Monday, August 03, 2015

Work-Life "Balance" for the Stay-at-Home Parent

First of all, I think that the way we generally talk about the entire concept of "work-life balance" misses the mark. All too often, I hear it spoken of as though it is a fixed point, something to achieve and then rest in. As I creep ever-closer to middle age, I am cognizant of the fact that assessing the time and energy I put forward into different areas of my life is an ongoing process. Before I was married, there were certain goals and values that drove how I spent my time. After marriage, they shifted. When Bubba and I bought our first house, they shifted again. Having kids threw a huge wrench into how I saw the minutes of every day, and now that they are older and more independent, I am re-evaluating again. There is no such thing as a fixed target to shoot for.

When I left my paying job to stay at home with my kids, there was this assumption that I had no "work," and to be completely honest, I bought into that idea for way too long. The fact is, because of my inability to compartmentalize the different aspects of my life, what really happened was that my work became my life. That is, everything mothering and household-running was so important and so pressing that I did it 99% of the time, but because I didn't consider it my job, I didn't fully acknowledge that I had ceased doing so many of the things I enjoyed doing before that I considered my "life." I had allowed everything to bleed together and become one which meant that I had very little that was just mine.  Because very few others recognized what I was spending the majority of my time doing as "work," it was hard to justify my frustrations with this dynamic, which made me all the more unhappy.

Prior to having children, I had lots of ideas about the kind of work I wanted to do, things I might find meaningful and worth spending 40+ hours a week doing. I wanted to enjoy my work, but I also wanted to be able to fully enjoy those other parts of my life like working in the yard and hiking with Bubba and having dinner with friends. As soon as I quit to stay home and the hours of "work" were not  clearly delineated, the shift was monumental. When I was at my office, I couldn't empty the dishwasher or fold a load of laundry or fix the bathroom toilet because I wasn't physically at home to do it. Now, suddenly, at home, it felt as though I were cheating if I chose to sit on the couch and read instead of doing any of those things because my home and my children had become my work and it was staring me in the face all the time.

Over the past fifteen years, my level of freedom from parenting and household work has ebbed and flowed, and I have had the opportunity to make choices over and over again about what other kind of meaningful work I can do - paid or not. I have obviously chosen writing as one of those things, but I have also found volunteer positions with organizations I want to support. I have come to understand that the most important question I can ask when I consider doing any kind of work is not "do I have time for this?" but "how will this feed me?" If I choose to spend my time engaged in activities that align with my passions and interests, even if they are intense and challenging, I know from experience that I will ultimately end up feeling energized and sated. There will be times when that work means I won't cook dinner from scratch for the family or the dog won't get his customary three to four walks a day or the laundry will pile up, and that's okay. The freedom to schedule my own time, to float between different types of work is something for which I am immensely grateful. Being the primary parent to my kids means that my work is often a reaction to something else - hunger, dirt, transportation needs - and it is generally satisfying, if only until the next meal or pile of laundry or basketball game. Having the ability to engage in other work that is proactive and creative is something that feeds me in a different way, and that is just as important. My work and my life are very closely intertwined and it is often hard to see where one leaves off and the other begins, but I'm not sure that it is important to discern those boundaries.  Knowing that there are some tasks I will engage in that I really don't enjoy is okay as long as they are part of the bigger picture and the larger goals I have. For me, the trick is to make sure that I am mindful of the tasks that ignite a fire in my belly and I find a way to do them with regularity. Often, emptying the dishwasher again can feel like a slog, but if I'm doing it because I know I will be able to sit down and write or read or go to a meeting without wishing I'd done it, I have more mental freedom to fully engage with what I'm doing.

The typical way that we talk about work-life balance sets up a dynamic where the two are pitted against each other in some surreal tug-of-war where one necessarily ends up losing and the other winning, at least for a while. But the fact is, if we are actively choosing to spend time not working for pay (at least not full-time) and staying home with our children, the most important thing is not to parse out bits of time for "work" and "life" but to recognize that within this setup, we can actively choose to engage in things that we find fulfilling and interesting. When we do that, we are enhancing our lives and, by extension, our children's lives because what they end up with is a happy, energized parent. This notion of some elusive "balance" between the energy we put into working and the energy we get from living is wholly false. If we are lucky, the two overlap in a Venn Diagram that allows us to find compensation and purpose and a sense of enjoyment without guilt. And as our children grow up and become more independent, we will have given ourselves the gift of meaningful work that we can continue to engage in more and more.

