfits of the year. Merry Christmas!
Right off the bat, let’s talk about the word that isn’t in the title of this post: all. I purposefully left it out because it can be terribly misleading. While I certainly have plenty of things on my plate – and some readers have expressed an interest in reading about how I juggle all of those things – I most certainly don’t “do it all”. More importantly, I know a lot of incredibly accomplished and successful men and women, and none of them “do it all” either. So, before we go any further, let’s agree to toss “all” out of the window. Nobody is doing it all, and if they tell you otherwise, they are lying.
How do I handle family, work, and life? Usually, by hanging on for dear life and hoping for the best. Recently, I was lamenting to a friend that I was dropping more balls than I was juggling, and she replied that as long as we give the dropped balls a swift kick now and then, they’re still technically moving. I think I may need to embroider that on a pillow and carry it around with me everywhere, so that I remember it next time I feel like I’m failing at this whole adulting business.
Needless to say, I don’t have any sage advice for other working parents (or anyone else juggling a lot of different and competing responsibilities), but I do have some ideas about the kinds of things that keep me sane and (somewhat) productive.
Think of life as an infinite buffet, each of your activities as dishes, and the corresponding caloric load as the time required to do each task. As much as you might be tempted to try, you cannot eat your way through the entire buffet. Time is, sadly, nothing like a stretchy pair of pants; there is only so much of it in a given day, and it can only accommodate so much. So you have to make choices and, in some cases, compromises. (Some things in life are like vegetables – not the first thing you’d reach for, but necessary to your overall well-being. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you can pay someone else to eat your veggies for you. Take house cleaning, for example.)
The key, of course, is making choices that maximize the enjoyment you get out of your most precious commodity, time. Sometimes, doing that comes easy. Often, it doesn’t. For some people, doing all the necessary grown up things, which are about as enjoyable as eating kale, doesn’t leave much time for anything else. For others, narrowing down the choice of fun activities is worse than choosing between chips and chocolate. I have no words of wisdom to help with that, I’m afraid. The choices each of us makes are deeply personal and subjective, and much like I wouldn’t presume to tell you what you should eat every day, I’m not going to even try telling you how you should prioritize your time.
But here’s the more important thing: the most content people I know are those who are able to make their selection from the life buffet … and then completely ignore the other options. They don’t second-guess their choices, and most importantly, they don’t listen to others second-guessing their choices either. This is abso-freaking-lutely hard. We are constantly bombarded with unsolicited opinions about what we should, and shouldn’t, be doing – as parents, as spouses, as professionals, you name it. For some people, tuning out these voices comes easily. Me, I have to work at it. (Let’s just say that I’m glad that internet forums and mommy blogs weren’t around when I was of a more impressionable age.) I still second-guess my choices. All. The. Damn. Time. but I’m now aware not only of the habit itself, but of the negative impact it has on my enjoyment of life, and I try to cut that ish out whenever it starts eating away at me. I’ll say this: it does get easier as one gets older.
Let me return to my analogy for a minute. It’s not just the dishes you pick that invite scrutiny and unsolicited opinions. It’s also how much of each dish you put on your plate, and how you hold your fork while eating it, and how you deal with the leftovers. Put in those terms, it sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? Let’s put it another way, with an example: people will judge you on your choice to have (or not have) kids, on the number of kids you have, on whether you stay home with them or go back to work, on how soon you go back to work, on how much or how little you work once you’re back at work … and on every single other aspect of your parenting, no matter how minute and insignificant. If I could sum up my two cents: don’t let someone else try to prioritize your life for you, and don’t waste a minute of your time and mental energy wondering if you should.
Bo-rrring! Amirite? I am a creature of routine, so I didn’t realize until recently how big a role it plays in my day-to-day productivity. It’s just how I’ve always operated. The realization came when I was sitting in a seminar on brain health, which focused on strategies to maximize the potential of our decision-making powerhouse, the frontal cortex. One of the things that the speaker mentioned was reducing the amount of decision-making in our lives. How do you do that? Bingo: routine.
