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.

Balance

The very first thing I remember writing was a short story (well, a scene more than a complete story) about this kick-ass female FBI Agent who did some pretty unrealistic, but totally cool things like save the President from a dozen trained ninjas, only to have the private ceremony where she would receive a Presidential Medal interrupted because CASE (Community of Advanced Space Exploration)–look, I was only 12-yrs-old–needed her special services to help capture a renegade shipper (think trucker) who had escaped into Sector 9 (deep space).

A lot has changed about my writing since then, but the one consistent theme that I’ve been reluctant to shake is the strong female protagonist. I grew up after the first glass ceilings had been shattered. We had already won the right to vote before I was born and so this was a given for me. I was a latch-key kid to a single mom who was an Accountant working in a building so tall she had to take an elevator up to her office. She rode the metro to work, went on business trips, and earned enough to support us quite comfortably on her own. Grace Jones, Madeline Albright, and my mom were my heroes back then.

I’ve only just realized it, and I have never told my mom this, but by bringing me to her office (probably because school was out and she couldn’t find a sitter), she gifted me the ability to dream big. Seeing her attend meetings and answer questions with confidence showed me it was possible–and perhaps normal.

Ever since I began working part-time, I’ve not been able to pick up my girls from school. I was quite sad at first, but I tried to find comfort in the fact that at least I was working part-time. What about those moms who worked full-time or had jobs that required travel?

But then the most interesting thing happened. They adjusted. Sure, they can be a bit more clingy at times than they used to be, but you know what, they appreciate me more. When I come home they run to the door to greet me, and for about 30 seconds my heart fills with so much love I get choked up. Then their perpetual battle to reclaim discarded toys from one another resumes.

But you want to know the truth? The real truth that was so shocking I cried when it hit me? I’m so much happier working. Ha-ha. No, seriously! Re-engaging that part of my brain that had brought me so much joy was like finally breaking out from a tunnel into the light of day again. Sure I am fundamentally changed and my priority will always be my family, but those career traits and skills that I spent so much time developing aren’t dead, they were simply waiting until the right time to reassert themselves.

I’m learning it’s a balancing act. While I love my job and the people I work with are genuinely amazing (or their closet serial killers because it is hard to believe a group of people can be this supportive–I’ve worked in investment banking so I’ll admit I’m a bit cynical), being able to switch off and not let the work creep into my home life is a skill that I’m now having to acquire.

I’ve let my blog grow stale. I’ve gotten side-tracked and won’t finish my novel by the end of this year like I had planned. And I’ve been meaning to take the girls to the zoo, but keep allowing “other things” to get in the way.

It’s an amazing problem to have: the need to learn to balance a job you enjoy with your personal goals and the family you love. But it requires work. And discipline.

I’ve decided to set an alarm 15 minutes before my work day ends so that I can organize myself for the next. I’m going to spend that hour after work reconnecting with my novel. I owe it to myself. And I feel more happy and am a better mom when I’ve accomplished other things besides getting my children’s shoes on, and keeping them on, in under 10 minutes. (Trust me, that’s another acquired skill.)

This new chapter of my journey has been a pleasant surprise. For a while there I’ve been waiting for the other shoe to drop, but instead, I think I’m just going to relax and trust the process.