Bubba and I have recently begun having conversations about what our life will look like in five years when Eve and Lola are both gone to college. At that point, it will be important for both of us to have some shared purpose and some individual interests. If we apply this particular way of looking at "balance," and are able to identify the things that we enjoy doing together and apart, and fully support the others' need to engage in both, perhaps the shift to this new lifestyle will be smoother. (Not that I won't cry a big, ugly cry when my last one moves out, but, hey, it's a start...)

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Not For the Faint of Heart (Parenting Teens)

There are times these days when my gray hairs appear in clusters - both on my head and in my soul. The times when something comes up that, for a split second, I think I cannot possibly endure or deal with gracefully or with any sort of competence. Times when the temptation to curl up beneath the covers with a cat at the foot of the bed is overwhelming and comes in waves.

Fortunately, I have learned from experience that there is always a way through. That someone will grab me by the hand, the wrist, the back of the neck, and march me onward, matching my steps with their own, one at a time until we have made it. Or that the notion of not moving forward is a bigger horror than stopping in place - generally because at the other end stands a loved one - a child or a parent or a partner who needs me to keep going for one reason or another.

Fortunately, I have also learned from experience that there will be imaginings of worst-case scenario outcomes that are more akin to Alice in Wonderland stories than real life. I have been reminded over and over again that humans live life in the middle almost always, either because something major shifts like a giant boulder landing in the stream of our lives around which we forge a new path and keep going or because our worries are so magnified by adrenaline that they don't resemble what could really happen. As long as I hold on to the remembrance of the times when I forecast doom and nothing even remotely close to doom cast its shadow over me, I can take the  next step. And when I feel the warm grip of a friend and hold on, it helps me to find my center and remember my most closely-held values and act on them. And generally, even if there are dark, messy stretches of time when I feel unsure or panicky, I come out the other end wiping my brow, exclaiming, "Whew!"

"You get an A+ in parenting this weekend," Bubba said to me last night, and it meant a lot. That despite the fear and anxiety of the last couple of days, staying rooted in love, acknowledging my fears all while doing my best not to act on them was the best way to go. Despite the new gray hairs I am sure sprouted overnight, we have found the middle again and added some mortar to the bricks that form our family. We have reaffirmed that our most important value is love and dodged another bullet.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Culture of Bullying in Reproductive Rights Issues

Another day, another abortion ban struck down. I am happy to see it happen, but frustrated at the vast sums of money and energy and time that are spent in the effort to keep women from having reproductive freedom in this country. I know it's been said before, but it is so absurd to me that these resources aren't directed toward things that would educate and support women and girls instead of punishing them.

I heard a story yesterday about a clinic in Montana that was so severely vandalized a year ago that it had to be shut down. And since the woman who has run the clinic for over thirty years can't really afford to revive it, women in the Flathead region of that state are forced to drive 120 miles each way to receive care. Not just abortions, but any kind of reproductive health care, because the clinic provided a huge range of services to women in that rural area, like most clinics that are targeted by anti-choice lawmakers and protestors alike.

Toward the end of the story, the reporter noted that the man who destroyed the clinic was sentenced to 20 years in prison - fifteen of them deferred - and forced to pay restitution.  I won't get into the sentence that was handed down for a variety of reasons, but the notion of restitution was what piqued my interest. So many questions flitted through my head:


  • like squeezing blood from a turnip. I wonder how much money he has, anyway, to pay restitution. Do you suppose it will ever be fully repaid? 
  • restitution to whom? To the clinic owner? To the staff that lost their jobs? To the scores of women whose lives are affected by his act? Does he have to give them gas money to get to Missoula? Does he have to pay child support for all of the babies that were born to mothers who now have no option but to raise them?
  • how do you calculate the proper amount of restitution to compensate for the trauma someone suffers when their life's work is brutally destroyed? 
As a teenager, I worked in a small-town clinic that provided abortions two days a week. The rest of the time, we provided routine family practice services like treating infections and offering vaccines as well as contraceptives and vasectomies and OB care. Two days a week, the sidewalk was lined with protesters - many of them bused in from the big city 30 miles away. They laid spike strips across the entrance to the driveway, shoved their signs in patients' faces, yelled and chanted, sang and cried and occasionally threatened both the staff and the patients. One day, as I left work, one of them started to follow me home and I drove around for an hour and finally parked outside the police station until he gave up and drove away.  Twice, the clinic was stink-bombed after hours and once there was a small fire set in the back of the building. The doctor and nurse practitioner wore bulletproof vests to work. My boyfriend begged me to quit. 

