the hum and rush

Something is brewing in the air here in Georgia, everywhere it seems. Our neighbors to the south and the east are prepping for Hurricane Irma, and we are prepping for whatever is left of her when she makes her way a few miles northwest to us. It’s always hard to know exactly how anxious we should be in situations like this. Truth be told, we never really know what’s coming.

Against this backdrop of potential disaster, we are doing the everyday things required of us. My school year is in full swing. I know many of their names and faces by now, and the first set of essays will come pouring in this week. The kids have settled into their routines as well. Wednesdays have us going straight from school to ballet to the soccer field with no time in between.

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I pack snacks and water and rely on the slow cooker to have dinner ready for us when we walk in at 7pm. It’s so hard to find that balance between being sure they are enriched and active and pursuing what they want yet not overbooking us to the point of exhaustion. I rely on little things to set the pace and give us routine in the chaos – dinner at the table and nightly routines and leisurely walks to the bus stop in the mornings. But I think I need to just accept that some seasons are busy. Late November will slow us back down when soccer games are behind us and chill is in the air with earlier sunsets and soup on the table.

A longtime friend of mine created an online retreat with seven days of journals and meditations, and I have been making my way through it this month in the early morning quiet hours before the rest of the house is up. It’s structured around 7 women who made history turning their own struggles to something beautiful for the rest of us, and day 6 focuses on Anna Julia Cooper. I wasn’t all that familiar with Cooper before, but she published a book in the nineteenth century that characterized her idea of God as a “Singing Something” and a divine spark in each of us. This idea resonated with me so much – that song we can all hear if we are paying attention. I even wrote about this before in the last days with my grandmother, how it can sometimes feel like there are two tracks playing in our lives, the everyday tasks and the real melody that creates the whole dance to begin with.

It’s harder to hear in seasons of relative ease and routine, but disaster of any kind – whether it is personal or global – tends to wake us up to that song. It’s also Anna Julia Cooper who tells us “One needs occasionally to stand aside from the hum and rush of human interests and passions to hear the voice of God.” That hum and rush is loud sometimes isn’t it though? I’m realizing that I need to carve that space of silence in my days somehow or it’s not going to happen. It’s been two weeks since I’ve written here for that very reason.

I’m looking ahead at the season in front of me as a challenge to listen beyond that hum and rush of the everyday, determined to find pockets of silence in my day to write or read or think. Or maybe just listen to that Singing Something that always steadies us with the vastness of the whole perspective over the busy tasks of everyday life. There’s always something bigger when we listen.

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making it up as we go along

The semester began with a bang, as it always does. I assumed I’d get started a little more gradually, but it didn’t work out that way. I’ve still got another week before students are sitting in front of me, but in the meantime, there is so much to do. It’s hard to feel anything but overwhelmed. Even as I type this sentence, I am thinking about how I really should be working on a syllabus instead. But I know the value that comes from sitting a minute to write, so I’m ignoring the screaming to-do list for just a little while today.

The kids are more or less settled into the groove of their school year, so now it’s my turn to move past that rocky transition. Working + mothering is crazy-making, and I know that. And yet still here we are always, wondering how it will all get done and if I can juggle all of the things all of the time.

I caught an interview with Mary Catherine Bateson this week during my commute, and her words have been tumbling in my head ever since. She spoke a bit about her book, Composing a Life, and a bit about her background growing up as the daughter of famous anthropologist Margaret Mead.  So much of what she said had me nodding in agreement and feeling a little light bulb inside, but I know better than to pick up a new book in August when I am knee-deep in reading for classes. (I did find a little summary and commentary over here on Brain Pickings that you can check out if you find a quiet moment.)

We always hear about moms “juggling” working life and home life, but Bateson insists that word evokes a “terribly anxiety-producing metaphor” to her ears, and the more I think about it, she’s right. It’s how so many of us feel though – and how society tells us it works – like we are just barely holding all these balls in the air and if we look away for a minute or don’t move fast enough, we drop something and it all comes crashing down. Bateson suggests that she decided to use composing a life rather than juggling a life because she “was looking for a metaphor that would allow [women] to realize that the effort they were making to work out a new kind of woman’s role was creative. That it was an art form.” What a difference that one perspective makes – to compose rather than juggle.

