The other day I was talking with a dear friend about marriage and family life. “My only problem with my marriage,” Anna exclaimed, “is my children!” I laughed in immediate recognition—how well I know that feeling. Marry your best friend. Make a home together. Have a sleepover party every night. Enjoy a life so beautiful that the only rational answer to it is to create a pair of expensive, destructive, talking-chewing-pooping machines and abandon all attempts at conversation for the next decade.
But Anna’s not just talking about her relationship with her husband . . . she’s also feeling the Parenting Effect on her self-image—and on her life. “I just do not like parenting,” she confessed. “I mean, I’m very good at it. I do what needs to be done, and I do it well. But I do not enjoy it, and it takes everything I have just to get through it.”
Some things about Anna: she knows her son and daughter’s fears, hopes, accomplishments and petty jealousies. She has cultivated bedtime and birthday rituals that make my own family’s catch-as-catch-can habits look downright negligent. And once when we were on a trip together, sans kiddos, I watched Anna, hearing sadness at the other end of the phone line, stop cold and sing—in French—a favorite song, repeating it until her daughter could calmly go on with her day. Anna is what you would recognize, whether on the street or in the paper or in a court of law, as a Very Good Mother.
Now let me remind you, also, of a few things about me. First, I’m no stranger to the ennui, fear, and even outright depression that stay-at-home parenting evokes in some of us. Second, I’m really not in Anna’s league in rising to the daily requirements of the parenting challenge, particularly while juggling other tasks. Photographic evidence here.
And third, despite those two things — or maybe, in some strange ways, because of them — I do enjoy parenting. I love it. It’s messy and maddening and terrifying but above all I find that parenting, like life, is mostly quite hilarious. But if I held myself to half the things Anna does (I try to be reliable in my promises, which I accomplish by making approximately two per year, and if you ever see me holding a hand-piped rosette, you can assume it’s because I’m about to pop it into my open mouth), I would be miserable.
Thus, to review: I like my raising my children and I like living my life. But NOT because I am awesome at either. On the contrary. I struggle, and I mess up, and sometimes I fail epicly—and then I get up and do it again.
So, knowing this, I wonder what to do with messages like the ones I’ve been receiving recently: “I don’t know how you do it all.” “You are better at balancing than anyone I know.” “Wow, when do you sleep?”
These things really feed my perfectionist monster, quite honestly. And it’s dangerous, because while on some level I would love to be that person—or at least, to look like I am — it’s a lie, and not a impression that I can keep up at close range.
In short, I’m not this person, friends. And you know what’s hilarious? There is someone who might be, in my own mind at least. That’s right: it’s Anna. Anna keeps those balls in the air. Anna gets shit done.
Why do we do this to ourselves, and to each other? And might we be happier if we walk away from the illusion that anyone we know, including us, is really doing it all?
So here you go, folks. I’ve wondered whether to share this—if the projection people see matters, somehow. It probably does, but not more than the truth: “I do it all, all the time, and I do it well” is an invasive weed. It bars honesty, stifles potential, and feeds neurosis. And in the meantime, I have seen post after post on Facebook this week–it’s that time of year, after all–featuring beloved mama friends and respected fellow seminarians, wondering if they are alone in their inability to juggle/accomplish/consume all of the tasks assigned to them.
My big “secret,” and the reason I’m writing this post:
I don’t do it all.
You probably already knew that, right? You actually know what, for example, my house looks like on a daily basis, or you’re familiar with laws of physics and know that they apply to us all equally.
Ok, then here’s the next part, which sort of is a secret. It’s a societal secret, a thing that no one is going to tell you, something we’re all stumbling toward on our own:
I don’t even try to do it all.
Not parenting. Not church. Not graduate school.
I just don’t even try to catch a lot of the balls thrown my way—I know that I can’t. And you can’t, either.
This might seem obvious, but for those of us still living by the Good Girl Playbook, it’s not.
Why? Because every person or organization you work with has a vested interest in getting you to catch what they’re throwing at you. And they will use whatever they can to convince you that their pitches are the most important. Frankly, if we’re in the modern mommy mindset, it’s likely that no one has to convince us at all—we’ve been carefully taught what “success” looks like. And so–unrealistic expectations? We’ll bring ‘em. Guilt? Shame? Got it covered. Comparing ourselves disfavorably with others, but without any real knowledge of what the ins and outs of that woman’s life look like? Plenty of that, too.
So overall, I get it. I like to look like I have it all together. I know that I in fact do not have it together–and in the space between those ideas, I struggle.
