Accepting calm

I’ve been doing something this year that I’ve never been able to do:  I’ve been saying No.

No to a well established business that its retiring owner has asked and asked me to take over.

No to the additional clients who ask to work with me.

It’s not that I’m not working, but I’ve been persuaded (by Max) to think about my stress level. Do I really want to go where I have been going all these past years? With mixed feelings, I’ve reduced my work load and instead delegated some of it to our staff.

But saying no comes at a price, quite literally.

I – we – lose income. How much exactly Max hasn’t yet calculated. But it’s not insignificant, especially during a year when my medical bills are sky high given my recent surgery. And we have other bills. And childcare and piano and martial arts lessons. And retirement and college to save for.

In a typical year I would be so busy right now I wouldn’t be writing this post. I wouldn’t be Christmas shopping. I wouldn’t be cooking. I wouldn’t be cleaning. I wouldn’t be sleeping 7 deep hours straight. Instead I have been spending chunks of entire days reading and writing; keeping the house reasonably tidy and clean; and making dinner in time to eat by 5:30 p.m. I even cooked on Thanksgiving for the first time since we moved back to the States, and I have been able to heal my broken ankle completely. Something feels different and thereby discomforting: I feel I am not busy enough.

It doesn’t feel “right” because neither work nor domestic life is stressful right now. It is the first time in the eight years since I became a parent and business owner that I can say this. We launched our business when Fred was a year old, and we did so without childcare. Max and I would trade off back then, and I’d either get up at 4 a.m. to do client work before Fred woke up, or work until 3 a.m. after he fell asleep. Stress was the air I breathed, and now I can’t recognize what it is that I’m enveloped in. Is it peace? Calm? Sanity? It doesn’t feel right.

Ironic, isn’t it, that once I have achieved the balance and quality of life that I have been working toward all these years, I find myself feeling as though I am cheating.

As a mother there is an odd unspoken pressure to groan about lack of sleep and lack of hours in a day. While it is hardly enjoyable to be constantly frenetic, it is frenetic that we (seem to) strive to be, because somehow that means we are being capable and useful and necessary. And to be anything less than crazy busy seems to be anything less than necessary.

I am so used to – since high school! – living constantly on a cliff’s edge that being on the brink of falling – and yet not falling – had become the ideal state to be. Suffering is the sign that I have pushed myself as far as I can go. The success of my son and my clients are my badges of honor and my own sleeplessness and anxiety are my battle scars. That is how it has always been.

But this new air…maybe it’s doing something to me. Because aside from the guilt, I have to admit I am feeling pretty good. At this place far from the edge of my cliff I hear no pounding of my heart, feel no sweating of my palms. At this distance from the precipice I find it easier to smile, to laugh, to notice, to feel, to soften, to love. I have decelerated from a blur to a human being. Maybe this is in fact useful, because maybe this is what my family needs: a mother who is present, a wife who pays attention, a woman who is happy. Perhaps I have not failed after all. Perhaps I may have even succeeded.

How crazy busy are you? Have you found calm in your life? If so, how did you do it and was it hard to accept?

12 thoughts on “Accepting calm

  1. I have made this year about doing just what you said. I quit my job – which was weird but awesome. I am trying to live in the moment and make our home harmonious. Now that I have been doing it, I realize how wonderful it is. I love the way you articulated this.

  2. I was actually going to write a post just like this!! I, too, thought that being insanely busy was the measure of me “doing things right.”

    Normal was not sleeping, eating poorly and neglecting my physical appearance. These things, I assumed, were but a small price for me to pay to “make it” as a mother and (fill in the blank). The blank was usually filled in with writer.

    I told myself that I had to do a lot to be successful even as a mother.

    I didn’t see that all that I was doing was making me successful at nothing really at all. It’s funny because recently, I’ve had a lot of moms ask me what I’ve been up to, as I guess, the assumption is that since I’m not online as much, I’m doing something more monumental. I’m not.

    I go to bed at 10 pm and wake up at 8 pm. When I wake I read books, if my girls aren’t awake, or I write in a diary. That’s it. I’m purposely choosing to not be busy because I like how my mind works when it is less full of the fullness of feeling busy.

    I don’t feel as distracted now. And I can focus better on what matters. So, kudos to you! It’s hard to want to choose the less busy path because our society seems to more immediately reward those who are working all of the time. But I think the rewards for doing less come more slowly and are more lasting.

