Monday, July 13, 2009

The Juggle Struggle

In the comments of my recent post about how I solve my own problems with the kids, Amy asked two questions:

Do you ever feel guilty for working on the computer?

How do you determine what time is all yours, and what time you will spend focused on the kids?

I responded very briefly in the comments with:

I don't feel guilty about doing my work, whatever that may be--writing or reading or even cleaning up or reorganizing. Everyone seems to have a healthy respect for WORK, and they know they shouldn't interrupt someone while they are working. Doesn't mean they always refrain--just means they know they shouldn't!

Because they are small though, I try to do schedule my work during the times when it is easier for them to do what I need them to. So, I don't sit down at 5:30pm (aka The Witching Hour) and expect I'll get much writing done.

But I wanted to write more about this, because it's something I struggle with. I Struggle with The Juggle.

My Main Job is Mommy

It is difficult to get a great many things finished--writing, thinking, laundry, to name just a few tasks--when kids are around. And this has been one of the hardest things (possibly THE hardest thing) for a typical Type A planner task-oriented person such as myself to come to grips with as a stay-at-home parent. Because when kids are around, there's a whole bunch of interruptions and unpredictability. You just never know when someone's going to blow out a diaper or throw up or crack his head open or start screaming at her brother or need to show you a drawing or need to pontificate about the American Revolution. At least, I never know when that's likely to happen, so I've learned to expect it at any time.

Back when I had a regular job, it was also often difficult to complete a task from start to finish, due to all of the interruptions and unpredictability, sure. I had meetings to attend and crises to handle and unexpected phone calls and at the end of a work day, there were many tasks not completed, left for me to face the following day. But generally, in a typical work day, I completed something. I made that phone call, or ran that meeting, or filled out an expense report, or something.

There are days on the Mommy Job when I feel like I haven't completed ANYTHING. Now this is, of course, not exactly true, because let's be honest--if we're all basically in one piece at the end of each day, then that's a testament to my productivity, yes? So I complete Mommy-related tasks all day long--diapers changed, questions answered (or discussed at least), hugs given. A typical day on the Mommy Job.

Making Time for Non-Mommy Work, too

But sometimes I'm left frustrated because I haven't completed anything ELSE--any Jenn tasks. Too many of those kinds of days turns Generally Genial Jenn into Mean Monster Mommy. Since I am happier (and therefore much easier to live with) when I get to complete Jenn Work, too, I do my very best to ensure that I'm able to do that most days.

The most important thing I've done in order to be successful at completing Jenn Work has been to revise my expectations--of myself and of the kids. Take writing on the blog here--I am happy when I do it. It's good for my mental state. I really enjoy writing something thoughtful and reading the comments that people make and thinking them over. It's so much fun, and has become integral to my happiness.

However, it is not realistic for me to expect that I can complete and publish more than one or two super-thoughtful blog posts every week. I know this now! Sometimes I exceed that number of posts; many times I don't. Yes, I would love to write something semi-brilliant every day, but I just don't have that kind of time. Some moms could do this--but I can't. I have accepted this fact and am much more content with my writing output.

Before I figured this out, though, I tended to get really cranky when someone interrupted my writing. Like REALLY cranky. I felt resentful, irritated, hindered, stunted. And that made me not want to do my other job, my Mommy Job. Or made it next-to-impossible to do it well.

Similarly, I had to let get go of the idea that I could complete ANY task from start to finish. Seriously. When I begin to do something, I must consciously say to myself "I may not get this done, but that's okay. At least I'll get it started." Those of you Type B people may be bewildered by this, but it BOTHERS me to have things half-finished. Like it actually makes me itch or ache or something.

When I take the time to remind myself that it's entirely possible that I will NOT get to finish putting stamps on just two outgoing pieces of mail, let alone be able to stand up and go out and put them in the mailbox, let alone be able to put the part of the bill I need to save in the filing cabinet--then I'm in a much better frame of mind for when I'm not able to complete that small little "put stamps on two pieces of mail" task.

