May 29, 2020
As far back as I can remember, I’ve had a running to-do list in my head. In high school, I got my first planner and discovered post-it notes. I would stick them everywhere with little reminders of tasks, big and small. Study for the econ final, memorize my lines in the second act of Oklahoma, Tasha’s birthday on Friday. In college, my planner looked more like an artifact that needed a rare code to decipher. There were arrows, circles, and the really important stuff was highlighted. In other words, my planner was a reflection of how I felt inside, which was busy, a tad bit overwhelmed, and teetering on exhaustion.
Somewhere along the way, I had confused being busy for being productive. I had bought into the lie that said if I was always moving then I was somehow accomplishing more, defying the need for rest, and recharge felt mandatory to somehow cross the finish line sooner.
And then I had kids.
Newborns don’t care about your schedule, perfectionism, to-do list, or whether or not you showered today. They need their needs met at the exact moment they have them. And as a mom, that was my top priority: keep these babies alive. The interesting part is that I was busier than I had ever been in my life and yet it was hamster wheel busy. Groundhog’s Day, busy. Running full speed on a treadmill, busy. I was constantly in motion and yet it was the same over and over and over. Feed baby, change baby, rock baby, repeat.
As more kids joined the mix and I learned how to juggle newborn busyness with a toddler and later two big kids (they were 4 and 6 years when my youngest was born), we fell into a different kind of busy. One that included dance lessons, soccer practices, dentist appointments, and backyard birthday parties. It is so easy to get swept away in the tidal wave of invitations if you’re not careful. I wasn’t careful and at one point, I found myself desperately needing a life raft.
Yet, even knowing that I needed to take a pause wasn’t enough. I still didn’t take one. I powered ahead. Pushing myself with work and muscling my way into a promotion, saying yes to being on a committee at my youngest daughter’s preschool, volunteering to be the room mom. I was running on empty most of the time but didn’t feel like I could stop or even slow down. Something inside me just didn’t know how. And yet I was dripping in guilt over not feeling present, of constantly having my phone in my hand as I answered questions and replied to emails even though my kids craved my attention. My oldest started making comments, “When you have time, I want to read you my book report,” she’d deadpan. It was clear that even though everything I was doing was disguised as something “for my family,” I simply had too full of a plate and not enough hours to even begin to wade through it all.
March 12, 2020, was the last day of normal. My brother was visiting and we were having the best time! He is one of my favorite people on the planet. The day before he was set to leave, we planned to pull the kids out of school and take them to Knotts Berry Farm. We couldn’t wait to surprise them, but the rain was forecasted and eventually, the downpour came, literally washing away our plans. Being only slightly disappointed, because we have annual passes and reasoned we could just go in the summer when he returned (so much has changed since then.) So, instead, we visited the girl’s school because my oldest was working on a coding project and wanted my techie brother to see it (he is an Engineer at Google). It was a fun day and my big girls loved showing Uncle Dan around. The next day he left and little did we know that would be the last time the girls would go to school this school year. In fact, it would be the last time the girls went into a public place. The last time my normal list was at the top of my mind.
Now just over two months in, our lives have shifted to being busy inside our homes. Like so many other families, we are juggling homeschooling, working, taking care of kids 24/7, home responsibilities, marriage, and sanity. It has been a crash course in flexibility. An unexpected takeaway is that the quarantine has shown a very bright light on my life and where I was spending my time. In the brief moments of quiet, I have had a bit of time to reflect and ask questions. Questions I was too busy, or perhaps too nervous to ask. But here we are, amid a pandemic, that has forced life to abruptly halt in some ways and forge new pathways in others.
Here’s the biggest lesson I have learned throughout all of this. I needed a time-out. A mental break. Time to do something I enjoyed, rather than just a means to an end. I had always viewed this behavior as a tiny bit selfish. How could I seek joy simply for joy’s sake, when there was always so much to do. I’ve come to realize how mistaken and damaging that thinking has been. Right before this, I was dangerously close to not having anything left to give. I was emotionally bankrupt. I was teaching women about taking care of their health and yet I wasn’t taking care of mine. It was like a huge “aha!” moment when I opened my eyes wide enough to see the truth that was right in front of me.
I’ve long hated the word balance. I think it gives this unrealistic notion that somehow you can have all parts of your life beautifully partitioned and neatly organized into segments. A pie chart of how to spend my time and energy. To somehow anticipate the unforeseen. I think balance implies a certain level of control. For me, that has led to a recipe for frustration. My expectations are dashed when my plans aren’t met. I pop out of bed with all the things I want to accomplish that day and slowly they are segued by reality. I believe I’m superwoman and can somehow have my cake and eat it too. But life, especially motherhood, is filled with the unexpected. The fridge breaks and you’re suddenly scrambling to take everything out of the freezer before it melts. You get the call from school that one of your kids is sick and you drop everything to pick them up. Your toddler pours paint all over the pavers in the backyard. The unforeseen is truly the hallmark of life.