I’m composing all the time, and most of it is improvisational. I have to remind myself of that sometimes, that I’ve never lived this exact life before. This phase for my kids, this season, these demands. I respond to each challenge as I feel I should with the energy and resources I have in that moment, and I learn new skills along the way. But I think I do the same thing that a lot of other women do and feel like maybe things are less valuable if they aren’t working in a predictable straight line. In my married life, I assumed I’d be on the way to a PhD by now, but that is a remote and distant thought in my current world.  But other paths and opportunities have opened up that are far beyond anything a classroom or dissertation could give me, so sometimes I wonder if derailed plans are really all that bad, or if they have a way of showing us what we need to see in order to create our most fulfilling lives. Maybe interruption and unexpected detours are the very best thing that could happen.

In this age of women-can-do-anything pressures, Bateson claims, “It is time now to explore the creative potential of interrupted and conflicted lives, where energies are not narrowly focused or permanently pointed toward a single ambition. These are not lives without commitment, but rather lives in which commitments are continually refocused and redefined. … How does creativity flourish on distraction? What insights arise from the experience of multiplicity and ambiguity? And at what point does desperate improvisation become significant achievement? These are important questions in a world in which we are all increasingly strangers and sojourners.” 

Let that sink in for a minute if you are juggling composing like I am. These are not lives without commitment, but rather lives in which commitments are continually refocused and redefined. I move from project to project, it seems. My typical approach lately is to sit down on a Sunday and assess what my short list of priorities are and try my best to tackle them. It changes week-by-week, and I flutter from one thing to the next, but as she reminds me, at what point does desperate improvisation become significant achievement? I feel like I am desperately improvising all the time, but as I look back at the past few years of my life, I still see something taking shape. Maybe even some significant achievements.

Aging is such a gift. As my kids are growing a little more independent, and I finally have the time to think about what I want for my own self professionally and not just personally, I think I need to continually remind myself that perhaps circles and winding paths are better than straight lines and that composing is always better than juggling. Who knows what the final piece of music will sound like, but what I’m picking up along the way promises it will be some version of beautiful.

It reminds me of that Parker Palmer quote, “Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you.” None of us even know, do we? Or if you think you do know, maybe you should shut off the external noise and listen a little harder to the ways you can bend and flow.  Otherwise you wake up living someone else’s version of success which is not success at all but misery instead.

It is early Sunday morning, but the sun is already bright outside my window. My list is a mile long today – laundry to finish and soccer gear to buy and meal prep to do and a syllabus to write. But I’m vowing to let that subtle internal miracle happen when you change your perspective. Changing my lens from juggling to composing, moving forward to create something beautiful among the chaos.

 

the in-between

I had a hard time getting out of bed this morning. It was 6:20 when Norah woke me up, and I laid there bleary-eyed for a while, only half awake. Yesterday was just the same. And the day before. What has finally happened on our last week of summer break is that my body remembers what it’s like to relax.

But my dining room table is a mess of school supplies right now, and the errand list is long this week as we gear up for all those back-to-school tasks. (We are in full swing the first week of August here in Georgia schools.) So I am left wanting a little more rest and another stretch of slower paced mornings, but also trying to kindle the excitement for my kids about this new academic year. Fall has such a relentless pace. I don’t feel ready for what’s ahead, but I’m grateful anyway for the new season that’s coming. We have spent the past week lining up all the things we need to begin again – fresh haircuts, new shoes, unopened pencils.

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College terms begin a couple weeks later than public schools, so I have an overlap period to ease me into the intensity of fall semester. I’m using the first week they’re in school to work more on my upcoming online writing workshop. (Sign up here for updates if you haven’t yet! I’m sending journaling exercises, writing inspiration, and news on enrollment information in the coming weeks.) In one of the modules, I’ve been focusing on that pulsing quality that comes with contrast and contradiction in our lives. I feel like anytime I am trying to better understand something, the understanding lies in a contradiction.

I am sad to see my kids grow older and my youngest fly from her place in the nest to climb on that school bus in a few days, but I’m grateful and even a little relieved for the new season it signals in my life and the freedom it brings for me. Both of those can be true at once – sad and relieved.

I am growing comfortable finally in this piece of my life’s history, and it feels good to sink my heels in. But I’m also feeling restless and seeing the urge to throw myself into new projects and sustain them long term, to reach beyond my comfort zone and shake things up a little. Both of those are true – comfortable but yearning for more.

