“Do less. We can focus on 50-70% of the stuff we did before the crisis hit.”
This statement was included in an email I received last March about self-care. I saved these words and came across them again recently. My immediate thought was, Oh, please let that be true eleven whole months later.
Even though we’ve been at home (always at home, forever at home), it’s not exactly like we’re staycationing over here. My capacity feels eternally diminished. There are entire days I could scream over the mundane, when I don’t want to make another meal, deal with another fluctuating emotion, step over another LEGO on the floor, or sit for another virtual meeting.
While 50-70% felt impossible during the early days of the pandemic, when the news cycle never stopped with updates on COVID-19 and restrictions and school announcements and all the things, it still doesn’t always feel like we’ve moved past it all. Let’s be honest: sometimes 50-70% still feels like altogether too much.
On the heels of my first thought came this one: If 50-70% still feels impossible, why do I also feel as though I never stop moving?
My kids recently went back to school in-person. I’m not used to it yet. We spent 40-plus weeks together and the reality that they’re back to their regularly scheduled programming has yet to sink in. I’m still distracted, unaccustomed to these uninterrupted blocks of time to complete my work.
Until recently, multitasking was less a lifestyle choice, but a necessity. I’d turned it into an art. Not like Renaissance art, with precise lines and a defined one-point perspective, but sloppy, splatter-y, fling-paint-at-the-canvas kind of art. Y’know how Jackson Pollock paintings often have cigarette butts embedded in them? That’s what my multi-tasking felt like: a canvas that’s been flung with paint and embedded with ashes.
Checking anything off my list felt like a victory. Yet that list remained full of things I never finished. Things that rolled over from one week to the next. Or things that slipped totally and completely through the cracks.
Multitasking was both imperative and impossible. There was cycling loads of laundry while calling to make doctor’s appointments. Creating grocery orders while assisting kids with Seesaw activities. Answering emails while finding crayons and scraps of paper. You hardly need me to detail this life for you: it’s largely what life with children has been this past year. To go back to my wild, paint-splattering metaphor, I spent my days flinging paint at a canvas, hoping it would stick into some sense of cohesion. Black and white and blue and purple and ashes scattered across my days, trying to hold it all together.
Life still feels much that way now. I’m grateful my kids are back in school with teachers who are excited to be there. Yet it feels as though my paint-flinging, multi-tasking, goldfish-level attention span is far from over. It’s hard to dive back into normal when so much of life continues to be anything but.
My mom once told me the advice she received from our pediatrician when my brother and I were young: Don’t worry about what we kids ate at a single meal or even a single day, but to look at what we ate over the course of a whole week. Maybe we ate nothing but toast, macaroni and cheese, and air one day, but the next we drank milk, ate our broccoli, and tried the fish.
I feel this with my own kids. I know that breakfast is usually the biggest meal of the day. They often eat me out of strawberries, yogurt, and Cheerios at breakfast. But on Taco Tuesday? They fill up on nothing but tortillas, cheese, and tortilla chips at dinner. They’ll either eat everything at lunch or nothing. And my youngest will frequently eat his entire snack bin before noon despite my constant reminders that it’s supposed to last the entire day.
I wonder if we need to take a similar approach with our work, both in and outside the home. Especially for those of us who have tied our mothering (ahem, lives) to a basis of productivity. Who else gets to the end of the day and mournfully looks over a to-do list with more empty boxes than checked-off ones? It’s time—probably long past—to take the long view.
What if we looked at what we did over the span of a week? Or over the course of a whole month? What if we gave ourselves permission on a Monday, when we have a hard time entering into the week, to read a book or snuggle with the kids, because it was just the recharge we needed to get back to engaging with our work the rest of the week? Maybe instead of working through lunch, we sit down and enjoy a plate of real food at the table. Maybe we go to bed early instead of trying to plow through that list because whatever we’re doing at 10:30 pm, we’re not doing it as our very best selves.
And sure, maybe we’re still operating at that 50-70% level. That’s not nothing. We’re continuing to live through the trauma of a global pandemic. The scattered paint and ashes might continue, but maybe we can take a step back for a moment to see that splatter is actually something beautiful.