Pushing On/Pushing Back

In my twenties, running as fast and hard as I could seemed like the best way to ensure I was climbing my ambition in the right direction.

But now, more than ten years past my college graduation…I’m seriously assessing the cost of such behavior and asking myself,

What do I pay for in mental fragility, depletion of emotional reserves, temper with my kids, and closeness with my husband when I run myself completely out of proverbial steam?

A therapist recently gave a lecture at my mom’s group and shared a story of helping an overwhelmed couple restructure their life (which wasn’t going at all like they wanted it to) into something nearer the life they both hoped for. She instructed them to imagine family memories they hoped to make in the next five years, ten years, fifteen years, etc. Then to reverse-engineer their current life to make space for making these memories.

Begin with the memories you want to have.

I’m endlessly discovering I’ve made myself a slave to hyper-efficiency, trying to optimize and maximize the productivity possible in the time I’ve allocated for my personal work.

During a self-assessment of emotional and mental health last week, I tested into a dangerously-high category of burnout.

Time for a change, am I right?

What memories do I want to make? What do I yearn to remember when I look back on these years? What do I want to be remembered for?

I want to be a mother who is present and delighted with her children while she is with them. So I’ll make focused time to *be* with my kids. I’ll strive to tidy up after I’ve played a bit.

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I want to teach my son and watch him make learning connections as we do hands-on activities like cooking, art, and gardening. I’ll save some of these projects to intentionally do at a slower speed with my son at my side, learning to be my helper.

I want to remember parenting as a teamwork sporting event, working with my husband, finding times to laugh together and to be vulnerable in our struggles. So I’ll be honest with him and I’ll look for ways to be silly and lighten the mood.

I want to be a creative writer who is neither stifled nor depressed, which means chances to write and dream and build and create the worlds of my fiction. So I’ll continue finding and carving out time for this in my week.

I want a healthy mind, refreshed and unstrained. (I don’t want piles of memories of screaming at my kids or backing the car into a post, or dissolving into furious tears…all of which happened in the space of one day last week). So I’ll plan regular, restful activities for myself that aren’t just staring at a movie screen at night, but truly restorative activities for me. A weekend trip to a museum followed by lunch–by myself. Coffee and a pastry at my favorite Italian cafe.

For a goal-oriented and driven person such as Elise, I run a real risk of tucking my chin to my chest and charging ahead so effectively that…I might actually miss everything else in the blur. And someday soon, my energy will give way and I’ll be down in the dirt, wondering if I’ll find the strength to stand again.

Why this change in perspective? I’m pretty sure a good chunk of it was due to having kids. My four-year-old and one-year-old remind me constantly that I can’t love them well or be a fun-to-be-around partner for my husband when I’ve burned through all my daily reserves by 6 pm every day. (Welcome home from work, honey! I’m a basket-case!!!)

I’ve recently begun reading the book Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang. I found it while scrolling through “available now” audiobooks at my library, and took it for a sign. The author draws some very sobering connections between rest and effective, insightful work (“work” defined as the stuff we were made to do, that we feel is our calling or purpose or particular passion). The author insists that work and rest are not polar opposites, but rather complementary and equally necessary elements to healthy, vital human life and creativity. Pang laments the American tendency to wear “overworked” as a badge of honor. Humans aren’t meant to live like this.

I, for one, am personally tired of recognizing some issue in my psych-emotional health, a place where growth is truly needed, and then doing nothing fruitful toward addressing it.

So. I acknowledge I am burning out. Yes, this is normal for hundreds of thousands of parents. But normal does not mean healthy, nor does it mean what’s best for me and my family (another quip from the therapist’s lecture).

I want to strive for best. Not settle with normal. I’ve made a list of activities that are not designed to be productive. Simply restful, restorative, joyful, invigorating, and stimulating to my mind. I’ll aim to do one once a month. I’ll also set a limit of 2-3 nights a week in which work takes place after dinner. I’m sick at heart from putting my kids to bed and then rolling up my sleeves for chores once dinner is put away.

I’m aiming for small changes. Doable changes. And a more compassionate heart toward the mind and body that carry me through life, so that I can be a long-distance runner in my life and career, instead of a sprinter.

Happy New Year, everyone! May your goals be worthwhile and achievable!

XO

About Elise

Elise Stephens began her career in writing at age six, illustrating her own story books and concocting wild adventures. Stephens counts authors Neil Gaiman, C.S. Lewis, and Margaret Atwood among her literary mentors, and has studied under Orson Scott Card. She dreams often of finding new ways to weave timeless truths into her stories. Her novels include Moonlight and Oranges (2011), Forecast (2013), and Guardian of the Gold Breathers (2015), a finalist for the INDIEFAB Book of the Year. She lives in Seattle with her family. Follow her on Twitter @elisestephens and Author Elise Stephens on Facebook.

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