I’m terrified of a lot of things right now, but also excited by them, grateful for the agency I have in the map of my own life’s decisions. All of those things are true – terrified and excited and grateful all at once.

Life lives in the contradictions. Sometimes you can’t file down the sharp edges of these opposite things to make them fit together, and instead you just have to leave them there side-by-side and look in between them to make something of it. Our feelings and realities don’t always follow some expected path or remain under our control. It’s usually both, and instead of either, or.

I’ve gained some hard-earned wisdom this past few years, but I’m realizing one thing I am still no good at is resting in the contradictions without trying to figure out some great puzzle. I have the insight to feel these contradictions, but I try so hard to make sense of them, like an answer lies there hidden if I can just find it. Maybe there are no right and wrong answers and right and wrong ways to feel. Maybe just resting in that gray area is what we are meant to do. So much of what’s around us tells us that there’s a formula to fix things for good or a product to buy or a trend to jump on that will mend it all forever. But then just look at what happens next. — We keep looking for new formulas, buying new stuff, jumping on the next train. The mystery is never really solved, is it? Maybe I will always feel just a little bit unfinished and unresolved. And maybe that’s okay.

I was revisiting Krista Tippet’s Becoming Wise this week and noticed again her words on wisdom: “Wisdom of the everyday sort is about how we reckon with the surprises and mysteries that make life life as opposed to stasis. Mystery lands us as a fumbling fullness of reality we cannot sum up or pin down. Such moments change us from the inside, if we let them.” We miss those lessons when we bypass the uncertainty and mystery, don’t we?

Fumbling fullness of reality is a pretty accurate description of my life lately. It is almost never graceful when you look at the bare facts. I’m trying hard not to sum up or pin down in this moment, but that is so far against my nature as a person who wants answers and certainty. When I run into someone I don’t see that often and they inevitably say, How are things? How can I respond really? The way we always do with a reassuring smile – Good. Things are good. I’m fine. But there’s always so much more than that in the things we cannot sum up or pin down. So many contradictions lying side by side.

Perhaps they aren’t a puzzle to solve or a blank to fill in with a magic answer. Perhaps the fullness lies in the in-between.

I guess I can be lots of things at once – confidant and uncertain, brave and afraid, narrowed with experience that has sharpened my vision but also open to the unknown of whatever lies ahead. Whatever the case, I’m here, and this is my own canvas to fill in with a life that takes shape little by little in ways that I suppose we never see coming when we’re on this side of the mystery.

 

flashlights and nachos

There are two days left in June, and as it always goes with kids and summer, I don’t know where the time is going. The days blow away at a pace that makes me uneasy. Here we are anyway though – looking at a new month on the horizon. The calendar doesn’t wait for anyone.

Last week Norah participated in a little “ballet camp” that she specifically asked for by name when I was attempting to let summer camps and entertainment fly under the radar. It was a lot of juggling back and forth with other responsibilities piled on top here and there. But it was worth it to watch her at the little showcase they gave us Friday afternoon. She was so proud of what she learned and came home with Moana songs and memorized choreography on repeat for days.

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Saturday we followed up the ballet time with an all day play date and some afternoon lake time with friends. It was cloudy all morning long, but the sun suddenly appeared around three in the afternoon, and we hurried to the lake to catch what was left of the day. As it turns out, we caught the magic hour by accident. Low-lying sun, shimmering water, thin crowds, and a cool breeze. The kids swam and splashed for hours. Eventually it was nearing dinner time, but we didn’t want to leave. When we finally loaded up the car to drive home just before dusk, the rains came back. The whole time felt like a little gift for us – in the midst of an otherwise dull and humid day. It was there for the taking when we jumped on the opportunity.
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The night before brought storms as well. It’s been a rainy summer in Atlanta. I’d just finished dinner and then sent neighbor friends back home to their own houses before I chased my two upstairs for their showers. Jude was getting dressed in his room and Norah soaking in the tub when the power went out. It wasn’t quite dark yet, but it was about to be, so we gathered flashlights and spread a blanket on the floor. I pulled nachos from the oven, smashed a few avocados, and we sat down together for an impromptu living room picnic by flashlight.

