Sunday, January 18, 2009

A Writer's Challenge: Juggling Work & Family

I must begin this blog with a disclaimer: at this time in my life, I do not have to juggle my business and a live-at-home family. I am no longer married, and my daughters have their own homes. So, what I have to say about this particular balancing act obviously does not reflect my current situation. Nonetheless, for many, many years, my life revolved around work and family, each of which demanded 100 percent of my effort and energy. The memories are vivid.

The family came first; the writing didn’t make its appearance until almost a decade later. I had a husband and two very active young children. Writing, which began as a lark, turned into an adventure and ultimately became a consuming passion. In the meantime, I was a wife and a mother with all the myriad responsibilities that role demanded. It was still the era of “Father Knows Best” and “The Donna Reed Show,” which meant shirt-waist dresses, dinner on the table every night at six, and driving a station wagon full of little people to and from nursery school. I wrote in stolen moments, when the girls were in school or after they went to bed.

In the beginning, writing had to be squeezed in between all of the other stuff of life. I’m sure it was viewed by my family as a “hobby,” but all of that changed when I landed my first job as a full-time writer. That’s when the competition between the two halves of my life really intensified. By that time, I was a single parent, in addition to being a floundering new editor of a city magazine. My little girls were probably the original latchkey kids. They could let themselves in the house and make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, but that didn’t stop them from calling me 100 times a day. There never seemed to be enough of me to go around. The hours at work were long and stressful; my salary was a joke; and my health zigzagged all over the place.

Each step in my career brought more responsibility, less flexibility, and longer commutes. Guilt became my constant companion. I was never a Brownie leader or a room mother. I didn’t go on field trips or take an active role in the PTA. I remember being 20 miles away, interviewing a college president, when my editor called to tell me my youngest daughter had broken her arm, falling off the top of the cheerleaders’ pyramid. The president was very gracious when I left suddenly.

On the bright side, I allowed gymnastics meets and disco practice in my living room; encouraged having friends sleep over; and subtly forced my daughters to learn to cook, the alternative being starving to death. I took some great pictures at real gymnastic meets and of the cheerleaders at football games, helped with many English papers, and learned to “edit on my eyelids” when the girls were in college. I tell you this because I now know this is how many writers live — employed, moonlighting, full-time, part-time, male or female. In today’s world, juggling roles is simply the way it is.

It was and is useless to haul around a bag of guilt and, obviously, beyond stressful to think you can do everything, be everywhere, and keep all those plates in the air without dropping one now and then. If I had it to do over again, I would do things differently.

• I would face reality and kick the guilt. “You gotta do what you gotta do,” as they say; and feeling that you are failing your family doesn’t help you, them, or your work.

• I would communicate more assertively and less defensively. If your family (husband, children, parents, whoever) understands the challenges you face, and you understand theirs, you can work together to help each other over the rough spots.

• I would make and enforce a simple agreement. When I’m working, please don’t disturb me unless it is a real emergency; when we are together as a family, I won’t let work interfere.

• I would strive for balance in my life. I would figure out what is truly important and what is extraneous. If you have your priorities straight, even if there are only two or three of them (work, family, yourself, not necessarily in that order), you won’t constantly pour your energy down the drain.

• I would put self-care high on that list of what is important. If you run yourself into the ground, stress out, or get sick, you will be of little good as a writer, mother or father, spouse, or caretaker of an aging parent.

• I would ease up on the perfectionism. If you can’t do it all, you certainly can’t begin to do it all perfectly. When you die, do you really want your epitaph to read “She died with a bottle of Windex in her hand”?


Kim said...

Great reflections, Bobbi. Hopefully some readers will take them to heart. Far better for the epitaph to read "She died with ink on her fingers" (metaphorically speaking) than "with a bottle of Windex in her hands".

MBrown said...

What a timely post, Bobbi. Your reflections struck a deep chord in me. I was just talking with my husband, Kevin, about the juggling you describe and the guilt that seems to be an inherent part of my life.

Linda Austin said...

Good post, Bobbi, I'm in the midst of this, plus taking care of my mom. I will say I've learned to let the housekeeping go, and proud of it!

Mrs. Wryly said...

There isn't a female working parent who couldn't use this advice. I hope you're submitting this as an article to a magazine.

Those sure were some cute kids you had at home, making PB&J sandwiches and phone calls to you at work. It brings back memories for me, as my mom worked, too.

Thanks for sharing!