This weekend, instead of using my “off” morning time to work on my novel, I decided to immerse myself in a half-day motherhood retreat. Not a retreat from motherhood, but a retreat to motherhood. Better motherhood.
For some time — years — I’ve been moving closer to fitting all the pieces together. This process has been a conscious journey. If you’ve been reading these pages for a while, you may remember my struggles with living in the moment as a working mother with 5 kids and too many hats. There’s the vortex of caring for young children, our trouble with transitions, accepting that someday is today, problems with multi-tasking, and my recent love affair with fixed-schedule time management. I do have the occasional flash of successful mothering. But the sum total is a lot of focus on what I’m not doing, and angst about what it all means.
My frustration stemmed from feeling like when I’m doing my own creative thing I’m not being a mother, and when I’m being a mother I’m not really doing my own creative thing. Putting stakes down around my creative time often comes with a price. Yet I know that being actively creative raises my resistance to domestic disasters. I know that “blending” the two parts as much as possible is often the key to success, but there are limits to how much you can pursue your art without some amount of time and space “apart.” Aren’t there?
No more ‘shoulds’
A dear friend of mine is emerging from a potentially life-threatening illness — during which she resigned to stop living under the shroud of obligations. “No more ‘shoulds,'” she told me. She decided that living her life in terms of what she should or shouldn’t do hadn’t served her very well, and big changes were in store.
I thought about this a lot. I realized that it makes sense on so many levels. Even practical terms. I decided that I too wanted to live in the realm of “want to” and “have to” only. Those are the things that matter. I might tell myself at 5:00 that I “should” start dinner, but put it off until 5:45 when I really have to start dinner. Why muck everything up with the “shoulds”? Either you want to start dinner and you do, or you have to start dinner and you do. Either way, dinner gets cooked, and you don’t need to fret about it one way or the other. No more relationships that I “should” foster. If I don’t want to invest myself in someone, then I won’t. Why throw myself away like that, in the name of “should”?
What’s most interesting about this particular exercise is that when you remove the “should” factor, you realize that there is a lot more “want” than you thought there was. When I thought about pulling away from certain friendships, I realized that I really didn’t want to do that. Some of those relationships were actually not based on obligation as much as I thought they were. When I remove the cloud of “should,” suddenly everything is clear. There is commitment because it’s actually important to me. So all of a sudden nurturing those relationships feels like a gift, not a chore, because I’ve recognized their true value.
Putting the pieces back together
Strangely, I’ve finally figured out how broken my framework was, and the many ways in which I perpetuated that broken viewpoint. I used to think it was cliché to say “my kids come first.” Like, duh. None of us are going to let the kids burn up in a fire while we run to the studio to save the canvases. But with my new paradigm, I see beyond the cliché. It’s the kids. Creativity is important, but I can’t live my life thinking that my children are the barrier to my creativity, and I can’t live my life trying to come up with clever ways to convince myself that that isn’t the case.
Because really, it isn’t the case.
It turns out that I’ve totally missed the forest for the trees. You’ll have to bear with my slowness on some of this stuff. I’ve spent my entire adult life being a mother and some of my perspective was apparently truncated along with my youth. I was 21 when my first child is born — he’s a freshman in college now. Since there is a very wide age span between my children — the youngest is not yet 2 — I’m still in the trenches of parenting young children.
And what I have I realized? Being in the trenches, parenting young children, is exactly where I want to be. Because it’s where I am. No, I do not need to “try” to be a good mother while internally I’m just treading water until I can do what I really want to do. The relationship between creativity and motherhood is summed up beautifully in this post, which was just sent our way by Gale Pryor: “Your writing can always be revised; your children can’t.”
Creativity is a beautiful overlay to my existence, but not the reason for my existence. Motherhood isn’t the reason for my existence either. The point is just to be here and take it all in. Just be here. Breathing and enjoying and letting the magic happen instead of using a shoehorn to make it all “work.” But meanwhile, while I’m living in the moment, serving the people I love is surely the most important way to focus my time. By “serve” I don’t just mean feed, bathe, clothe, and chauffeur — although of course, those are parts of it — by serve I mean serve bring joy, bring peace, bring laughter. My job is to help everyone I live with wake up and feel excited to be alive. I am not responsible for their happiness in the largest sense, but my job is to help them along the path to self-actualization as much as possible. And that’s a job I really want.