I don’t know if it was the darkness or the coziness or the novelty of it all or what, but the kids were happier than I’ve seen them in ages. Like deep joy happy, belly laughs and silliness and kindness and not a single sibling jab. As we finished up, Jude asked to sit in my lap on the floor for a minute and then said with every bit of serious sincerity, Mama, this is the third best night of my life. It cracked me up, the things we do for them and the ways we stretch above and beyond to create memories and happiness for our kids. Then here we are, just the three of us — eating nachos from our own oven, in the dark in our pajamas, piled on top of Christmas blankets in June. It’s not really half as hard as we make it, is it? It’s these stripped down moments without any real planning or pretense or forced orchestration from me that work like glue to hold us together.

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This week I’m alone as they are at dad’s. I’m checking tasks off the list like crazy, working on freelance, and diving headfirst into projects I’m dying to finish, or at least solidly begin. But I’m also making time for Brene Brown’s online course on parenting with COURAGEworks. I’m only halfway through, but I can’t say enough great things about it. There are so many activities I’m excited to show the kids when they get home and open up some important conversations.

In the first lesson of the course, she reminds us that “Love is not something we give or get; it is something that we nurture and grow.” She talks a lot about love and belonging and how to create a home that encourages those two things. I tend to worry a lot at this season of my life that I don’t give them enough or that I don’t have the time or resources to give them what they crave. But in reality, I think it’s just this sense of belonging that they love most. A place where we can be imperfect together and know it’s okay. It’s here in this space that we thrive and grow in the best way, all three of us.

I’m seeing so clearly as I move a little further down this parenting path that love and belonging are best nurtured in these messy, imperfect, everyday moments.

rhythm and echo

We are two days away from the end of the school year, and our pace has been non-stop. In a two-week period, I’ve dragged both kids to swim lessons, hosted a birthday party, and attended a pre-k graduation, an elementary school field day, a ballet rehearsal and recital, and a first grade awards day. I guess this is how May works when you have school-aged kids. It’s a lot.

The Georgia weather is heating up, but every now and then, we get a break with some cloudy skies and cool rain. I love where I live always but especially this time of year with so many things to see and do. We’ve been planting summer herbs and flowers this week, and we have a little patio tomato plant the kids check on every day. When dinner time rolls around, I have to work hard to convince them to come in. Late sunsets are driving our rhythm.

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The Dog Days will be here soon enough, but right now, warm sun feels like such a novelty. I am bone tired though. I think the adrenaline of this past month’s events has worn off a bit, and now I’m just exhausted. I have a lot of goals for my own self, but life lately revolves around these two in a way that doesn’t really leave space for my desires. It’s an eternal conflict for moms everywhere, and I’m not alone in this. But boy is it hard to make room for me sometimes.

I’m reading a pretty incredible little book right now called On Living, a hospice chaplain’s reflection on stories her patients have shared with her and her observations of what matters as people ready themselves to cross that bridge. It sounds sad as I’m describing it, but it’s not at all. It’s a reminder in the best and clearest way about what matters and what doesn’t.

The author reveals in an early chapter that she was surprised when she began that role to find that dying people almost always just talk about their families – more so than some big, lofty conversation about spirituality and the great beyond. She claims that people talk about their families at the end because “that is how we talk about God. That is how we talk about the meaning of our lives. […] This is where we create our lives, this is where we find meaning, and this is where our purpose becomes clear.”

This week marks the first anniversary of my Grandmother’s stroke, and the first year of any tragedy is so hard. All those what I was doing last year and what I didn’t know then thoughts bounce around every day. And I’m expecting it to be this way a bit for the next month or so. It was a year ago that I wrote this post, and every word still rings true even though everything has changed.

It seems strange and confusing to be sitting on my patio today watching my two with sidewalk chalk and listening to their laughter with neighborhood friends – knowing that one year ago I was at the hospital and so sad and confused and disheartened. Life moves on, and especially as a mother, it fills up with all these tiny moments like watering patio tomatoes and setting the table and listening to explanations of sidewalk art and playground games. I guess what you eventually figure out is that the little stuff is actually the big stuff.  It grounds us and restores us and even defines us.

Last summer, I saw first hand the role of family as a way to talk about God and meaning and the way we create our lives. I saw how my Grandmother had created hers over decades of all these tiny tasks that probably seemed meaningless in the moment as she was doing them but echo so loudly now that she’s gone. I still hear it everyday.  I want the echo I leave one day to be just as deep and wide.

