Overwhelmed

The other day I was out with a good friend and we were chatting about something as we watched our daughters play when she said, “Are you okay? You seem overwhelmed recently.”

Now, if you know me, you know I’ve got a lot of pride and so I replied, without even thinking, that I was most assuredly not overwhelmed, but instead simply busy at the moment.

But her question stuck with me and sent me on a journey inside myself to really uncover if I was overwhelmed. And the answer is yes, by the sheer amount of things I want to and attempt to accomplish in 24 hours. The length of my to-do list requires that I have to put things (and let’s face it, friends as well) further down than I want to. I micromanage my time down to the minute, which means I rush my kids from one activity to the next so that I can fit it all in before bedtime.

I know I’m not alone in this. I know everyone feels like there is never enough time. Everyone is busy. Whether you’re a working mom or a stay-at-home mom or you’re something in between, there just aren’t enough hours in the day sometimes.

I’ve been meaning to have lunch with a newly-made friend for about 3 weeks now, but this project at work just won’t end and continues to drag on and creep into my personal life negating any chance of a meet-up. Every night I put my little one to bed I think of all the moments I spent doing something else instead of helping her write the alphabet. I think of the friends who are carrying on without me because I never seem to have enough time.

In those moments when I’m feeling overwhelmed, I try to remind myself that these are opportunities to exercise grace and patience. But grace and patience are hard to execute when you’re moving at the speed of light, when your mind is never settled because things are being added to your list faster than you can tick them off.

But then I read an article written by someone who was complaining about people who complain about never having enough time. (Clearly the author was a 20-something-year-old childless person who, like all 20-somethings, believed they had stumbled upon the key to one of life’s greatest mysteries simply by surviving their teens.) In the article, the author said a lot of stuff that was obvious and trite, but perhaps the most important piece, the piece that made the article worth remembering was this: the key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.

A key priority had fallen so far down on my list of things to-do that I had forgotten it was there. And that was taking care of me. Of setting heathy boundaries for my mental wellbeing so that I could function happily (dare I say with peace and grace?). I can say no to that project meeting scheduled after my working hours and my eldest can help my youngest with her alphabet one evening.

I understand that there are some aspects of my schedule that are fixed and at this juncture in my life, planning works better than “impromptu”. But when things begin to feel overwhelming, it’s probably a good time for me to stop and assess my priorities. All of our lists of things to-do are too long to ever complete because each day brings about new endeavors, new responsibilities, and new tasks.

Maybe, just maybe, that 20-something-year-old was on to something.

Seasons

Your ability to recognize the changing of seasons in life sharpens with age. It’s not that you’re inattentive when you’re younger, it’s just you haven’t witnessed enough of this phenomenon yet to discern its lessons of impermanence.

I can tell that I’m approaching autumn. I’m not sure what it will bring, but I’ve stopped worrying about that. I’m learning to be more present, to plan without becoming obsessive, and that in all things change persists.

My youngest will start school in the new year. I’m excited, but I’m also sad. It marks the end of a certain degree of reliance on me and the start of her burgeoning independence. I’m turning 40 in a couple of weeks, and while with age comes a new set of “realities”, there’s also this blossoming peace I had not anticipated. I hesitate to describe it as contented because in my 20’s and 30’s contentment was such a negative word. But now, as the season cycles through its next change, contented is exactly what I feel.

Gone is the cocky yet insecure woman-child of my 20’s and the stressed-out overachiever of my 30’s. The value I place on friendship and family has doubled and I find myself gravitating toward smaller, more tight-knit groups of women who are in the midst of their seasonal change.

I try to understand more and judge less.

This is the Age of Reevaluation. Marriages grow moldy, careers seem boring, and we yearn for the freedom and bliss of our youth. This is also when some of us finally muster the courage to make the changes we’ve been putting off. My husband recently accepted an early retirement package, then turned down a job to pursue the one he really wanted. I’m exceedingly proud to say that after a few uncomfortable months, taking the risk paid off. He’s now doing exactly what he wants in the industry he wants with a company that gets him excited.

For me, it has been starting my own business, Mosaic Writing. I yearn for the flexibility that only comes with being my own boss. But it can be scary. I question if it makes sense to leave 12+ years of experience and achievements in one industry to start again in another. But in those 12+ years I’ve learned that a key ingredient to life is happiness, and so the decision was easier than I had anticipated.

Surprisingly, it was my kids that gave me the courage to change. I want them to believe in themselves and to be brave despite their apprehensions. Having them at this age is great because it keeps me agile. They prevent me from becoming trapped in a mindset that fossilizes with age. Like why can’t you wear your favorite dress to bed? Why must you avoid the puddles or go down the slide the “proper” way? And why can’t I start my own business at 40?

Autumn feels nice.

Mosaic

Aside

Headlines are overly sensational. I suppose they have to be, but I wonder what the headlines read like in the days of the herald.