Decades later, I continue to be shocked at how blasé people are about these kinds of tactics. I am horrified that an organization could get away with putting together an "expose" on Planned Parenthood, alleging that they sell fetal tissue for profit, be exposed themselves for blatantly lying and creatively editing the footage to show things that never actually happened, and suffer no consequences. There is a vast difference between protected free speech and lying, bullying, in-your-face terror tactics. Make no mistake, these are terror tactics. It is terrifying to go to work and have to cross a line of angry protestors. It was surely terrifying to come to work and see your clinic burning, get death threats in the middle of the night on the phone, watch the protestors laughing and chatting in the quiet moments as they ate their lunches together as if this was just another day at the office.  

The continued legislative attacks on women's reproductive rights - abortion bans at 20 weeks, at the first sign of a fetal heartbeat, restrictions on contraceptions, the latest bill that would allow employers to fire single women who get pregnant - these things add fuel to the fire of the protestors and the organizations that are adamant that women not be able to control their own bodies. They set up a climate in which it feels normal to tell women how to live their lives. It presents the view that a woman's health is something to be parsed out by those in power. We will let you have fertility treatments, but not oral contraceptives. We will allow your employer's insurance to pay for your hospital stay when you have a baby, but not if you have it at home with a midwife. We will pay for your mammogram but not your D&C.  

I have come to the conclusion that there is a culture of bullying that encompasses both right-wing legislators and protestors and everyone in-between who is determined to restrict a woman's right to control her own body. The same groups of lawmakers continue to craft new bills restricting clinics and imposing time limits on abortion services. Even though the majority of them are ultimately overturned, the time and money that is spent by the target of this abuse is debilitating - a fact I'm sure the perpetrators of this brand of abuse are well aware of. Perhaps if the lawmakers had to pay restitution when their restrictions are deemed unconstitutional,  it would slow them down. What if we acknowledged these repeated efforts to curb reproductive freedom as frivolous and saw them for the bullying tactics that they were and forced those who push them to pay the legal fees for both sides when they lose? At this point, other than the punishments handed down by judges and juries to individuals who are caught vandalizing clinics or harming abortion providers, there is no real consequence for the organizations and politicians who continue to push women of childbearing age around. This is bullying, plain and simple, and until we figure out a way to make it hard for these kinds of laws to be written, we will continue to waste our time and money on taking them to higher courts.  

Monday, July 13, 2015

Introteens

Teenagers spend lots of time alone in their room.
Introverts spend lots of time alone in their room.

When you have teenagers who also happen to be introverts, you absorb every spare drop of time that they are willing to spend outside of their room in the presence of others as though it were the most exquisite wine.

And, assuming there are only a finite number of minutes that they are willing to spend around other people, engaging in fun and entertaining activities, letting them go spend summer nights with friends at street fairs and cool bodies of water means that it might be days before you get any of that wine for yourself.

It would be altogether unfair of me to not let them go hang out with friends.

Right?

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Summertime

Away from home is such a mixed bag. Time together with three of my favorite humans - Bubba, Eve, Lola - with nothing to do but enjoy each other is something to be so grateful for. Very little is asked of me in the way of my normal home-based duties. There is no chauffeuring, no cooking, no dish-doing, laundry perhaps once a week in some local, worn-formica-and-linoleum coin-op. And, frankly, I enjoy it. After togetherness all day (even sharing a hotel room with these three loves of my life), that 90 minutes of solitude in the laundromat is welcome. I get to see the natives as they do their wash, take note of the water-logged magazines and who brings their kids with them. I have fantasized about making a photo collage of the facilities and the characters who inhabit them - the rusty machines and change-makers on the walls, the folks who walk in barefoot (in Hawaii, anyway) and the tiny Asian men who shuffle in to wash their boxer shorts full of holes.