Respect for Work

The older kids do understand about Work, and that really helps matters. They understand that they have Work and that I have Work and that Brendan has Work. They know that when someone is working that you should not interrupt them. They know that our grownup work happens on the computer quite a bit and that when I'm looking at my computer, then my head is filled up with my thoughts and ideas, which makes it hard for me to hear their words. They know that some work brings income and that some work makes things run more smoothly around here (like paying bills). Some work is hard and some work is easy.

Because we respect them when they are working by giving them space and not interrupting them unnecessarily (and doing it gently when it is necessary), they typically pay us the same respect in kind. But they are kids and make mistakes and interrupt me. It happens. I try to maintain realistic expectations about when they can and will be able to handle, and help them think of ways to handle themselves if they do need to interrupt me.

And now I'm teaching Sean about Work. Just now, he crawled on top of a picture Morgan was drawing. I offered him a piece of paper and a pen and said "Sean, that's Morgan's work. You want to do some work, too. Here's your pen and paper. Come on!" And he actually came over! I will only need to repeat that scene approximately 5 million more times before he truly gets the idea. :o)

Daily Logistics

We still ask them every day--sometimes several times a day--the question: "What is your work going to be today?" It gets them thinking and planning and scheming and lets me know what their expectations might be for the day. If somebody says "I'm planning to go to the playground," then I can try to make that happen, or set their expectations appropriately if it can't happen for some reason.

And I do try my best to accommodate reasonable requests. My work is important--and so is theirs. No, we can't go to Nonnie's house every day because she lives all the way in Chicago. But we can make sure to take a walk around the pond, or to watch a particular movie, or make headway on a certain project, or read a particular book. Yes, I CAN do those things, and it's easier for me to work those kinds of things into my daily plans if I know about them ahead of time.

Our daily work discussion also provides me with an opportunity for me to tell them what MY work is going to be. I will say "I'm planning to write today." or "We need to run to the bank to deposit a cabin check today." Later on, when I'm trying to get people to get in the car to run errands, it's easier for me if I say "Oh remember? This was one of the things I had to do today. We talked about it this morning." It may not make the kid get 100% on the plan, but at least it's not coming out of nowhere.

I'm still working out some of the logistics of balancing Jenn Work with Mommy Work. It changes from day to day, depending how people's moods and their developmental needs. And it's definitely more challenging when you add more children to the equation. Exponential is a word that hops to mind. Also, each kid's particular developmental stage really affects my ability to do Jenn Work. New babies require lots of time, but much of that is sitting down. Toddlers require lots of time--running around! Preschoolers and grade-schoolers require talking time and chauffeur time. At least my life isn't boring!

The Juggle

For me, juggling the Mommy stuff and the Jenn stuff comes down to setting appropriate expectations, both for myself and for the kids. When things get really lopsided, that's when I get cranky. If I haven't had time to write or read something for myself in a while, and it's just building up inside me, I'll talk to Brendan and we'll work out a time for him to take The People for a few hours, usually on a weekend. We also have Date Nights, about once a week or every other week, so that we can talk to each other in complete sentences. :o)

If, on the other hand, I've been too busy with Jenn Work, the kids get really cranky! When they simply can't seem to be able to leave me alone for a second, that's my signal to re-evaluate what I'm doing. Sometimes, I will realize belatedly that I've said "Just a minute" several times, and those minutes have really stretched out beyond their endurance. When that happens, I sometimes feel a twinge of guilt, because I have been neglecting my Mommy Work. So I stop what I'm doing and get going on that Work, which of course, is my primary job and generally is my higher priority and obligation.

And in this back-and-forth way, I juggle juggle juggle. :o) Generally, I'm pretty successful, but I'm always open to suggestions for other ways to manage this issue. Thoughts?

I started this post 10 days ago and was interrupted in the writing of it approximately 17 zillion times. And that's okay. :o)


gypsy said...