We are living in Orwellian times. Governments spy on us. The truth has leaked, and it’s up to us if we want to do anything about it. Yet, I wonder if we’ll do much of anything at all because most of us have nothing to hide. Sure, we don’t want anyone knowing exactly what we search for on the internet, but since we aren’t being embarrassed by a few indiscretions, we look the other way. If it doesn’t negatively affect our day-to-day lives, will we change? Will we stand up? Will we care beyond the casual conversations with our friends? But, then again, history has shown from time-to-time we will march for an ideal. We will demand equality, the truth, and fairness. I wonder if now is one of those times.

I read an article the other day, the tag was something like Active Mums Have Active Children. I sighed. It was a physical sigh where my entire body slumped. Some corner of me laughed. Moms are expected to be everything. All the time. To everyone. Because children are our treasures, our lives, our futures, and we are expected to get it right, despite all the contradictory information we’re bombarded with, the time limitations of a 24-hour day, the physical needs of day-to-day life like food and shelter, and then the emotional needs like love and support. For a brief moment I felt like I was running in circles trying to be this perfect mom, wife, friend, and human being. Then I said, fuck-it. My kids are active enough.

Having girls changed me. I became more pragmatic. It is something that I hope to pass to them. Now when my daughter catches herself from falling over, she says, “I saved myself!” It all started one day when she asked me to save her–I cannot recall if I did or not–but I know I told her that she must learn to save herself. It would appear that she understood me. I feel like that’s a small win.

Community

I was born in South Carolina. It was a rural town with route numbers for addresses. There was a corn field to the right of us and a soybean field in front that was also a tobacco field and a cotton field depending on the year. We had dogs. These weren’t the kind of dogs you took to dog parks. (There were no dog parks back then.) These were the kind of dogs that lived in a pen in the backyard, past the washing line. They dug holes to get out at night and often killed the stray cats that I played with.

We used to burn our trash until there was a dumpster installed between us and our neighbor. Then we drove it there.

We did our big grocery shopping in the next town over, about an hour’s drive away. There was a local store, more of a mart, where everyone knew my name. Well, not my name per se, but they knew my kin. I was Bubsy’s gran (i.e. Bubsy’s granddaughter). I liked that. I felt special in a small way. I felt like part of a community.

I’ve been searching for that sense of community ever since I left. Funny that I should find it in Singapore, where I don’t have any kin, but those at my local hawker center and wet market know who I am. It’s easy to remember me. I stand out. I’m a Black woman with short, natural curls. I push a long double stroller with an adorable little baby that’s clearly biracial. I turn a lot of heads.

It’s become a part of my morning routine: drop off eldest at school, then head to the hawker center for wonton noodles and iced lemon tea followed by local coffee. The tea reminds me that I’m Southern. It tastes almost the same as my Aunt Geraldine’s. No one ever made it as good as she did.

For those who don’t know, a hawker center is like an outdoor food court. Because the weather is tropical, there’s a lot of alfresco dining in Singapore. There are different food stalls from which to choose. The closest you get to a western breakfast is peanut butter or kaya toast. You can get that with or without runny eggs (half-boiled eggs where the white is just as runny as the yolk). There are stalls with Malaysian, Chinese, Indian, and Muslim cuisine. There are also a few nondenominational ones as well–like the bean curd stall that sells all different flavors. (Mango and almond just happen to be my favorite.)

I have this little routine that the lady at my favorite drink stall finds funny. I order my noodles, and while the “auntie” is preparing them, I go and place my drink order. She knows that I will order two drinks from her: first my iced lemon tea to drink with my charsiew- and chili-flavored noodles, and then my local coffee afterwards. She’s learned not to try to sell me both drinks at once. She accepts that I’m willing to make the second trip.

Singaporean coffee is an art form. It’s strong and thick and only $.80 for dine-in, $.90 for takeaway. I savor my coffee at the end of my breakfast. I usually meet a friend or two who have also just dropped off their oldest at school. We sit and chat about nothing–mostly what it’s like to be stay-at-home moms with kids who’re constantly bringing home some new virus in which to infect the rest of us. We support one another through our share of challenges: every night it’s the same thing at dinner time, why am i constantly repeating myself, she won’t ever put on her bloody shoes! You know, mom shit.

After we’ve eaten and fed our little ones who are too young for school–they start school quite early here in Singapore; I’d guess the average age is around two–we head up to the wet market. A wet market is like a farmer’s market. The food costs a fraction of the price of the grocery store’s and is twice as fresh. It’s not really the place for organic, but who can afford organic in Singapore except the truly wealthy?

This is my community. The aunties and uncles know my face and those of my children. They smile at me and make baby noises at my 11-month-old. I don’t live in the HDB that houses my hawker center and wet market, but I live nearby. My eldest daughter plays at the playground, and the moms, aunties, and a-ma’s sit on the bench with me and watch. Sometimes we’re separated by language, but more often than not everyone’s willing to strike up a conversation. It usually starts with asking me if my youngest is a boy or girl. I’m always surprised at their surprise when I say, “girl.” They most always ask again to make sure they’ve heard correctly.

I’m not “Bubsy’s gran” anymore, but I am part of a community again, and it feels nice.