Post Vacation Reality Check

IMG_0427(Throw-Back Thursday: This post originally published 4/18/13.)

I had just survived a 22-hour car ride home with three teenagers in the backseat.  My bottom surely expanded another two inches from the countless hours of idleness.  Despite these truths and the annoying grunting by my family as they finally exited the minivan, I was mentally renewed, well-rested and highly motivated to commence a more adventurous, interesting life.  It’s not like I was inspired from touring cathedrals in Europe.  We were simply on the beach in Florida, but for a busy Mom, the absence of daily routine and chores was ample incentive to get moving on a few dreams that I had buried under the weekly tasks of raising a family.

Facing loads of laundry, necessary grocery shopping, and a mountain of snail mail and emails, I remained steadfast in my resolve.  Tomorrow, I would break the hum drum sound of my life by reducing the number of “urgent” tasks that consume my days, and pursue “important” goals and interests that I’d been ignoring for years.

Best-selling author and management guru Dr. Steven Covey, promotes a time management theory known as the Urgent vs. Important.  He states that urgent matters “press on us; they insist on action…  But so often they are unimportant!” He continues his explanation of what’s essential in his national bestseller, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.  “Importance…has to do with results.  If something is important, it contributes to your (personal) mission, your values, your high priority goals.” (Emphasis mine.) I teach this theory to business students at a four-year college.

Three days into my post-vacation resolution, I had made progress by refusing to fold clothes other than my own, and I would no longer load the dishwasher.  Ever.  Three teenagers can certainly handle kitchen duty and their clothes are always crumpled by the time they reach the drawers anyway.  The bunny food spilled.  I delegated the clean up.  The kitchen floor was muddy.  I asked my son to wipe it down.  Still, I wasn’t yet spending time on my mission or my goals.

I felt anxious to achieve something of significance, yet remained immersed in what would be considered trivial to the world-at-large.  I wondered, particularly while in the trenches of motherhood, should the urgent be ignored to pursue the important?  Is the urgent often equal with the important?

That third night post-vacation, after grading a heap of student essays, I scanned 124 emails and checked on the cherub-looking teens in their beds. It was 1:10am and the alarm was set for 5:45am.  I stayed up until the wee hours of the morn determined to finish the “urgent” matters of kids’ school correspondence, washing hockey jerseys, baking brownies for my daughter’s class and sewing missing buttons on a lacrosse kilt.  Completing those tasks through the night would free me tomorrow to finally address a few of my long-lost plans.  I would query book agents (for the completed novel in my hard drive), send out a few cover letters for a full time university job (I’m part time faculty), research missions trip financing for my youngest (she’s asked to visit children in Zambia since she was seven), and quite possibly, even work on the family scrapbook collecting cobwebs in my basement!

Excited to be caught up with the menial jobs, my subconscious joy awoke me at 5:00am.  I bounced out of bed, turned off the alarm that didn’t have to ring, and headed for my office computer.  I envisioned the interview I would certainly have by week’s end at the “big” university in town.  We would finally be able to upgrade the minivan and do some landscaping!  En route to my new professorship, I found my daughter on the sofa, doubled over crying with a stomach virus. She bolted from the couch to the bathroom, with me on her heels, holding her hair away from her face while she vomited.  By the time I tucked her back into bed, the others were up, lunches and breakfast were underway and “important” just became a trip to the Pediatrician.

I shuffled two of three kids and one husband out the door by 7:15am, did my hair and makeup in 12 minutes, drove to work to pick up new textbooks, stopped to retrieve packages that were on hold at UPS, then to the bank, arrived home, and left again for the doctor with sick child.  My husband met us at the house afterward to care for our daughter and I went to the pharmacy.  Catching my breath in line, I encountered a lovely gentleman I haven’t seen in several years.  He updated me on his children and grandchildren before asking,  “ahh… you were working part time as a teacher when your kids were little, right?” “Yes.” “So, what do you do now?”  I sincerely felt like apologizing that I had nothing new or “important” to share.  No trips overseas (his son was in Belize), or major promotion (his other son was relocating to Chicago for an exciting new job).  I was still running a household, being the Mom who brought forgotten gym clothes into school by 3rd period, and hosting all kid gatherings at our house since I was the one at “home” most of the time.

Who wants to hear about the pancakes you made this morning or the clean house?

The lackluster responsibilities that make life good for my family appear very small when having those once-every-ten-years conversations with people.

Paying for my daughter’s prescription, I remained surprisingly delusional.  Though discouraged by the errand-running, I resolved to at least print the final manuscript of my novel that afternoon. Then, I remembered the vacation photos still to be downloaded for the grandparents, and the recipes my daughter needed typed and copied for her girls group that night.  Walking out the door of Rite Aid, I marveled at how the years had passed. While my college girlfriends were growing their portfolios, I was feeling invisible much of the time and insignificant in the scheme of the modern bigness of our gender.

The remainder of my afternoon was spent hearing about family activities, cooking dinner, caring for my sick teenager, and zooming out yet again to watch my other daughter’s lacrosse game.  The last thing I had time for that night was laying next to my pale-faced vomiter when she asked me to rub her back.  Yet, when her weary eyes connected with mine, there was nothing more “important”.  The next morning, I called a sick friend.