Interestingly, the most helpful tip I’ve ever received on this topic came not from a parenting manual, but from the dean of admissions at my law school. Addressing our entering class on the first day, Reyes Aguilar said, “You may think that what makes sense is to work around the clock in these three years, so that you can relax after law school. But I’m here to tell you that the way you live your life now will be the way you live your life later. If you want to sleep, if you need to exercise, if your significant other is important to you—make time for it now. Don’t wait. Do what you love to do, right now, and you will be able to arrange your life around it.”
Guess what? That was true. I read fiction each night before bed. I spent time each week volunteering at the local grief counseling center. I ditched a week of school to meet my husband in Paris, took a semester off to stay home with my adorable baby, and decided at the last minute to skip the on-campus interview process and apply instead to work for Seeds of Peace.
I certainly got some strange looks; a number of my classmates probably thought I was actually certifiable (a suspicion I imagine I’ve only reinforced in the years since). I also got great grades, developed a clearer sense of myself, and a landed a job I loved in a field I am passionate about.
“Do what you love to do, right now” is, in fact, some of the best overall life advice I’ve ever received. It applies to working in any field . . . including parenting.
So, you wonder if I sleep at night? The answer is yes. Yep, I do. Eight hours, if at all possible. I also run almost every day. With the exception of the last month, I write for an hour (or three) at least three times a week. Not school papers or e-mails or CPE applications—I just write.
I always have a book on my nightstand that I’m excited to jump back into. I text and facebook chat with friends—the ones who make me laugh and the ones who have seen me cry—every day. I make alone time with my husband a major priority—with kids like ours, scheduled quiet couple time is a necessity. I have a long and lazy cuddle with my kiddos every single morning that I’m home. And finally, I cook. Not a ton, but one meal and one soup per week, both from scratch.
Why am I sharing this list of random things with you? Because this is what I do for me. This is what feeds me. This is, at bare essentials, what matters to Jordinn-the-adult-human-being. And so, this is what I make time for, in a sacred way.
What’s the cost? I think you’ll find it in what I don’t make time for.
My house is guest-ready only when we know ahead of time that we’re having guests. (Sometimes not even then. Take it as a compliment if you get the family treatment.) Preschool is hit and miss these days, and we have yet to contribute to a bake sale, turn in a book order or attend an optional evening activity. Si wore his Superman t-shirt to school picture day, in small part because he always wears his Superman t-shirt and in greater part because Mama didn’t have “picture day” on the iphone schedule. Ren can dance in the Nutcracker again this year, but you’ll only see Daddy on showbiz duty. Everyone will wear clean clothes, and not jeans, to church, but hair combing may be optional for the junior set. Birthday treats come from Eileen’s. Birthday parties happen at locales I am not responsible for cleaning.
And how about my school work? How do I juggle that?
The short answer is, I do what I have to, and I use what I love to power through it. I love our classroom work together. I love most of the reading. I love some of the writing. And a lot of the rest is just box-checking. I finesse some things. I go for big points when it counts big, and low-hanging fruit when it doesn’t. I apologize a lot.
And you know what? I am not only ok with this; I am 100% for it. In fact, I fully intend to carry this approach into my religious professional life. As a mentor in ministry told me recently: You have to get there if someone is dying, and you must have a sermon in your hand when you step into the pulpit on Sunday. Everything else is negotiable—what, when, and how. You do what works, when it works.
Friends, this isn’t about color-coding your planner, learning to do five things at once, or extending your productivity to any second in which you might otherwise sit down, stare into space, and let your mind simply breathe.
It’s about finding what feeds you, taking in the joy and delight available in each moment, and tapping into that as you discern what needs to be done, and when.
Rumor has it you’re “supposed to” catch those balls, but here’s a secret: the people pitching them to you are dodging balls all the time, too. And more to the point, no one is waiting at the finish line of your life to give you a cookie for completing all the tasks that no one else cared about. If you choose unhappiness to prove that you’re “good enough” for it, your own resentments will be your reward.
So: is there something you can do, right now, in whatever area of your life feels most unfulfilling, to connect with the yearning of your own sacred self? You can’t sing one more bedtime song; would you rather be dancing? Is there a way you can let go of some of the box-checking, and in so doing, have more fun?
I can’t answer for you, and I will be the first to say that I am leading a blessed life and even writing this speaks to a place of privilege. I believe, though, that we all have some blessings—so what’s here to support you right now? If your soul is screaming, what does it want, and who could you enlist to carve out some precious time for that need? Are there some things you could access . . . if you simply put down the facade of I-can-handle-it and asked?
You are worth it; no faking, no fooling. Find what you love to do, right now—and go do it.
(After you sleep.)