 

 

wide open

It’s been 16 days since I last wrote something, so here I am with no agenda but with a determination to mark this month somehow so that I don’t forget it happened. It’s still dark out, and I’m typing as fast as I can before the kids wake up. The only way to get it done.

I proctored my final exams yesterday morning – which means I am only about 240 paragraphs of grading + one long assessment report away from my summer break. My composition exams are always at 7:30am (university schedule dictates that, not me) which means I leave the house at about 6:30, Norah in tow. It takes a lot of coordinating. My mom always stays with us the night before to get Jude off to school since his bus comes a full hour after I leave. Then we drive, I check Norah in, I proctor, I grade, and I scribble our other spring priorities on the planner — dentist appointments this Friday, birthday party coming up, pediatrician visit, graduation ceremonies, and the list goes on.

Spring is crazy always, but the older they get, the busier life feels. And I wish there was a way to change that, but it mostly just comes with the territory. We have all these lofty ideals of what parenting will look like, and then we have the reality. These two pictures are generally not all that similar to one another.

I spent Friday night at a international festival nearby with countless food trucks and vendors and entertainers from all over the world.  After doing these sorts of things alone for the past 2 years, we finally have someone tagging along with us every now and then, and thankfully he has what seems like endless patience. There were a few sibling spats, some occasional long lines, and a little whining. But there were also some memorable moments and big smiles and full bellies. Jude climbed a rock wall and has watched my video footage repeatedly to relive his fearless pride. Norah charmed a few high school football players who were selling bottled water, and she lugged the bottle home and to bed with her that night. After one, long, exaggerated sip, she explained, “That ‘festibal’ was so fun, mama. This water is so good. I think it’s from China.” (This coming from the child who requested a hot dog over dozens of delicious international options.) Their imaginations are wild and unleashed these days, but their excitement and pride is, too.
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I decided to forego the occasional summer camps that I usually use to break up the routine. Instead, I figure we can do things together nearby and maybe squeeze in a road trip or two and a weekend away.  They have private swim lessons lined up in May so that I can finally exhale at the pool every now and then. (They are both so close to swimming efficiently, but one mom and two kids is not getting it done as securely as I’d like.) I find these sorts of things bouncing in my head a lot — that they cannot swim yet and that we still use training wheels and that my first grader can’t tie his own shoes. There are so many life skills I know they need, and it stresses me to remember that I am the one who needs to teach them when truthfully laundry + homework routines + mealtimes and bedtimes take up every ounce of time and energy lately. Do other moms think about this sort of thing? Envisioning some future where your adult child cannot ride a bike and knowing that it is all your fault for not teaching him?

I’m in a weird place in my own life and in the life of my little family. I’m used to being independent and managing a household and all of the things necessary to get us from day to day. But then sometimes I realize with such weight and truth that I really could use an extra set of hands. I think families come in all shapes and sizes, and we are happy and feel complete in our comfort and routines. But I also think there is a reason it takes two people to create human beings – because it takes two people to tend to their growth if you intend to have any energy or sanity left. I try to do the job of two, and sometimes I am pretty good at it. But sometimes I fall short. I’m human, and I have a full-time job outside of this house, and there are only 24 hours in a day.

I tend to look at motherhood like project management these days, employing the village where I can to get us where we need to be. Delegating what I need to – like swimming instruction – and playing on my own strengths, trying hard not to worry about the rest and knowing that it will come together when it does and they will be okay. Eventually, we all will be. I give them a lot of wide open time to play and explore on their own, and even though that is mostly out of necessity for me, I tell myself that has its advantages, too.

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Among all the chaos and the sibling fights and the demands of the calendar, I do see so much independence growing among the both of them this year. I can see that kids need space and autonomy to grow and find their own way. I’m praying the goals and milestones will happen somehow in this stretch of time.

When I think back to my own life, I see how many times I have met goals this way, too. I chug along in the regular mess of life and look back to see I ‘ve actually learned something and crossed that big item off the list and somehow arrived at the goal along my own path. I’m hoping it’s the same for them – that they will look back and see the safety net of my own arms and our food on the table and our home and routines — and that wide open space of childhood everywhere else.

second shift

Hi, remember me? It’s been a while.

