Prompt of the Day:
"Making family time is important to me. How do you balance your children, relationship, and work life?" (Guest post by Ricki Lake, who can be found on Facebook or Twitter @RickiLakeShow)
Funny that a question about balance would come up today. Later this afternoon, like the clock striking midnight and Cinderella turning back into a mere housegirl, I will go to work and when I punch in my employee code into the time clock, my vacation will officially be over. Back to juggling work shifts I was told I would not have to work anymore, back to scrambling to get things together for the divorce attorney, back to wondering how to make food appear in the fridge and on the table. All the while squeezing in every minute I can for reading stories and playing chess with Agent M, working on creative projects, writing, and finding time to shower and sleep. And I plan to take classes next semester again. Oh, and I have a new boyfriend.
So, how DO I balance it all? When I first sat down to write this, my immediate thought was "Honestly, I have no clue. I feel like I have been trying to learn to balance it all ever since the day I made the decision to wing it as a single-but-not-solo parent." I thought of how sometimes the dishes pile up while I focus on the laundry. Sometimes I let Agent M play "Zombie Farm" on my laptop longer than my mum-conscience is comfortable with as I attempt to make breakfast and chat with The Swede. And sometimes I wear leggings to hide the fact that I haven't shaved my legs in days, just so I have the extra time each morning to work in a little bit of "me time" (which usually involves writing or working on an art project).
But then as I typed more and more, I realized - I do balance it all. Not perfectly, but pretty damn well. The plates that I used to struggle to keep spinning, now only need little adjustments here and there, and I have become better at deciding when to start spinning more plates and when to say that I have enough and can't add any more.
There is no set formula. That's the biggest thing I have learned over the past year and a half. Routines that worked one month sometime ended up completely abandoned the next month. But along the way, I've made some good progress figuring out what works for me, and for us. You could say I have a bit of an "advantage" because Agent M splits his time between two homes, and because The Swede lives half a world away. But in a heart beat I would change those things in preference for having more time with both of them, and I admit to bristling when my "advantage" is pointed out to me. On the other hand, as a single-gawd-I-hate-that-term parent, I also have to do the work of two people. Laundry and dish duty falls solely on my head, except for the days when I can get Agent M to unload the dishwasher for me. So, what does work for me? What do I do to keep it all balanced?
- I keep more than one calendar. So many life couching/parenting/divorced parenting/whatever sites say to keep A calendar. One calendar does not work for me. I tired it. I would lose the calendar, forget to put things in it, or have events change so often that whole days looked like scribbled out blotches. So, I have calendars in a few places. I take a photo of my work schedule and keep it on my phone. I write on a wall calendar in Agent M's room of who's week it is and who is picking him up from school each day. When I have a meeting with the attorney or there is something pertaining to the divorce that I need to keep track of, it goes on the calendar in the magazine holder next to my bed. School and soccer events that don't have their own flyers get made into post-it notes and put on the back of our front door (the ones with flyers get left in a tidy stack near the kitchen since or taped to the back of the front door also). When I am on school and work deadlines, digital post-it notes fill my mobile phone screen and laptop screen. This all might sound chaotic to most, but it works for me. And that's a big part of juggling events - finding what works so that you will remember things. No matter what the system, if things slip through the cracks then the system isn't good enough.
- Agent M time is Agent M time...most of the time. Knowing that Agent M would be going to a party without me on Saturday night, I spent the afternoon playing with him in his room instead of doing the dishes. Knowing that I would have this morning to myself while he's at school, we spent half of yesterday playing chess and reading together in my "mama chair" under a big, soft blanket. Being that I don't get to see Agent M every day, the time we have together is time that I want to show him what being a parent is. It is my time to be a role-model, tickle-monster, silly mum, and provider - not a parent that always plunks him in front of a video game or tells him I am too busy working to play. But - the key to that last sentence is "always". There are also the times when we have lazy days and he plays video games for a bit while I work or chat with The Swede. There have been trips to the college where Agent M has had a bag packed with crayons and maze books while I try to navigate getting financial aide and reinstatement appointments. And there have been many mornings where he has come tumbling into my bed to read the writing I am working on from a snuggled under the blankets spot next to me. (This is usually followed by an insistence that it is only fair to let him play on the laptop next since I am "playing" on the laptop.) I try to make the time we share really be the time we share. I try to plan a head and put off the laundry, dishes, and bill paying for the times when he is not here. But when those things spill over, it's not the end of the world. He sees me taking care of life's little duties, just in the same way that I went to classes with my mum now and then, and would run errands with my dad. I think it's important for Agent M to see that, just as much as it is important for him to know that I will set those things aside as often as possible to spend time with him. I'll have him help me cook, or get his input on my writing. I manage what I have on my to-do list to either make the time be about us, or to at least include him in what has to get done.