Putting work in a box
The “job” of nurturing my family is certainly more meaningful than the one I get paid for, even though you wouldn’t know that based on how I’ve let my business consume my life like over-fertilized kudzu. Over and over again I let my professional work take precedence over everything else, and then come out on the other side thinking that I won’t let it happen again — only to crawl back under the same rock a few weeks or months later.
It’s taken nearly 15 years, but I’ve finally figured out why I keep getting overbooked. Last month I sat down and did a bunch of math to calculate my monthly quota, how much time I need to spend on my retainer clients, and how much time I need to spend on additional billables. This all sounds so obvious, but I had never figured it all out before, and as a result was double and triple booking my time — and short-changing my most loyal clients. No more. I now know exactly how many hours I have on hand to spend on “extra” work and I am not going to say yes to anything new that won’t fit inside this box. I’m just done with working day and night and ignoring my family and my creativity in the name of meeting some “important” deadline. What’s so important, exactly?
OK, so the work dragon has been slayed. I get it. It’s been two weeks since I won that battle and I feel like a new person. The drop in stress level is amazing. Suddenly I have the bandwidth to focus on all of the important things — the people — I’ve been putting in the backseat for so long. I realize that I am in the midst of a tangible gear shift as I begin to live more in accordance with my priorities. It’s an incredible sensation.
Me, in bed, with lots of books
So. Back to my motherhood retreat. (If I haven’t lost all of my readers yet!) I had just finished Jamie C. Martin’s Steady Days the night before, and was inspired build on her good advice and creative thinking about “professional mothering.” I wanted to assemble my new progress and thought patterns and capture them so that the “old” ways wouldn’t take over again. I could have slept in that morning, but I was too excited about the work ahead. So I made a cup of coffee and got into bed with a stack of relevant books, a notebook, and my laptop. My stack included a selection of trusted favorites with a few recent additions:
- Steady Days by Jamie C. Martin
- Busy But Balanced by Mimi Doe
- The Creative Family by Amanda Soule
- The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin
- What Happy Working Mothers Know by Cathy Greenberg & Barrett Avigdor
- Confessions of an Organized Homemaker by Deniece Schofield
- Take Time for Your Life by Cheryl Richardson
- The Family Manager’s Everyday Survival Guide by Kathy Peel
- The Toddler’s Busy Book by Trish Kuffner
- Things I Can Make by Sabine Lohf
This may not be sufficient indication, but I horde organization-related books. There are at least a dozen excellent other titles on my shelves, but these are the ones that jumped out at me that morning.
I wanted to figure out how to use my organizational resources to create a system that supported my priorities, rather than left me feeling like I had a million things to do and no time to do them. I also wanted to create a few good lists of projects and games that I can do with my 4-year-old AND my 21-month old — and figure out how to incorporate that creative time into our lives in a meaningful way. I pulled apart all of my various planning methods and organizational tools and recreated the elements into something new that actually speaks to what I believe in. Something that actually helps me live in alignment with what really matters, rather than helps me chase the dust bunnies of life.
The result is a binder. A binder that includes all of the essential building blocks, all in one place. Motherhood, domestic life, the big picture, work — it’s all here, in the planner to end all planners. I think of this as my new laptop. And now, instead of staring at a piece of equipment, I can reach for PAPER — that beautiful, evocative tool that leads me to creative paths in ways that my iPhone — much as I love it — and MacBook — much as I love that too — cannot. While my new planner is fed by various applications and digital tools, it ends up being a tangible thing that I can carry and flip through throughout the day — without the distractions of e-mail and internet, which so often pull me away from what’s important.
Some of our community members are already living in alignment with their priorities, and don’t seem to experience the struggles that I’ve touched on above. I applaud the strength of that inner compass, that “knowing” without having first spent years doing it all the wrong way. But if you don’t quite feel at peace with your life’s “balance,” take a few hours one evening or Sunday afternoon to think about your big-picture goals, your real mission, and hold that up against how you really live, you may find that there is a gap between the two. The next task is to figure out how to close that gap. The results are so exciting that I find myself leaping out of bed every morning because I cannot wait for the new day to begin. I feel like a new person, and I already see a remarkable difference in how my family and my relationships with my children are changing as a result.
The creativity part? I’m not worried about it. I have no shortage of inspiration, and I’m confident that I will finish at least one of my various writing projects. I will write when I write. Whether I write or not, I’m going to enjoy the process. Living life in this openness actually feels more creative than when I’m forcing myself to write because I “should.” I’m no longer going to let “shoulds” take the joy out of what I love, whether that’s a creative project, my husband, my children — or myself.