Summer vacation is a pleasure that flings me altogether out of my routine and nearly out of my skin. I read and read and, while I am often inspired, the only writing I do is to scratch out ideas on a fluorescent pink pad of paper, the threads of which I hope I can retrieve when I return home. By the time I set foot back on my own worn hardwood floors, I am torn between lying down with the pets on the floor and snuggling or restocking the refrigerator with our favorite things and simply retreating to my room to type, type, type. It takes a few days to slog through the email and the mail mail and the ever-present laundry (why can't I just do it once a week at home? Is that some magic of the vacation? That everyone is judicious with their clothes because they only packed so much? Would it be wrong to just ask everyone to wear their bathing suit every day all summer with some flimsy cover-up instead of shrugging on shorts and t-shirts?).

I am full of ideas and also full of children and pets. There are walks to take, camps to drive to, meals to fix and extra kids to entertain and every summer I hope to stumble on the elusive perfect balance that will allow me to write all I want and soak in every drop of sunshine with my family. I have learned to accept this unease, this tension of desires. This morning, Bubba and the girls all went to the gym together and I asked him, "Is it wrong to say that I can't wait to be here all alone for an hour this morning?" Walking the dog in the cool morning air, I avoided the route that would put me in chatting range with any friendly neighbors and when I reminded myself to breathe and just acknowledge what I am feeling, the image that came to mind was of a taut guitar string that had just been plucked. I vibrate with it all.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Dispatches from Another Place

I used to have this fantasy about vacations - that you could go away and leave everything behind, and I think when I was a kid, that was true. Growing up in the 1970s, I didn't have access to the news unless my parents turned on the TV at night when we got home from whatever adventures we had embarked on during the day. I certainly wasn't going to pick up a newspaper to learn about what else was going on in the world.  I didn't have to spoon out the smelly canned dog food on vacation, and I didn't have to make my bed (unless we were camping in the pop-up trailer, in which case I had to completely dismantle it every morning). I didn't have to take my turn doing dishes except over a campfire-warmed pot of water which was an adventure in itself, and I didn't have to do homework.

As an adult, my first realization that vacations were different came when Bubba and I started traveling with the girls. As my brilliant friend, Sarah, put it, for a mom, a vacation was simply "parenting in a different place." And it was often more challenging when you didn't have all of the things you needed at hand, plus there were often strangers looking at you and judging your mothering decisions when the kids cried or acted bratty.

Even though the girls are now both teenagers and fairly self-sufficient, I have been reminded on our most recent trip that life is life no matter where you go.  Lola started complaining of a toothache the night before we left but I didn't do much beyond imploring her to floss really good and swish with salt water.  By the time we landed in Honolulu, she was inconsolable and I knew something was really wrong.  After one altogether sleepless night and several doses of ibuprofen, we found ourselves at a local dentist on Saturday morning. And there we stayed for the next two and a half hours, getting her an emergency (half) root canal. It's a long story, but they were only able to do start the procedure and put her on antibiotics, and we were told to wait until we get home to have it finished.  She was amazingly resilient and bounced back to engage in all sorts of fun activities within hours - paddle boarding and shadowing a dolphin trainer for five and a half hours. We have had a few rough moments of pain, but other than hoping the tooth holds on until we get home a week from now, it seems to be okay.

And then there is the news.  From the strange (reports of a naked, drunk woman in our area driving her car into a power pole and knocking out electricity to 4000 customers) to the horrifying (the shooting in Charleston), we have access to it all via Facebook and smartphones.  And as I sit on the lanai looking out at the waves crashing on the reef and the families playing on the beach, I am reminded that life is life. That no matter where we go, we are still called upon to be our best selves, that there is no vacation from being human. We may choose to disengage from news reports or work emails for a week or two, but it is the interactions that we have with all of the people around us that make up the entirety of our lives. I could no more ignore the incredible sadness I feel inside as I think of the people who lost their lives inside that church in South Carolina than I could stop breathing.

The dentist who cared for Lola was a lovely, smart, funny woman. Despite her packed schedule and the fact that she was the only dentist in the office that day, she took care with Lola's tooth, encouraging her, and patiently taking the time to ensure that she did as much as she could do that day. I know that her other patients were forced to wait, but despite the dental assistants who periodically came to remind her that there was someone else waiting for an exam in the other room, she never got angry or frustrated. She kindly acknowledged that she was needed elsewhere, and continued doing what she was doing with Lola meticulously until it was done. She explained everything clearly and that evening, as we lounged near the pool with ice water, my cell phone rang. It was her, calling to check on Lola, to make sure she was feeling okay and to see if we had any questions.  She has checked on her twice since then, each time making sure to tell us to enjoy the sunshine while we are here.