  3. As always, Cecilia, I find so much in your words to relate to. I’m not sure how we got to this place as a culture: where being busy is glorified by so many. It took me a long time to realize that there was no prize to be won for being the most exhausted or the most stressed-out, but even though I know in my gut how much better I feel physically and emotionally when I make time for sleep and exercise, I still sometimes feel “less than” when I talk to friends of mine with very high-powered careers. Sometimes I feel like I’m swimming against the tide in trying to carve out a simpler life for myself and my family.

    • Thanks Kristen. You said just what Stacia said above as well. I wonder how many of us crave this calmer life, but simply feel pressured to hide it because it is seen somehow as a sign of weakness?

  4. One of the best things about Romanian life was that no one there feels the need (the pressure?) to rush, rush, rush, go, go, go, do, do, do. And no one thinks a slow (in the best sense of the word) life means something is missing or wrong. I’m trying to keep that mindset now that we’re back, though it is hard when we’re all inundated with the expectation that we work and earn and spend and find more hours in the day.

    • This seems to be a common feeling – this desire to just take things at a comfortable, normal pace, but feeling pressured to do what others are doing. It’s so strange, isn’t it, that the ideal has somehow become the equivalent of “not enough” in our culture? Sounds like the experience of a calmer life was an important take-away from your time in Romania…you know the expression about a fish being so wet all the time that he doesn’t even know he’s wet…

  5. I love this! Is this something that came out of your broken ankle, I wonder? Being forced to slow down can sometimes be the best thing that ever happened. I’m so much like you in that sense. I thrived on stress, I took pride in being able to juggle multiple tasks and I reveled in being able to manage a full-time career and motherhood.

    And then I had Baby 2 and panicked a little, knowing that if I didn’t slow down now and enjoy this baby in my arms, I would never have that chance again. So we chose this life, and while we’re constantly worried about our finances, it feels good knowing that we are still managing with so much less (money), and getting back so much more (in every other aspect) in return.

    I just recently turned down a freelance gig because while it was money we could use, the work itself was tedious and uninspiring, and I told myself that if I were to spend time working, it would have to be on something that I at least can enjoy and grow from. I’m lucky to be able to be choosy, but it does come with a price, like you said. Less stability income-wise, but when it comes to happiness, it was the absolute right choice for me. For us.

    I could write whole blog posts on this, so I’m going to stop here.

    I just want you to know that I am really happy for you. Slowing down is not a bad thing at all. In fact, it’s wonderful.

    • Thanks so much for your sweet words, Justine, and I was totally thinking of you when I wrote this post. It felt so…new and unusual for me but when I stopped to think about it, I realized this is what many formerly work-outside-the-home mothers go through when they make that decision to leave their jobs. Yes, the money would really help but they have to weigh the sacrifices that come with it. I just feel so guilty knowing I am turning away work. But like you said the uncountable reward is happiness, which also goes a long, long way…

  6. I I know I am coming late to this post, but felt compelled, after reading your words, to chime in. I am exactly the woman you were talking about – on the cliff’s edge – when I was working as an attorney. Always busy and there was never enough time for myself, my husband or my newborn. It was a lifestyle that I was so accustomed to that I didn’t know anything different. Since graduating high school, I’ve always been go-go-go. But at age 32, after my father got sick and subsequently died 4 years later, I reexamined my choices and what was important to me. I made the choice to leave law and pursue motherhood and writing. Now, ironically, I don’t feel like I am productive enough. I am committed to writing, but am not making any “real” strides or generating any revenue. It is the complete opposite of being busy and I am finding it very discomforting. No real answers, but I completely understand what you are talking about. Thank you for this post.

    • Rudri, I love hearing from you any time! And I am so glad that this post resonated with you so well. It’s comforting, for me, to know others feel the same way. I really no longer cope very well with overscheduling and stress, and yet I am constantly bogged down with guilt if I am not frequently on the go and “producing.” I know how you feel well. But, if after a number of years and you don’t feel this slower pace is making you fulfilled, would you consider bumping things up a few notches so that you are closer to your comfort level? For years I thought I hated my career; this year, when I reduced my workload, I realized that I quite enjoy it. It was simply that I had stretched myself to the point that was no longer happy for me. And yet, I would not be happy if I’d quit either. I realized that something in between is what I needed.

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