According to a fascinating infographic recently published on the The Huffington Post, I am living the dream life: working part-time from home. I am immensely grateful that we can afford this; the flexibility I have to do a load of laundry in the middle of the day or pick up a sick kid from daycare has allowed me a work/family balance that is fulfilling and manageable most of the time. Sure, there are downsides. I get lonely sometimes. I’m not as productive as I might be in an office. I’m making less money than I might be otherwise, but the reality is that overall, it’s a pretty good gig.
But, of course, I can’t help but think about Everything I Am Missing Out On. I’m not pursuing a tenure-track position at a major university. I don’t have a director level position at a mental health clinic. I’m not publishing or teaching as much as my friends and colleagues. On the flip side, I’m not taking my kids to the Science Museum or the Aquarium as often as my stay-at-home friends. I’m not doing as many crafty or culinary projects with them. By trying to do both—work and mother—part-time, I feel like I’m not doing either one particularly well.
This is the struggle of every parent, and every person. Each choice we make to spend our time somewhere (work or family or whatever) is a choice we are making to not spend it somewhere else. We are never going to Have It All, and to be honest, when I can take a deep breath and find my way out of my anxiety and doubt and back to myself, I realize I don’t really Want It All. I don’t even know what “ALL” of it is. Money and a career and power and a home-made pie for my kids’ bake sale and happy kids and a happy marriage? I guess?
Nah. First of all, I’m a social worker, so power and money were never an option. And I don’t even like baking. Even so, I can work myself in a top-notch tizzy doubting and questioning and wanting and planning. Lately, though, I’ve been focusing on a few important points each time my brain starts having the Lean-In vs Opt-Out debate with itself (many of which I have learned from my studies and practices in mindfulness):
1. Everything changes. (Alternately, This Too Shall Pass.) What I wanted ten years ago is different from what I want today, and that will be different in another ten years (or even ten minutes). The same is true for our financial situation, my marriage, my parenting style, what my children need, and virtually every other aspect of my life. Everything changes, including how I will want to spend my time. What is hard now will be easier in the future, and what’s working now isn’t going to work forever.
2. The past and the future matter. It’s a short leap from “everything changes” to “why even bother considering the past or planning for the future?” but we make that leap at our peril. Yes, mindfulness teaches us to stay in the present moment, but that doesn’t mean we should forget who and what has come before us, or ignore what’s just around the corner. From the moment my daughter was born, I have worked to some degree or another, including free-lance writing gigs and part time jobs in teaching or advising. I chose to do this because I am always aware of women who left the work force entirely and were unable to return, and because I know that one day I may want or need to go back to work full time. I want to do everything I can to ensure that I will have that choice.
3. Hold the past and the future lightly. Yes, they matter, but they also change. Our stories about where we came from evolve over time, and our charted course for the future will almost certainly diverge. When I cling too tightly to just one vision for where I am going and where I want to end up, I end up battling with reality, which is an exhausting (and pointless) fight.
4. Very few decisions are permanent. It’s true that I will never get back the wonderful job in college mental health that I left when my daughter was born, but if I really wanted to go back to work full time in a clinic, I could. There are very few choices we make in life that are truly final. If we decide to stay at home, we can almost always go back to work, and vice versa. We can’t get the past back, but as mindfulness teaches us, we can always begin again.
5. We need to figure out what really matters to us. I know that relationships are the most important thing in my life. At the end of the day, at the end of my life, I want to look back on a life filled with strong, enduring, caring relationships—with my husband, my children, the rest of my family, my friends, and my extended community. That doesn’t mean that I will always be a perfect mother or wife or sister or friend, or that will I always put my relationships first (strong connections are also durable and can tolerate the ups and downs of life and human blunders), but it does mean that I want them to be my compass, my north star that steers me back on course when I wander astray. It means that I want them to be the most important factor I consider when deciding to lean in or opt-out. We each need to figure out what our own North Star is; it’s different for everyone.
6. We need to take care of ourselves. This is fundamental to everything else. When I don’t take care of myself, physically and emotionally, the rest of it falls apart. I lose my perspective (see items 1-4), I start to doubt myself and my choices, I get grumpy and irritable, and I start thinking about making drastic changes that will undoubtedly fix all of my problems (except not at all). I need to sleep well, eat as healthy as I can, exercise, meditate and hold all of these goals very lightly—it doesn’t help me at all when I beat myself up when I get it wrong (which I often do). I just end up getting stuck in an already unpleasant place.
To be honest, I’m not really sure if what I’m doing right now would count as opting-out or leaning-in. Between work and kids and doctors appointments and meals and laundry and the minutiae of daily life, most days I’m just trying not to fall over. Keeping some perspective on it all helps.