To understand why routine is so useful, it’s important to remember that our frontal cortex is involved in all of our decision making, no matter how complex or simple. Your frontal cortex does not distinguish between the types of decisions that you might have to make in a given day – whether they involve, say, life or death calls on the operating table, or ordering coffee at Starbucks. Your frontal cortex also gets tired easily, and once it’s tired, it tends to shut down and require a certain amount of “downtime” to recharge. And this is why eliminating, as much as possible, extraneous or unimportant decisions comes in handy.
How much you can “routinize” your life is, of course, up to you. Here are a few examples of the kinds of things that I do:
Pick out what I’m going to wear to work ahead of time (Sometimes weeks in advance; if I have a chunk of free time, I’ll sit down and brainstorm ideas, and write them all down. I like to be creative (and have a blog to keep alive) and rarely wear the same exact outfit. If you’re less concerned with sartorial novelty, developing a master list of favourite or reliable outfits means that you don’t have to keep repeating this exercise unless/until you add new pieces to your wardrobe, and need new combinations to incorporate them into your rotation.)
Eat the same breakfast every day. In fact, I generally eat the same things most days. (Research seems to suggest that this can also be a strategy for weight management. People who eat the same things every day apparently tend to fluctuate less in weight over time.)
Have a make-up routine. Bonus: I can get ready for work in under 15 minutes (and that’s only because I’ve got the whole thing down pat after years of daily practice).
Have a well-established bedtime routine with the kids. This ensures that I have a guaranteed block of time in the evenings for other things (work, blogging, writing, etc.).
There are certain parts of my life that don’t lend themselves to reliable routines (ahem, work), and I try not to stress or over-think those too much – key word here being “try”. It helps to remember one of my husband’s favourite quotes, from Mike Tyson of all people: everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.
It Takes a Village (but, especially, a supportive spouse)
Duh! Trite sayings do not become trite without a reason, after all. Problem is, we don’t always see other people’s villages, if you know what I mean. And many of us, having internalized the “must do it all” superwoman narrative, immediately assume that the people who appear to have everything together, do so without any help. Save yourself the heartache of the comparisons that flow from that (almost certainly) wrong assumption. One of the hardest things I learned as an adult was to ask for — and accept — help; had I not plunged into parenting like a non-swimmer diving headlong into the deep end of the pool, I might still be struggling with that lesson. (Nothing like the sheer panic of first-time parenting to motivate some quick learning.) There is a stigma around the admission that, at various times and for various reasons, we may need help — from family, friends, co-workers, professionals, public bodies, strangers. As I get older, this makes less and less sense to me. The asking for and giving of help (with grace and respect on both sides) is what brings us closer together as a society and as communities. I have never judged someone for asking me for help; it took me a long time to realize that I was judging myself for asking. I still do it, to be honest, but I’m working on it.
Of course, there is an implicit privilege in having a village upon whom to call. Some of it is luck, no question about it. For example, I have a close relationship with my parents, who are healthy and happily take an active part in my kids’ lives — pure luck on my part (thanks Mom & Dad!). Some of it takes planning and investment (financial or otherwise). I live ten minutes away from my parents (and my in-laws), by design; it’s not the neighbourhood I might have picked in different circumstances, but it makes life infinitely easier. One of the best decisions I’ve ever made was to choose my husband as my partner in life. Part of it was luck (some day I’ll share the story of how we met), and part of it was planning — looking into the future, at the life I hoped to have, and realizing that we could build that life, together. At the risk of sounding like I’m practicing my Oscar acceptance speech, I could not have accomplished all of the things I have without his support; my hope is that he can say the same about me.
Because, yeah, being part of a village is a two-way street. You have to give help, not only ask for it. Another difficult lesson is learning not to keep score — especially in close personal relationships. Life has its seasons, and that is true of everything. Some seasons, you will need more help and have little capacity to give it. Other seasons, you will be called upon to give and give. Nowadays, I try to simply remember to trust that help will all balance out in the end.
But this is just one perspective, and I know that while mine is certainly not unique, there are many others out there, rooted in different experiences and values. I would love to hear from you about the things that help you keep the balls in the air and chaos at bay, whether you are a working parent or not.