I think I need to tattoo the word ‘Wanted’ on myself, preferably in some obvious place like my forehead. Just own up to it, right out loud.
People are practically hunting me down.
I have to hang my head when I go into my kids’ school these days because the PTA wants me (understandably; I joined the board last spring and then, after going back to work full time, all but abdicated my duties when life became overwhelming). The tax man is waiting to hear from me. My passport is four months expired. My dogs need a bath; my fridge needs a scrub. Holy cow, did I register my kid for the right school next year in time for the just-passed deadline? I seriously cannot remember. I pray that you don’t notice that I might be going a little bit crazy. Hey, look at that pretty bird over there!
Here’s the thing: I am working pretty hard. [Insert super positive and magically professional smiley face here.] (If you think this website is nifty in any way, could you send my boss a note that says, “Hey, that Natalie is sure doing a good job!”)
This duality of working parents, and to a larger extent, working humans, is what I’ve been mulling in my 30-seconds-a-day spare time since the whole Lean In movement thingy started making headlines: Being really good at something — devoting oneself to a project or job or passion — means diverting energy from other things. No matter how upbeat-tempo-optimistic-Superwoman you are, human beings have a finite amount of energy.
And we spend a lot of time, maybe rightly so, debating and analyzing how we divvy up that energy. Which one among us has the right recipe? Who’s got the secret sauce?
I think we need fewer secrets, though, less swagger, and more honesty.
My theory is this: In order to lean in toward something, you are going to leave other things in the lurch. In some area or another, you’re going to suck. Repeat after me: I suck at _________ and then fill in the blank. I’ll start:
I suck at laundry. I suck at renewing my passport. I suck at becoming a famous writer (so far, anyway). Last week I super-sucked at making it to my kindergartener’s special classroom “Fabric Day,” where lots of mommies (not me) sat patiently at sewing machines and helped make millions of little fabric dolls, bags, toys, scarves and all manner of creative goodness. I suck at staying calm indefinitely.
Sometimes, I suck really hard at some things.
I suck at those things so I can excel at others.
Uh oh. I said it. I broke confidence, smashed ranks. Don’t lambaste me as an anti-feminist naysayer so fast. It’s not only women who know that if we’re going to be really honest with ourselves, we must admit that we cannot do everything well all of the time.
I don’t really care. I mean, I do care about falling short of people’s needs and expectations (I do feel really, really bad about the PTA board, please oh worthy board members, know that if you’re reading this) but I don’t want to punish myself.
It reminds me of another blog I read recently, where the writer and many followers were taking issue with “Fakebookers,” those seemingly perfect people we all know who craft envious online identities for themselves with clever status updates, Photoshopped pictures and travel-destination porn. I try not to get sucked into those idyllic-seeming digital lives because 1. I know they aren’t fully real, and 2. I’m personally not interested in perfection.
I want to connect with people who are, on some level, just like me. Real people, who excel at some things and bomb at others, who are as honest about missed signals as they are about impressive successes. I want to be able to say, “Hey, this is crazy! You too? Wanna help each other out? Let’s be friends.”
A movement might seem, on its surface, to do just that: Unite a group of people pursuing a common goal, aligning group energy to better meet the challenges. But it also strikes me as an ancillary avenue to judgment: Hey, you aren’t doing it this way? You feel bad about that missed Fabric Day? Are you a leaner-inner or a leaner-outer? An Innie or an Outie? Confess!!
Why not just call Uncle? Tattoo a “Fail” upon your furrowed brow.
Variety as they say is the spice of life. I’m leaning into some things right now, like my career and, as much as possible, my family; I’m leaning away from others — volunteer work, laundry, enough exercise. There’s lice in the classroom, I don’t call my parents often, we don’t eat enough vegetables. With the help of my super hard-working partner, I’m trying to hold it all together. Hey, look at the pretty bird!
A few weeks ago here at ParentMap, the staff (almost all moms and one dad), who spend their days pursuing a mind-boggling and near-miraculous juggle, was lucky enough to have a professional photo session. The photographer, a superdad himself, advised us ahead of time:
“Wear something that says something about who you are,” he wrote. “For example — though I dress casual 99% of the time, I would wear one of my cool vintage sharkskin suits for this. Or a fancy Western shirt.”
I interpreted that as ‘dress like the person you want to be, the person you see yourself as.’ That frank advice, delivered kindly, surprised me. How novel. Acknowledge that we are not the people we strive to be all of the time, and that’s perfectly OK — no shame if on most days we succeed at the level of the proverbial old jeans. It doesn’t make you an Innie or an Outie. But take care to remember your ideal self, and try her on, guilt-free, any time you can.
I wore a tailored black wool dress. Bright red lipstick. Deep emerald cowgirl boots, and my vintage-style black-framed editor’s glasses.
My 7-year-old daughter, used to seeing the deconstructed, ever-juggling, not-pretending-to-be-perfect me, said with admiration when I picked her up from school still wearing my photo shoot outfit, “You look like a lady who worked hard today, Mommy.”
I always am, darling, I always am.
In between school drop-offs and coffee binges, Natalie Singer-Velush is ParentMap’s Web Editor. In her former life she wrote for newspapers and once pumped milk in the bathroom of the King County Superior Courthouse while covering a murder trial. Natalie lives in Seattle with her husband and their two school-aged daughters.