- I have a big, huge, support net. I would never, ever be able to do all that I do without my family and friends. I have been fortunate to not have to pay for childcare because my parents have almost always been available to watch Agent M or pick him up from school as needed. When I first got served with divorce papers and my world felt like it was imploding, my parents and many other friends and family were there to remind me to just keep my focus, keep breathing, and they'd invite us over for dinner so that I didn't have to spend as much time grocery shopping and cooking. Even now when things feel too big and unbalanced, I have friends who always are there with words of encouragement or suggestions. It's taught me that crap happens, but when you stumble or start to give up, someone will be there to either drag you until you are on your own two feet again or to tell you to get your butt up and quit whining.
- I make myself work. This applies to the dishes, the trash, scooping the litter box, writing a blog post, writing in general, getting on the exercise bike, dusting, crocheting, and generally anything else that at some point I have mentally found myself stomping my foot and pouting, "I don't want to!". Not that I dislike any of these things (ok, maybe dusting...), and they all have great payoffs. It's just the time spent on them. I don't have a ton of free time to get it all done. I'd rather go to the park and feed ducks then pay bills. But, especially as the only adult in the house, there is a lot of responsibility on my shoulders and no one else to take the weight. So, I suck it up and make myself do the work. Procrastinating or putting it off doesn't get things done or the results any quicker, so why bother. My favorite quote from a powerhouse of a writer is basically, "Butt in chair." It really is that simple. I have been just as guilty as others for whining about not having enough time for things, but when something is important, you make the time. I want to be financially independent and stable? I won't get there with my current job. Since that really is important to me, I write. I paint. I crochet. I work on promoting the blog. I set up an etsy account. I get out of bed early and make myself exercise. I read stories from others who have made similar paths and take what I can from their experiences. Would I rather lay in bed at a reasonable hour each night and watch NCIS episodes while eating mini-Snickers until I pass out in a sugar coma? Of course. But that won't make my butt any smaller and it won't pay the bills.
- The Relationship. The Swede is thousands of miles away and lives 9 hours in the future. When I am getting up in the morning, he is preparing to get off of work. Our relationship is consciously dependent on how much time we are willing to put into it, more so in some ways than for two people who can just go run to the grocery store together. We can't have lunch together, but we used to spend my lunch breaks chatting online while I ate in the break room and he checked email or got ready for bed. I have woken up early just to sneak in a bit of extra time to talk to him and he has stayed up late to see me on the webcam. Weekend mornings for me are weekend afternoons for him, and we try to spend at least part of them together on the webcams or by calling each other. He has even webchatted with me and Agent M while I make breakfast. When I was in school, we'd chat on my laptop during classes or he would attempt to keep me awake with MSN messenger nudges as I worked long hours into the night on papers. With so much distance between us, we have committed to taking the time to keep in touch with each other. Sometimes that is as simple as just a quick text message saying "Hey - I'm going out for the night, but I miss you and was thinking of you." And when he took the time to fly out here for 10 days, I made sure those 10 days were as focused on time spent together as possible. When he was here, he asked me why I would want a boyfriend so far away. I jokingly replied, "Then I don't have to put up with your butt taking up all my time each day." It's harsh and sad, but also slightly true. As much as this means I spend less time physically with him, we both have more time in the day to do other things. But, this also means that for me there are no date nights. No getting ready for an hour before we go to a movie, or going to his place to watch movies all night. When one of us is busy or gets off of work late, it means that there are days when we don't talk. But we both agree that we want to see where this goes and we're willing to put in the work for it. To be honest though - sometimes the only thing that keeps my spirits up is the thought that this must be what it is like for couples where one person is in a touring band, or works overseas, or in the military. At least neither of our jobs is as risky and life threatening.
- Most of all - I am not Super Woman. I don't try to do it all and I try to make taking care of myself a priority. I don't want a life filled with an active social calendar and hundreds of lunch dates and play dates. I just want a happy kid, my health, a decently cleaned up house, and a smile on my face when I go to bed each night. I make sure to brush my teeth twice a day. I take vitamins and avoid caffeine. I try to eat food that is good for me and drink lots of water. I drink tea and eat gummy bears because they make me happy. I spend time with people who make me laugh and make me think. Instead of trying to do it all with the end goal being happiness and time to relax, I look for the good in every part of the day. I try to find my time to recharge in every shower when I wash my hair, and every time a song I love comes on the radio. It's not much, but it's enough to make even the dreaded parts of the day a little bit easier to deal with and keeps me from losing myself in the mum/girlfriend/work load shuffle.
So, there it is. Nothing unheard of, nothing fancy. I balance it by trying new things until something clicks and making myself be productive. I focus on what is the most important for me in the moment and give my energy and time to it. I don't stress over a slightly messy house, and when I need help, I ask for it (or at least ask someone who seems to have it all together what they do to make it all work.) I guess you could say I keep it all balanced by following what my heart wants and aiming to get the most out of each day - even when that means just taking the time to relax and recharge. I keep it all balanced by knowing that it will be unbalanced sometimes and trusting that I can always keep the plates all spinning.