Thoughtfully written post. If I keep mom-time & me-time in balance, things work better. It's good for kids to see us as multi-faceted, modeling full lives... with interests, thoughts, friends, work, responsibilities...

Kelly Elmore said...

I don't have a toddler, of course, and that makes things different. But I wanted to add that with the 4 and up crowd, I think it's okay to tell them that we need time to ourselves. Livy understands that I don't want to talk to her sometimes. Sometimes I want to talk to Aaron or do something on the computer or read, etc. She doesn't always love it, but she has learned that she is not the only thing in my life. I think that is a good lesson to learn.

I wasn't able to do that when she was little, though, because she had such immediate needs. She wasn't really a whole separate person.

I guess I wanted to say that I do not feel guilty about not caring about everything my nearly 6 year old says or for spending time doing my own thing. I don't feel bad about telling her I want to have some quiet time where we don't talk any. I don't feel bad about doing things without her. The nice thing about her getting older, though, is that she is able to be more a part of the things I am doing. I love when she wanders in, sees me practicing my French, pronounces a few words along with me, then wanders out.

Rational Jenn said...

Hi Gypsy, thanks for stopping by! I agree that it's good for kids to see us doing other things.

Kelly--I totally agree. I don't feel guilty when I do my work, and I do tell the older kids "It's time for me to do my work now."

The only time I feel that twinge is if I've truly been "gone" (in my head or busy) too long from them. Sometimes I'm "gone" for as long as 5 minutes, lol!

The older the child, the easier it is to explain about the work, and it is definitely easier for them to be left to their own devices. Ryan is usually pretty good, but he has Talking Needs and does forget--but not often. Morgan needs me a bit more than Ryan, and Sean needs me the most, of course.

The other thing that interrupts me is when they are getting into an argument and need my help focusing on the problem. That's where it gets exponential, I think. It's not just the needs of each child, it's that sometimes they need help with a problem they can't solve on their own. And now, more and more, they need help getting the baby out of their hair.

It is nice when they get a bit older, isn't it? :o)

Amy said...

Thanks for the thoughtful response, Jenn. I've had to work hard on those half-finished things too. I totally get the itch and ache thing. When Samantha was a baby, I simply stopped doing anything at all because I just could not stand the chaos. It's unfortunate, but for me it was the only way to cope.

Sam getting older has been a process, for me, of adding things back into my life. Ahhh, I can read books again. Ahhh, I can plan a party again. Ahhh, I can start a blog and have confidence that I'll be able to write something almost every single day. That was a BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) for me, to use "Good to Great" terminology.

I think I end up doing just what you do - juggling and adjusting when necessary. But I tend to push Samantha pretty hard on letting me do my own thing. She seems to be so independent by nature that it works out fine, but I wonder if I should be trying to spend more time with her, instead of pulling myself away as hard as I can. But I recognize the exact same symptoms of going too far - the "just a few more minutes" that drags on to an hour is always a clue.

I love "What is your work going to be today?" I'm starting that tomorrow morning. It helps with 2 issues for me - it will help structure the day and set expectations, as you described, but also, it will be a way to reinforce a positive association with the word Work. I've been struggling with that issue because Sam HATES the word work because it means daddy is going away for the day. I've been trying to use it in all kinds of positive ways and to use it for her own work, but this will really make it clear to Sam that Work does not mean "daddy goes away." It will give me a consistent way to use it that will become meaningful to her. Yipee!

Rosalie said...

Excellent post, Jenn, and great comments, too, by everyone! Balancing Mommy work with personal work and managing (and making releastic) personal expectations for achievement are really hard. I am grateful for these insights into how others are handling this and how they think about the various facets. I second Amy's thought in that the idea of the work converstaion with the kids early in the day is terrific. Once again, I reflect and see that I do a decent job of explaining what I or "we" have to do daily but a fairly poorly job asking the kids what they intend to do. I'm going to start making that talk more of a regular dialogue rather than just a monologue I'm delivering to them. Thanks!