Immediately following the call, my husband texted, asking me to book a hotel room for my son’s next hockey tournament.  I researched the best price (very time consuming) and turned my office chair again toward my goals.  As I opened MSWord to print out a cover letter for a full time teaching job, I see the kids’ summer camp forms in my peripheral vision. The deadline for signing up is fast-approaching…

Husband texts, “did you get that room yet for the hockey tournament?”

Son texts, “Mom, I didn’t finish the application for the art contest…would you please?”

Youngest daughter asks later that night, “would you help me with this project?”

Five days post vacation, it was evident:  I choose the urgent.

Standing in front of my college freshman students a few days later, I felt like a hypocrite.  Was I not practicing what I was preaching about stepping away from the urgent to address the important?  No, I decided.  There are seasons in life.  My students are earning a degree, I’m raising a family.  My personal achievements are centered around family and friends – for now. Though previously undefined, I realized through my post-vacation reality check that for many Moms, or women caring for aging parents, or spouses with chronically ill partners, the important is the urgent.  For a season.

My Florida-pink fingernails are chipped and my spray tan has faded.  The manuscript remains in my hard drive and the full-time professorship has yet to be landed.  There is zero chance that I’m catching up on scrapbooking this weekend.

The hotel room?  My husband was thrilled to learn that I booked a suite $60 less than the other hockey Dads scored.  The art contest?  My son’s drawing is published in a national magazine.  My sick daughter?  She says the best thing about her virus was my reading a book to her that I haven’t read aloud since she was 10.

When this Mom-urgent season in my life concludes, I will move into a new time, resurrect some former dreams, and no doubt, make a few come true.

Quotes taken from: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. 1989. Stephen R. Covey.

I Can’t Be All Things To My Kids

Gulp. I said it. Once upon a time, I really believed I was all things to my kids.  That is probably normal for young Moms with small children. Or, maybe I was just an egomaniac, but I’m going with the fact that I was young and inexperienced. I hadn’t yet been confronted with the reality that God-given “free will” would be exercised by my kids and would radically reduce my self-appointed self-importance.

When my three children were 0-12, I taught them everything. Well, they went to school at five, but I taught them to know God, to read, count, write, like themselves and others, use good manners, play… Let’s not forget I clothed, fed and watered them.  As they became teenagers, I conducted all the “talks”, and 100% of the time, I’ve been the disciplinarian. I hate that role most of all. My husband doesn’t engage in those responsibilities, so I’m the meanie.  But, curiously, I’m also the first to receive the good stuff, which might be a post topic all its own someday.

The first blow to my prideful, Mom-is-in-control-of-these-kids attitude happened when my son was in the 8th grade. If you read Moms of Teen Boys: Be Encouraged, you know that it was a tough time for me. Now that he’s 17, I’m quite positive I wouldn’t be nearly as devastated if I were to experience that season in his life all over again. Why? For many reasons, but the bottom line is: when children begin stretching their wings, they test the boundaries.

My son testing the boundaries included lying (the #1 no-no), and doing something that we specifically asked him not to do (nothing earth-shattering or harmful, but nonetheless defiant). In response, I spun myself into a web of insanity setting new rules and giving him extra-long chore lists. When his moodiness prevailed, I changed gears and became so sweet, offering kindness at every turn, hoping it would catch on.

After my determined efforts and the usual consequences of revoked privileges did not generate any remorse, my son was delivered the news he dreaded most of all: “We’re sending you to church camp. For a week.  Away from your nest.”

That boy’s face went white and tearful apologies began pouring out of him. If I wasn’t so wrapped up in the months-long shock of watching my sweet, sensitive, always-eager-to-please, golden-boy change into a moody, defiant teen, I would have laughed out loud. He wouldn’t even sleep over at a friend’s house, let alone go away with a relatively new youth group. He needed to always be surrounded by people he knew, and most people thought he was the bomb (a.k.a. – very cool dude).  Now, he would have to establish himself with a foreign crowd and what I believed most valuable: he would be uncomfortable.

With me, he was way too comfortable. Every time I thought my new “idea” for discipline or just establishing some “kindness rules” would turn him around, I was seriously mistaken. I foolishly thought I could make him change. I was thinking way too highly of myself.

That’s not to say that I don’t believe that parents are the most powerful influence in a teenager’s life. I unequivocally do. No matter how much eye-rolling happens, values are absolutely established and engrained in the home life of teenagers.

My son packed for camp with pleading eyes. Professions of obedience were made. Glimpses of the golden boy appeared countless times the week before he departed. All of this made me sincerely wonder if I had made a grave mistake and of course, I just battered myself even more, feeling unsure and worried. Tears streamed down my face as the giant coach bus pulled away.

He arrived home from camp in brighter spirits than we had seen him in months. He met a friend there that today is one of his best buddies. Let me not deceive you that camp cured all boundary-pushing. It did not. However, that experience did teach my son several lessons, and it taught me a few things.

My first realization was that the “little years” were over. Mine were no longer young children who only needed Mommy. During the teen years, new experiences and leaving the circle of comfort are crucial to their development and confidence.

More importantly, where did I place God in my parenting efforts? Did I sincerely trust Him? Did I honestly believe He was helping to raise and even discipline my kids when necessary? No, not really. I can’t be all things to my kids, but God can orchestrate circumstances and friendships and events to teach and nurture my children in ways that I never could. Great relief flowed over me when I accepted as truth that I’m not alone in this parenting business.