It’s not out there, it’s in here

I’m heartily tired of that “supermom” line of discussion, but I bring it up because I actually know one.  Or rather, I know a superwoman who is also a mom, and I think that’s part of what we’re talking about here.  She posted on fb today:

In the last few minutes, while taking a break to pump, I edited a book review first proof, consulted with a colleague through the door about an e-mail, responded to my book editor about a change in an illustration, posted on Facebook to a friend, AND corresponded with Kevin about missing the deadline for Xavier’s chess tournament this Saturday (crap! he’s going to be disappointed). No wonder I feel pulled in a million directions! Just keep swimming…

The comments are even more fascinating — “I am wholly inadequate. Thanks for that”; “If you have a few extra minutes, can you solve the Israeli/Palestinian issue?”; “You are my hero.  I went to the bathroom and played Angry Birds for 15 minutes.”  It would seem that most of us don’t come close to achieving this remarkable synthesis (or at least synchronicity) of work and family life.  I wonder: do we want to?  Is there some satisfaction in keeping things cordoned off a little better?  What are, in fact, the pros and cons of doing so much at once?  I mean, of course we all THINK we want to — it would seem fabulous to have the skill, the ambition, the caring, the capacity to do and be so fully all the many things we are.  But as my friend says, there’s swimming involved.

On my “About” page I offer the age-old image of a river as a way of thinking about the forces that carry us through our lives.  This friend is among the most thoughtful, intentional, capable people I know; she has made conscious choices that take her well outside the conventions of social and professional expectations, and not in easy ways. The idea that even SHE is working hard to “just keep swimming,” well, that has me worried.

See, I envision a point of balance, or rather an act of balancing, as do we all.  And of course there’s that juggling metaphor, too, that has us perpetually in motion, arms sore and eyes strained, working not only to keep the balls in the air but to remember which, when dropped, will bounce and which will shatter. The trouble with all of these images is, as Anne-Marie Slaughter suggests in “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All,” that they assume surplus. But there’s only so much of each of us, in reality, and while great professional and family lives make MORE of us (Gail Godwin’s beautiful novel “Evensong” posits this as one definition of vocation), there’s still just us.

There are choices to be made.  I am in awe of people who make these choices with open hearts and curious minds. Every choice to be somewhere is a choice NOT to be somewhere else, and I for one get a little stuck on where I’m not, where I should maybe really be. People who center themselves in the many aspects of their lives do so not by some magical process of equidistancing but by embracing each aspect in its turn, or (as in my friend’s case), several at once. I picture my niece, who is blind, in a story her mother told me — she had an exciting activity at school, for which she had spent days preparing, and from which she brought home a series of artifacts.  She arranged the objects in a circle on the floor around herself and lay down, touching them one by one, reveling in their presence and the experience that they recalled.  Her mother told me that the “Happiness Project” describes joy as deriving not just from an experience, but from anticipation of and reflection on it…which makes that model of devoted time for centered celebration vital. To me, this means that doing fewer things more deeply, with more whole-hearted preparation, presence, and appreciation, seems a surer way to happiness.  And yet, and yet…if I could be working with my book editor while I pumped, wouldn’t I?  You betcha.

So maybe what we’re saying, again, forever, is that it’s not out there — it’s in here.  If we can bring the joy and attention to what we’re doing, that matters far more than what we are in fact doing. The trick, it seems, is to feel okay about merely pumping, or changing diapers, or bathing a small person, when that is what we have chosen to do, instead of absently running our fingers over the rows of what’s missing. We can do as much or as little as we can do; what we deserve is to honor our own choices by showing up while we do it.

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