Ruminating On The Rat Race

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Photo by brandsvig, via Flickr

The weeks fly by so quickly, and every moment under pressure to accomplish as much as humanly possible. More than is humanly possible, to tell the truth. No matter how much I accomplish, it never feels like enough. I’ve always viewed myself as a juggler, but nobody can keep this many balls in the air. Something’s going to give. In my case, it’s housecleaning and, well, down time.

And I thrive on it. I do. As I was doing dishes last night, it occurred to me that even though I loathe all tasks related to cleaning, I was feeling unusual satisfaction, simply because I had made so much writing progress during the day. My writing is my play time, and really, who gets to play first and do the work later?

But the clutter makes me crazy. There’s the clutter of physical space—Michael ripping out and scattering the sheets of a tiny party-favor notepad. Shoes everywhere. Jackets on the floor. Lights left on at every turn. Kids who deliberately step on whatever book or couch cushion they’ve thrown on the floor. (Do all kids come with a built-in “destroy everything on sight” feature?)

But there’s also the clutter of time. I can’t even begin to describe the scheduling gymnastics involved in my life. I don’t detail it because I live in dread of having someone force me to quit whining by proving how much worse theirs is.

But one thought keeps coming into my head, over and over:

We weren’t meant to live like this.

I love my work—love every moment of it, even the parts that cause me anguish and anxiety. And I love having the best of both worlds: part working mom, part SAHM.

But there is a tradeoff to pushing so hard. During the day I try to use every kid-free moment to work, but that means I never take time to sit on the deck with a cup of tea, or flop across the couch and watch a TV show. I won’t even take a nap unless my brain is so muddy that I simply can’t string words together.

Basically, I’m pushing all the time. Pushing to work while the kids are at school, and pushing to clean house and do homework and do all that Mom stuff the rest of the time. My brain is constantly making and remaking plans for maximum time efficiency.

And while I know there are many other people doing the same thing, day in and day out, even if the details are different, I can’t help feeling that this isn’t how things are supposed to be.

This is the point where I’m supposed to offer a solution in five simple steps, but the truth is I don’t have one. And really, there isn’t a simple five-step procedure you can follow to figure out these kinds of things. You have to weigh and measure and try and re-evaluate on a daily basis. Today, I’m just giving myself permission to ramble.

Ramble along with me, people. Tell me I’m not alone. Tell me how you weigh and measure, and what you try that works.

We Are Not Lemmings. Are We?

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About 2/3 of my mother's family, eight years ago

About 2/3 of my mother’s family, eight years ago, before all my cousins started having kids. Note: some of the kids in the picture ARE my cousins.

Can I just say how annoying I find the American obsession with poll-taking? They’ve become so institutionalized, we have come to regard polls as truth: not a reflection of people’s opinions, but a representation of reality.

For instance, last week I ran across an article about a survey in which parents identified their own stress level. The conclusion? The most stressful number of kids is three. This was not a scientific study–just a survey.

There are so many problems with this survey. A friend blogged a whole bunch of them last week, and did a fabulous job, but I have others.

1. This is completely useless “information.” How does it help anyone to know that people with three children self-identify as more stressed than parents of other numbers?

2. It undercuts anyone who is not in the “most stressful” category. Obviously they should just chill, because their life isn’t as bad as they think.

3. Because we are lemmings, we will use useless information like this to “help” us make important decisions on family size. Obviously we should quit at two children, because if we have a third our life is over. We are doomed to be a bundle of stress all the time. (Yeah, I know. You think other people’s opinions don’t influence you, but be honest. When you see a poll that relates to some decision you’re contemplating, course it weighs into the decision!)

4. There is stress in all stages of family-building.

Those who don’t have kids yet are stressing because they are trying to have them, or trying not to have them, and worrying about whether their decision is the right one: is this the right time? What if I put it off too long? Why can’t I get pregnant NOW?

In short: stress.

When you have one child, you’re obsessively worried about said child. You have to do everything right, and you know for sure if you screw up, your kid’s entire future will be shot, permanently and irretrievably lost. You worry about whether you’re reading the right number of minutes, teaching enough signs and attending the right enrichment programs. Why? Because you’ve never done this before, and it’s a big responsibility!

In short: stress.

When you have two kids, you have to split yourself in two for the first time. All that energy you devoted to one now has to make do for two. There’s guilt, because the older child took a hit in Mommy (or Daddy) attention.

In short: stress.

When you have three children,  you are always outnumbered. At least one of the older kids is virtually guaranteed to be going through some really hard stage while you’re also dealing with the time-intensive baby stage.

In short: stress.

When you have four or more, all the above applies, although you’re used to it. But you get so busy helping older kids with homework and driving them to activities that the youngest gets a paltry shadow of the intensive parent interaction that child #1 got. Kids bicker: there’s the “he’s touching me” “she’s watching me play” bit, the minding everyone’s business but their own, the every time you turn around the thing you just put away is out again, and there isn’t enough of you to go around and you know it’s your own fault that the house is a mess because you’re not willing to take the time to make the kids clean up themselves but for Heaven’s sake, it’s just easier to do it yourself most of the time, because you know what battles ensue in getting kids to do it!

In short: stress.

The point is, it doesn’t matter whether you have no kids or twenty, you’re going to be stressed, because that’s what human beings do to ourselves. Asking people to identify their own stress level, with no further breakdown of situation, is nonsense. Certain stages are more stressful than others, and sometimes it’s a shift in type rather than intensity. All these people have kids of different ages, and a different spread between their kids.

Besides, each person’s unique life circumstances play into the stress dynamic. Your mood on a given day affects how you answer those questions, for crying out loud–to say nothing of job stress, house hunting, kids’ projects, health, whether your kids are having trouble in school or sailing through–even whether toilet training is going well or poorly on the day they asked. To reduce all that complexity to a simple, bald statement like “three is the most stressful number of children”…that’s just a load of crap.

Opinion polls tell you nothing about reality. They tell you only people’s perception of it. I just wish we’d all keep that in mind, instead of running over the cliff of public opinion like a bunch of lemmings.

(Note: yes, I know lemmings don’t actually follow each other over cliffs. It’s a figure of speech.)