In this moment, I am hoping that every family we have served in our practice (and many we haven’t yet met), learns something that I learned only when I HAD to. Here is my story.
I don’t often talk about how I came to start a private practice, but the wonderful place that is Better Together Family Therapy is a consequence of my quest for work life balance. That sounds very noble, but the truth is that I was hauled here kicking and screaming. I left my much beloved full time job as an agency Director only because my family started coming apart at the seams. And no, the lesson for you isn’t that you must leave your job (though that might be true for some). Keep reading. We’ll get there.
At my core, I am a bit of a workaholic. I take way too much pleasure from a well designed excel spreadsheet. I love how I feel about myself after a busy day. At some point I started to notice that when I chased that good feeling daily I didn’t love how I felt about my parenting. It wasn’t a guilt thing. I didn’t ENJOY my kids. I managed them for a few hours in between being at work and pulling the laptop back out to finish whatever project was on my mind. I was irritable and rushed. And my work projects stayed on my mind.
I wasn’t my best self in those days, but I didn’t know it. The self I was at work felt great. I was thanked regularly for the work I was doing, and was proud of what I had accomplished. I felt important. At home I felt none of that. I stayed at work as long as I could because it just felt better. I chose to answer work calls when I probably didn’t have to. And that had consequences. The pressure of parenting in that context was more than my partner could handle and contributed to a serious health crisis. After his hospitalization, it was clear to me that my children (8 and 3 at the time) needed their sense of security back, and I had to be available to give it.
Hopefully none of you have had to endure a health crisis in this pandemic. If you have, I hope that you are on a path to emotional and physical recovery or are finding peace in small moments as you navigate the crisis itself. But even without a health crisis, the forced changes to our daily lives happening right now offer opportunity for change. This is your moment to experience life a little differently, and notice how it makes you feel. Experiment with doing more or less of something. What does it do for you? TO you?
Personally, I had to create that moment. I couldn’t slow down and be a fully present parent while also keeping my agency job. The lure of work was just too much. And that wasn’t about the expectations of the boss or the agency. It was about me and the way I set my personal boundaries. It was the pace I had worked at since pulling consecutive all nighters in college. I set that pace, and I couldn’t trust myself to keep the job I had and change the pace by willpower alone. I had to choose to leave the job I was good at to do the one I felt inadequate at (parenting). I needed a total reset. That was my personal path, but it doesn’t have to be yours. Your moment to self reflect is right now. This forced reset is painful. It has a learning curve. You will not feel good at it, but you will get to know a new side of yourself. That part of you is something that you may want to bring more (or less) of to your new normal someday.
Six years have gone by since I made the temporary leap to full time parent, and EVERYTHING in my life moves at a slower pace. I am back to working full time, but I am different. I think more slowly. I pack fewer activities into a day. I exercise. I cook a LOT more, and I don’t multitask while I do it. Cooking is my mindfulness practice. I answer email on a schedule, and then only the ones that absolutely require a response. I treat my phone like a wall phone. It stays on a table somewhere while I go about my day. I savor spots of sunshine coming in the windows, warm cups of tea, cool rainshowers, music, and cats on my lap. Yes, I am sometimes still enough to get cats on my lap. And the amazing part? I have collaborative, joyful relationships with both of my kids. (This doesn’t mean that they never talk back or that they always do what I ask on the first try. It means that the spirit of collaboration, the intent to do right by each other is there.)
I am still a workaholic at heart. I stay at work longer than I have to because I WANT to, but I feel the pull of family time calling me home. I genuinely want both. I do miss aspects of the other life. For a moment last year, when that old job opened up at the same time I was choosing whether to expand the practice, I was tempted to apply. But I make better decisions now. I am so much more self aware, and I’m a pro at saying no to commitments I don’t wish to lose my calm for. And THIS is the lesson I hope will reveal itself to you.
We live in a fast paced place at a fast paced time. But we also maintain that pace by habit when we don’t have to. I see you, friends of mine, keeping up rigid 9 to 5 schedules from home while your bosses aren’t. I see you working the hours you worked to support travel soccer and private school, and dance class, all of which don’t really exist right now. I see you struggling to fill the days with new hobbies and classes to keep up the pace. Now is the moment to self reflect and truly ask: is it worth it?
You CAN slow down. And this whirlwind of trying to parent and work simultaneously is actually your chance. THIS is your crisis point. This is the moment in which to notice what serves you and what doesn’t, and to plan your next normal.
I wish you deeper self awareness, as you compare and contrast the life you once led and the one you have now. I wish you greater capacity for drawing contentment from the simple things. I wish you new kinds of shared fun with your children and/or spouse. These are the building blocks of a new life, the pieces you can intentionally and deliberately hold on to moving forward. Notice your new feelings, your new capacity, and let some old things go.
Need a strategy for getting there? Aim to be your optimal self, rather than the optimal parent or professional. Look at everything you are asking of yourself in a day. Circle the things that are actually required to earn your income or to keep your family alive. The rest of the parenting tasks on your list are optional. Yes, even the ones aimed at maximizing your children’s nutrition and exercise and minimizing their screen time. They are OPTIONAL. Drop them all from your expectations of yourself. Now add your self care tasks, the things that make you truly feel better when you do them more. If there’s room, add back a few parenting items that matter most to you, reminding yourself that you are making a CHOICE to add those to your plate. This may sound like the opposite of parenting advice. We are zooming in on you, because from your best self flows your best parenting. There is no workaround.
Your kids can build their self awareness too. Take a look at how they are doing with fewer commitments on their calendars. Are they learning to be still more often? Is there something simple they are appreciating more? What is making them feel good on a particular day? They can have more of this always. Ask them to remember how they felt emotionally when they were heavily scheduled. How many of those activities would they need to rejoin in the future to feel content, feel whole? Which ones?
Perhaps the bonus lesson here is that we can all start over and live differently if we need to. I know that I can because I have done it before, and that brings a sense of calm in this moment of uncertainty. If you’ve never started over (really? never? not even when you became a parent?), trust me when I say I know that you can. There are different versions of happiness just waiting to be discovered. This might not look for you how it looked for me. You may discover that you need to work more and ask your partner to take over some of your home tasks so you can. You may become aware of the need to change career fields or living arrangements. Really noticing what works for you often brings painful realizations about what doesn’t. But when you are a better, fuller version of yourself, new doors open for you. Those doors, for me, were the doors to a thriving private practice. I look forward to seeing what they are for you.