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Negotiating my Non-negotiables

By June 24, 2015

Jaime Tollas It’s 10:30am on Wednesday. I forfeited my workout to publish an article on the blog before the 7:30am drop-off-at-school run, cancelled a 10am meeting to answer long-neglected emails and write an RFP before noon, and now the clock tick-tick-ticks towards 1:30pm when it will be time to mobilize for the pick-up-from-school run. I am still in my workout clothes, still hoping, while the sun shines through the window of my home office and I remember yet another Thing I Meant to Accomplish Today.

To work out, or to work? To cultivate new business, or just try to keep improving on an old one? The cell phone bings with a text from a friend, a fellow self-employed-mother-of-two: Dare we treat ourselves to a movie matinee on Friday? Isn’t that why we kicked the office to the curb? For the freedom? Check the calendar. Check the to-do list. Say yes? Then feel guilty for feeling guilty. Sigh.

My life used to have a lot of non-negotiables. Daily exercise: non-negotiable. Work deadlines, work ethic, work excellence: non-negotiable. Weekly, unscheduled time to myself: non-negotiable. Weekly manicure: non-negotiable.

In a matter of moments six-and-a-half years ago, that changed. One non-negotiable. Just one. The child. And then, of course, his little sister. The children.

What does it mean to go back to work after this seismic change? What does it mean for your job to have your priorities so suddenly and utterly re-aligned? Before 2008, I regularly worked past 7. But daycare closes at 6pm: non-negotiable. Before 2008, I took a lunch break maybe once a week. But then the breast pump beckoned every three hours (and that’s pushing it): non-negotiable.

The problem is that there was (is) still guilt, on both sides. My children and their needs are non-negotiable, so I will leave work early if I have to and miss it if they’re sick, I’ll disappear to pump, I may or may not look great for the big meeting. But I’ll feel a little guilty about that: the spectre of my former go-getter self will sit like a ghost beside me on the bus home, reminding me of the things I left unfinished today, the filing that never gets done anymore, the boss who saw me race out the door as soon as the clock hit 5:30. (True confessions: I eventually left that particular job, unable to live any longer with the spectre of my former self.)

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At the same time, when I pick up my children at dusk, hold their squirmy bodies tight and gather up their lunch boxes and sweatshirts and shake out their sand-filled hair, I’ll feel a little guilty about that too; the spectre of the mother I want to be will wish that I could have picked them up earlier, been with them at the park, had a better handle on what they ate today, how long they napped, whether they fell and cried or climbed in triumph.

For a long time, I believed that being self-employed would be the answer. The flexibility! The answering to no-one! Obviously, I underestimated what a hard-driving boss I’d make for myself. And of course there is the simple financial reality: if I’m not working, not driving forward, not hustling for the next client, I’m not getting paid. And that impacts all of us.

So where does that leave me?

I make a list.

I think about our family: our financial stability, and the work ethic we model for our children: we have much, but it doesn’t come for nothing. I think about how being a dual-income-with-kids household has influenced my marriage, the ways my husband and I communicate, and job-share, and make compromises (professional and personal) for one another. I think about how we never, ever take time together for granted. This is another kind of modeling.

I think about myself: the never-gets-old rush of an accomplishment that is mine and mine alone, and not linked to someone else’s milestones. I think ahead, about my place in the world when the children have grown and moved on. I think of my work as a down payment on some future self, a stressful sort of double-life now so that someday I won’t sit there and wonder what my identity is. I think about the fact that in spite of everything I am proud of myself. Really proud. And that matters to my children, and to my daughter especially, and I should find a way to communicate that to her someday.

I think about the children: how well-socialized they are, the trust and love they have for their teachers, their independence, their confidence to walk into a room and say goodbye to me. I think about how, from infancy, we have taught them that we will leave but we will always, always come back for them. We have taught them that being independent is part of being human. In some small way it breaks my heart every time but I am proud of them, too.

I think about what’s lost: Those few months when the children were both small, and I had a few days off a week and the world was our oyster, and there were library circle times and endless park days and shared guacamole and chip lunches at the taqueria nearby; those days that were too few and over too fast.

I think about “success”, that word, which — not unlike “love” — has a thousand different definitions, and so many of them are deeply, deeply personal. I think about how I have everything I could want, how grateful I am. I wonder what else is out there. I think about the Big Risks and how it gets harder and harder to take them, the more that’s at stake.

And then I realize: balance isn’t a thing, waiting to be sought and found. It’s something we cultivate, by looking hard and long at our perceived non-negotiables and figuring out how and when to negotiate in spite of them. Balance isn’t about choosing between work and family, or date-night and game-night. Balance is an ongoing, internal struggle, an act of reconciling the real mother-wife-employee-daughter-friend with the spectre mother-wife-employee-daughter-friend who hovers next to you on the bus and chides you for all that you aren’t. Balance isn’t about having it all; it’s about choosing some things and not others and then — here’s the hard part, it’s just so damn hard — being okay with that. It’s about a cup-half-full.

It’s 11:30am on Wednesday. For the past hour I have been writing in my home office, where the midday sun shines through the window and I can wear my workout clothes on the off chance I manage to pull off a run. In two hours, my kindergartner — the Boy Who Changed Everything — will be standing by the tree in front of his school, a gray-eyed, gap-toothed non-negotiable who will see me and come running into my arms. Together we will interrupt his sister’s daycare nap and putter through the family errands, and then the sitter will come so I can get (reluctantly) back to work.

Is it balance? That depends on me: on my choice to own it, and to be present for it. The clock tick-tick-ticks. I close the computer and go for that run.

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