I’ve come to realize that there are two distinct selves when you are in academics: my summer self and my school year self. My summer self is rested and grounded and sane, while my school year self feels like I’m treading water and a little breathless over here. I have a rare weeknight that is kid-free right now as it’s fall break for Jude, so they are spending the second half of the week with their dad. It almost feels like more of a luxury than a weekend off somehow – to come home from a day at work and have a few hours alone and quiet. A few nights without that second shift that working mothers know so well.

Dinner tonight was one fried egg on toast with mushrooms and sun-dried tomatoes, a random concoction I decided I wanted and didn’t have to ask two others’ opinions on. I graded a few essays. I watched an actual television show from beginning to end which I haven’t done in ages. (This is Us. Worth the hype, I think!) I’ve been bad at even attempting any sort of balance these days. This was a goal I told my therapist I’d work on, but I am failing miserably. The minute the kids are in bed, I take a few seconds to clean the kitchen and then I’m asleep just behind them. The idea of time alone sounds nice, but the thought of sleep sounds even better. 9pm feels like midnight these days. It’s one foot in front of the other right now. I think I will come up for air soon, but not quite yet.

I did hit the pause button a little on Monday with a day for only my boy and me. Norah was in school, and he’s on fall break. We dropped her off that morning, and he hung out in my office a while so I could tackle a few tasks and then we spent the morning at the children’s museum and stopped for lunch before heading to a local farm for a little while. We picked a few things we had a taste for and then sat at a table and shared boiled peanuts and kettle corn before piling in the car for the drive back.

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It’s still hot here, but the change is coming. Early in the mornings, I can feel it the tiniest bit. We do a lot of pretending it’s fall here in the south before it actually feels like it. Life works that way, too, I think. Sometimes you have to act as if before you actually arrive there. And then it always comes eventually. You just have to trust that if you keep putting one foot in front of the other and put your heart in the way of change, it will come.

Last week consisted of the usual 5:30 am wake-ups and full days with the addition of soccer practice, a soccer game, an introductory Cub Scout meeting, a surprise morning carseat puke on the way to school (every parent knows that horror), and a dead goldfish.

Thursday night found us huddled in the tiny downstairs bathroom with a makeshift funeral, the three of us singing a hymn and watching as we swirled him to his eternal home. I live in a zoo. I forget sometimes to step out of the frame for a minute and see my life for what it is. That load of laundry that stays wrinkled in the dryer for three days and that email that went unanswered for far too long — these are the things that run through my head at the end of the day. When in reality, it’s actually somewhat impressive that I am dressed and reasonably prepared and professional in any capacity at all. I grade student work between ballet class pick-up and dinner prep, and I notice the smudges on my floor every single day as I walk right past them without mopping. I type hurriedly here in an attempt to record anything at all and hit “publish” without a lot of care and discernment. But it is what it is right now. Imperfect is better than not done, and this is life and the season I’m in.

We went to a family reunion last Sunday, and I was flipping through old albums amazed at how much the rural south has changed in only a couple of generations. You can see by the lines of worry on their faces that they worked hard, and in ways life was an endless struggle.

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Sometimes I think that we believe we are somehow beyond this now, that we’ve all grown bigger and better, but in actuality, that is not the case in every way. I have infinitely more possibilities in my life as a woman. We now realize that there is more than one way to skin that cat, as we say in the south. There is more than one way to mother and more than one path to walk, and things aren’t so restrictive and laid out for you. I’m grateful I have choices. But life is still hard work – just a different kind of work.

Society tends to tell us we must be doing something wrong if it feels hard, if we don’t always live in a magazine spread. But I’m here to say I think that’s wrong. Choices give us more opportunity to find fulfillment, but you’re still tired and still working hard if you’re doing it right.

The key is to work hard for the right things. Somewhere between the Cub Scout meetings and the dinner table conversation and bath splashes, between the goldfish funerals and the sticky floors, I think I’m doing something right

Take a minute. Pause the endless task list, watch the television show, eat the chocolate, call a friend, sit in the silence for a second. See your life outside the frame, and know it’s not hard because you’re doing something wrong. It’s hard because it’s real and worth it. So to those of you treading water right now, I raise my hand to say I see you, and I feel it, too. Your best is good enough. It’s hard work, but maybe we’ll make it after all.