A girlfriend of mine makes decision based on: “Which choice will disappoint the fewest people?”
Her question differs slightly from mine: “Which choice will make me feel the least guilty?”
Standing at a fork in the road is stressful. And for many of us, there is almost always a fork in our face.
I’ve been lucky. My worries haven’t included paying the rent, putting gas in the car, affording an upcoming doctor visit. But they’ve been tough choices just the same: How much do I work? Where do my kids go to daycare and school? What activities should they do? Where should we live?
I have found some salvation from decision-making stress. It’s the phrase: “You can have it all, but not all at once.” And it comes from the book Sequencing, By Dr. Arlene Cardozo.
Dr. Cardoza encourages women to look at life as a progression of ordered segments. There’s your professional work life, then concentrated child-rearing years (which may or may not involve some degree of work), then re-entry in a work world which balances career and a family with older kids. She realizes it’s not always cut and dry and she addresses lots of ways to reconcile work and parenting. But her point is—you can’t have it all, baby.
I interpret this as looking at life as a five-course meal, rather than an all-you-can-eat buffet. Rather than fill my plate with as much as I can stomach and feel horrible afterwards. I should savor each part of the meal individually, appreciating each part before moving on to the next.
I had lunch with a girlfriend and my nine-year-old son recently. My son was darling and chatty and she was happy to entertain him with questions. I tried to enjoy both their company, but instead I just sat there, tense and a little frustrated. I wanted to Talk, with a capital T… about jobs, marriages, our emotional states. I wanted to bond. And I needed to do it quickly, because I had a packed afternoon. I felt bitter that I couldn’t be connected friend involved, happy mommy at the same time.
Then I thought of that mantra: You can have it all, but not all at once.
I reminded myself that this sharing of lunch with a friend and a happy nine-year old was part of a special segment of my life. Granted, I wasn’t free and unencumbered. But I wasn’t working 50 hours/week so I got to have lunch. And I had neither screaming baby nor crabby, hung-over teenager next to me to ruin the hour completely. I would have liked to talk intimately between bites of salad, but I will get there. Maybe next week. Maybe in two years. Lunch with a nine-year old is a step in a long parenting journey. And I should change my attitude to embrace what I have versus lamenting what I don’t.
I applied this mantra again recently when I took a part-time job where I’m working more hours than my current 10-hour/week gig. On the one hand, I’ll miss the time at home during the day; but the phase of diapers and Elmo has come to an end. And I wish I would be paid more. Maybe that happens in the stage when I don’t need a job with so much flexibility. So I’m happy. It’s the right thing for this time in my life. I do get stressed and worry that I coulda, woulda, shoulda. But I remind myself that life is a journey and to try to appreciate each segment for what it is.
That darn commercial for Enjoli perfume; “I can bring home the bacon” (work), “fry it up in a pan” (be the consummate mommy) and “never let him forget he’s a man” (and be a feisty wife as well) had a great melody; but in real life, combining parenting with anything means compromise.
Many of us picked up the idea somewhere that compromise wouldn’t be necessary—that we could, indeed, have it all. Our mothers fought for our right to fair employment. We were raised with goals of higher education, egalitarian marriage, co-parenting, rewarding careers. And so we feel if we don’t have it all, every day, we’re compromising. We’re inadequate. We haven’t achieved the tri-fecta of career satisfaction, joyful mommy-hood, and relationship ecstasy.
Thinking of life in segments, arranged in a way that gets us sanely through the journey of life, puts compromise in a better light. We’re not picking one thing over another. We’re not giving up dreams or goals. We’re putting things in an order and reminding ourselves that we will reach those goals, but may have to wait until this phase—raising babies and working around pre-school schedules, perhaps, or putting a spouse through school—is over.
Today I’m looking at my still-undone list of summer projects. I feel the stress creep into my body. I used to accomplish more. How did make it through graduate school if these days I cannot manage to “sort winter clothes” or “organize pre-school art projects?” This is the “raise three kids” phase. I’d rather watch them play baseball or be there to drive them to dance class than cross things off my household “to do” list.
I can do it all. But not all at once. This is not the “perfect house” stage. Maybe later. Or not.