On competence

Those of you who had careers you loved and excelled at and left to raise kids, you’ll know what I mean when I say that I CRAVE a sense of competence.  I used to zip around my world, well-dressed, well-informed, good at what I did.  It gave me (an unduly large) sense of purpose and it helped me feel at home, useful, valued.  Then, well, I had babies.

Now, of course, I’m not well-dressed and I rarely zip anywhere (unless there’s the sound of choking involved, or tiny feet on forbidden stairs).  But more importantly, I’m way outside of my zones of expertise.  Over the months and years, of course, you get good at some things — you learn the tricks to making the baby eat more applesauce, fall asleep faster, laugh more often.  You learn how to wash their hair without getting water in their eyes.  You learn how to draw a little bit, put on puppet shows, and dance with two small people at once.  But mysteries abound, and the failure to solve them is both constitutive of our tasks as parents and, more simply, a persistent pain in the ass.  How best to assist night-weaning?  How to promote potty-training? When to shift naptime?  There are days — like today — where the pre-5-am wake-up is not good for anyone, and breakfast time is generally a whine-fest.

toilet repair detritusFortunately for all of us, today is also a DAY CARE DAY!!  Hah HAH!  I can get something DONE!  Unfortunately, the prime task at hand is fixing the broken toilet.  I realize that kind of sounds like a punch line, and it kind of IS, but here’s the thing: I love this kind of work.  I love it when you can actually see your accomplishment.  (Of course, I hate hate hate the three trips to Home Depot involved, especially because I planned ahead, but who knew the little pre-packaged nut-and-bolt set contains not the necessary THREE, but a useless TWO bolts?)  But there are so many things in our world and our lives that involved delayed gratification, or none at all, that something this concrete is, well, pretty awesome.  Plus, it uses ingenuity (that’s right, I thought to use the pliers as a sort of block to hammer lose the big central nut that would not come loose and was too big for our biggest wrench) AND WD40, and that’s a winning combination.  And I have to admit: I’ve always loved hardware stores.  They fill me with a sense of possibility, as if I might be doing more than just fixing a toilet, as if I might be building a beautiful, sunlit studio right between the asparagus patch and the apple tree.  Hmmmm.

Competence and achievement, or the promise of them, have the power to pull me through another tired day, but more than that, they help me look at the usual crap fromclean desk a different position.  Today, for example, I didn’t just sort and file papers (again!): I cleaned my desk!  It’s beautiful, with a new lamp and an inspiring new print from my artist friend Kim Crichton (check her stuff out here!).  I didn’t just manage the ongoing saga of familial healthcare: I was an effective advocate for my son in a meaningful conversation with a doctor that settled some important points.  The energy to do things today, and the capacity to see them as whole and important, come from the toilet’s reminder that I am competent, that I can achieve things…and now the desk will remind me of the same thing.  (Right up until it’s covered in clutter again, I suppose…hey, we’re all a work in progress.)  My environment usually conspires against me, rife as it is with the needs and detritus of people’s lives.  But sometimes it’s useful to remember that the spaces we live in can also show us our best selves, if we’re willing to work to let them.


3 comments on “On competence

  1. Sherry Sims says:

    I thoroughly agree with your sense of satisfaction for solving problems, fixing the toilet and all. Concrete tasks are a wonderful and necessary balance to intellectual ones.
    I sent your Dad this with a comment about the appeal of an uncluttered desk. He may find it an interesting concept!

  2. I love this post and relate completely. And BTW, you have a trick for keeping the water out of the eyes in the tub? Do tell!

  3. annasbartel says:

    Rebecca, we let Ezra know it’s up to him: if he can keep his head tipped back, water will stay out of his eyes. (we have a little whale-cup we use to pour carefully.). And for shampoo rinsing, I hold a washcloth oagainst his forehead as well. Works most of the time and usually when it doesn’t, it’s because he tipped his head forward. Oops.

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