Even though we are on vacation from our home, from our normal routine, we are not on vacation from who we are. The kindness of the dentist and the tragedy of Charleston are a stark reminder to me that each and every interaction I have is important. Several journalists have pointed out the pervasive attitudes of racism and hatred that exist in the face of people in South Carolina - from the streets named after Confederate Generals to the flagpole outside the capitol that proudly displays the Confederate flag, not to mention the racist slurs and comments many people hear every day in that part of the country. There are more subtle, but no less harmful, examples in my part of the country, and it is up to us to challenge them, to find ways to be better to each other in small ways every day. Like building blocks, these kindnesses all stack up to create something we can be proud of, instead of tearing down our communities.

We are off to another island for one more week of bliss and beauty and, while I am hoping that we have no more surprises - dental or otherwise - I will do my best to live by the values I have at home; kindness, compassion, love for others, and be grateful for a vacation from the dishes in the kitchen sink.

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Courage and Competition

I don't go in much for pop culture. I'm not much of a TV watcher and I don't know who most of the people on the covers of fashion magazines even are, much less what they are famous for. But I don't live under a rock, either, and so I couldn't possibly have missed the much-talked-about Caitlyn Jenner debut this week. I have witnessed (via my Facebook page) the discussions centering around white privilege, male privilege, and socioeconomic privilege with the same kind of mild interest that I generally reserve for pop culture - basically noting that people are really interested in the parts of things that resonate for them and also that so many folks love tearing away at celebrities for any reason at all.  I have acknowledged all of this and not waded into the fray, knowing that the important conversations will rise like cream to the top and the rest will fade away as soon as the next big celebrity story happens - someone will have a baby or get a divorce or drive while drunk and it will all start over again.

But I woke up this morning to this on my Facebook feed. Apparently, Caitlyn Jenner was awarded ESPN's Courage Award and some people got upset. For whatever reason, I followed the link and spent a few minutes reading about some other athletes who folks thought were overlooked.  Normally, that would be the end of it - I would  note it all with interest and move on into my day. But the whole thing got me thinking about courage. Reading some of the comments from people on Facebook sparked thoughts about competition. And a blog post was born.

Here's the thing. I think our culture has a tendency to see things in such stark, black-and-white terms that whenever someone "wins" an award, we assume that whomever didn't win "lost." In some cases, that is true. If there is a spelling bee in which hundreds of kids are competing and are gradually eliminated, the ones who didn't ultimately win the prize lost, by definition. The folks who don't go home with the Nobel Prize for chemistry "lost," but they are by no means losers.  And I think it is an enormous mistake to frame everything in terms of a competition. In the case of this particular ESPN award, why can't it just be that Caitlyn Jenner's courage is one shining example of courage that they felt deserved to be called out? Why does it have to mean that these athletes are pitted against each other and whomever doesn't get the award is seen as having less courage?

I don't think it is harmful to praise courage. For the sporting world, which is in many cases patriarchal, paternalistic, and often homophobic, to acknowledge the courage of a transgender athlete is pretty amazing.  I hope it signals a turning point for us culturally, and I hope it is a positive sign of things to come. But. I think it is harmful to open a conversation by comparing forms of courage, to pretend that some are more important or more laudable than others.

It takes courage to get up and face a new day when you struggle with depression.
It takes courage to care for a loved one with a chronic physical ailment every single day.
It takes courage to stand up for yourself when you're being attacked.
It takes courage to walk away from an abusive relationship - any abusive relationship.
It takes courage to start something new.
It takes courage to come out of hiding.

There are so many examples of courageous acts that people undertake each and every day and it is a mistake to believe that some are more important than others. What if we held up all of these instances of courage as things to praise? What if we stopped comparing them and acknowledged that what might be easy for one person is tremendously difficult for another, and that anytime someone can overcome an almost debilitating fear or situation to triumph, that triumph deserves to be celebrated? What if we didn't talk about courage in terms of "big" or "small?"

I hope that Caitlyn Jenner is proud of her award. And I hope that we can find ways to lift up all of the people in our lives that display acts of courage in their own lives, to remind them that there is no such thing as a small act of courage.
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