So to reconcile change and the unknown with my expectations, I’m learning to embrace other words. Gratitude, flexibility, timeout, reset, and recharge. Starting with a grateful heart might be the greatest secret to happiness. When gratefulness is top of mind, the picture shifts, and my frustration isn’t as intense as it would otherwise be. Take the fridge breaking, for example. When I remind myself of how lucky I am to own a fridge and the gift of food in it, I’m changed. When I see my paint pouring toddler as a blessing, I can let go of (some!) of my frustration of cleaning up the mess. Of course, I lose my mind too. I’m not perfect at this by any means and working through frustration is the work of a lifetime, especially for a perfectionist like me. But embracing gratitude has certainly helped.
Learning to be flexible conjures up a toddler having a temper tantrum. Arms and legs flailing, screaming “I don’t want to.” Simply put, I don’t want to and yet motherhood requires it. I’ll be honest, I really like things my way. But building a family with a spouse and kiddos with different wants, needs, and opinions, lends itself to compromise. Baby steps towards embracing it have made it a little bit easier as each stage brings a new level of flexibility. The flexibility of schedules, time, commitments as well as letting my kids make their own choices along the way. It is a muscle that has gotten stronger with use.
In addition to being grateful and flexible, I’ve found that changing my perspective has been tremendously helpful. I now do my best to look at a bigger picture that captures maybe a month or perhaps a lifetime. Rather than trying to cram something into every spare second, my goal is to instead seek the long view. Over the week did I spend time with my kids, exercise, pour into my marriage, work a bit, make connections or help someone, share a laugh with a friend, check in with my family, and here’s the biggie: do something I love. Maybe flip through the pages of a magazine, sit down and play the piano, read a delicious novel, try a new recipe, or watch something completely indulgent on TV. I’m learning how those once seemingly “unproductive” moments spent might be the best thing I have ever done for my sanity. A mental vacation so I can come back lighter and ready to get back in the game.
Quarantine has required a mental break. In month one, I crashed. My expectations for homeschooling, cleaning and organizing my house (hey, I’m home 24/7 now!), working, cooking (again, now I’m home and cooking 3 meals a day–every day!), trying to be social on zoom and Facetime, be a fun wife and mom, it was too much. Just too dang much. And I crashed. But out of the ashes, this little voice reminded me of this dream to be creative again. I used to love to write, pour my heart onto paper. This tug felt different. A lot of life has happened in this last decade. I think motherhood has a way of building strength and character in ways I never imagined possible. I’d like to think it has changed me for the better.
But even with the writing, I know I need to tread carefully. Be gentle and kind along the way. The journey is not a sprint nor do I want it to be. For me to be authentic, I need to be honest. Along with leaning into this big goal, I’ve made the mental note to embrace blank space. To carve out bits of time for indulgences. Lately, I’ve been reading Emily Giffin novels. This was inspired by my middle daughter who has exploded onto the reading scene over the last few months. She’s always been a super active kid with a love for team sports (just like her Daddy!), but many times during this quarantine I have found her tucked into an armchair quietly reading. Cam Jansen is her new favorite character and I love hearing the laughter rise in her voice as she describes the latest escapades. Her sincerity and joy of reading simply for pleasure’s sake was a beautiful reminder of my own love of reading. And not just books on personal development, although I do enjoy those immensely, but reading for fun. Just. For. Fun.
The result? Incredible.
I didn’t realize how much I needed the break. Like a deep slow count breath or a wonderfully indulgent Sunday afternoon nap, the mental refresh is exactly what I needed. I can dive back into my life with a bit more patience and positivity. Frustration swallows happiness, while joy brings a fresh perspective. Problems aren’t so big and obstacles are conquerable. New eyes lead to new ideas. The door that was stuck shut can be cracked open. By shifting perspective and seeing rest as a priority it makes the time spent on tasks even more productive. We are not meant to work around the clock without any breaks. That leads to burnout, trust me. Even God rested on the seventh day.
Lastly, what if the work of our lives is meant to take a lifetime? What if all these experiences, relationships, connections are part of the patchwork? And what if I miss the important moments because I’m too exhausted to see an opportunity right in front of my nose? When I think of life in terms of big sweeping broad strokes I value working hard and loving deeply. I want to feel, experience, and share love and grace with others. I want to raise joy-filled kids. I want to build the best marriage we possibly can. And I want the strength and energy to show up for my life rather than be swept away by a mile-long list of “shoulds.” I want joy to be my default, rather than discontent. There are so many lessons, steps, missteps, and milestones along the way that can only be fully recognized when I’m brave enough to be present in the moment right in front of me.