How Do I Do It All? Very Simply: I Do Not.
The question is often posed to me when people observe that I am a self-employed mama who also manages facilitating my children's education with home as our primary base: How do you do it all? I answer people quite frankly and honestly by asserting that I don't do it all, then listing off all of the things that absolutely make the things I am able to do possible. To make it more widely known--because I abhor the idea of having any part in perpetuating a false notion of what entrepreneurial, family and married life is like (hence the creation of this blog in the first place)--I thought it would be worthwhile to write some of my frank and honest answers to the "how do you do it all" question out for y'all.
I grew up in a culture that spoke often of a certain "Proverbs 31 Woman." Now, if you already know about her (for better or for worse) just bear with me for a second. I may not say here what you think I'm about to say. This certain ideal lady was touted in the scriptures for her local and international business acumen, her impeccable home-making, the way she drew praise to her husband and the way her own children "call[ed] her blessed." (Proverbs 31:28) Much like broader pop culture narratives that only highlight the most pronounced portions of our movements and experiences as humans through this life--birth, death, sex, love, coupling, grouping, careers, money in the bank, car purchases, home purchases, weddings, graduations, etc.--but miss the also notable raw edges, madness, growth opportunities and beauty in between, I heard a lot of lofty talk as a child and young adult about the masterful feats of this Proverbs woman but not a lot of talk about the inner-workings of it all. I felt the pressure of an expectation to be her. I struggled acutely at one point in my life in utter shock and overwhelm when I found myself in the vomit-covered throes of all the messy, painful, unhappy, tiring, insomnia-inducing very real living that happens in between the glamorous accomplishments and more popularly swooned over "life event" moments.
I remember having four kids all under five years of age (the last two an incredible simultaneous surprise), being in the first years of my photography and styling businesses, trying to come off of high risk/complete bedrest pregnancy then newborn-twins-at-home hiatus, trying to reconfigure homeschool for my oldest two children, trying to keep up with the laundry, planning meals, preparing meals, the doctor visits, the birthdates, dentist appointments, social security numbers, the bills, the emails, the voicemails, the text messages, the floors, the dishes, the sheets on all the beds, sleep, feeding myself, grocery shopping, bathing everybody regularly, keeping all the nails trimmed and all the body orifices clean... on all the bodies, tracking everybody's bowel movements and fiber intake, glucose levels, hospital stays, trying to make the community meetings and group studies and wardrobe expectations and relational upkeep. Lord, have mercy. Aren't you exhausted just reading that? Then it hit me like a ton of bricks: That [Proverbs] woman had help! You cannot and should not be doing all of this by yourself. It's impossible. Additionally, I realized I was focusing so much on meeting expectations that did not fit my life season that I was missing the joy, the simply being, the fullness of dynamic experiences (pleasant and not so pleasant), the substance and filling of life in the messy, painful, tiring, capacity-stretching and even the overwhelming.
I learned and am still learning with practice to be gentle with myself and flexible with my seasonal expectations--of myself as well as those I might have of others.
Here's a list of the ways in which I do what I'm currently doing and also the ways in which I do not do it all:
1. Talk back to and perhaps even funeralize the shaming voices inside your head.
For the longest time I felt like there was a me inside my head from the past when I had no husband or children and a me inside my head from the future, willing when my children are grown, scorning me for the pile of dishes in the sink or forgetting a friend's birthday ...again, or not having enough energy or mental space left at the end of a day or a week (!) to give everyone a bath before bedtime. And those were just the voices inside my head. I didn't even mention yet the books and blogs and Facebook groups and park play date chats where folks were outrightly or passive-aggressively badmouthing one another's choices to do this or that or not to with their time, finances, spouses, careers or children. The many many voices, dear souls. I learned and am learning with practice to answer the ones in my head and to ignore or tactfully address if need be the ones outside. I can only do what I can do.
"The dishes are piled up because we're using them, give thanks, and because we're playing, learning, growing and exploring together between meals."
"I forgot your birthday, friend, because I can hardly remember my kids' shoe sizes or respective weights right now. Thank you for being my friend and for appreciating the demands of my current life season."
"I'm exhausted and we had an eventful day, babies. We'll do bird baths or showers in the morning. ...Maybe."
And right now, all of this, is what it is, and that's ok. Death to the shaming voices. (Just the haunting voices, now, y'all, not the actual people.)
2. Delegate. Ask for/pay for/trade for help.
- To spouse or partner(s). Because I am married/in a partnership with another individual besides myself, it has been important to be specific about the division of labor in each season we find ourselves in together. Listing out in great detail what needs to get done in a day, a week, a month and collaborating as a team to find what works best based on strengths, weaknesses, proximity and availability and not necessarily what might have historically better fit within an idea of gender. This has not been a seamless undertaking by any means at all. At times we have arrived a breaking points before we have been able to see what isn't working. Some of the sacred work of relating and growing in love happens when reach those points and continue to show up for the labor of reconfiguring and constructively compromising.
- To children and/or other dependents. Everyone with an able body can offer support of some kind to the upkeep of the home. Sweeping, laundry sorting, straightening, dusting, wiping down the outsides of kitchen appliances, putting away groceries, making a grocery list, putting away their own clothes. Currently my youngest children are 4 years old. My expectations of them may not be the same as those I have for my 7- and 9-years olds, but they are certainly handed a paper-towel to wipe down the dining room table after it's been sprayed and asked to find the matches to their shoes, clean their room and help with straightening up the family room at the end of the night. In our house, we've even partnered with the children to set up an earning system that is used from time to time. The primary goal is to establish an ethic of ownership over shared space. We're exploring ways of also offering lessons in the correlation between work and earning money. Their finished work may not be immaculate at first or even for some time, but children, especially, can learn valuable life skills here with a few meticulous hands-on demonstrations by someone who has a level of mastery at a task and then with practice and repetition on their own part. We, ourselves, just have to practice exercising patience with their season and learning process.
- To paid help. I am not ashamed at all these days to order my groceries online and drive up to the store to have them loaded into my car. It costs $4 more and is worth every penny on days when I just need someone else to do that for me. I have hired and presently employ housekeeping help in various arrangements. In one season, I needed someone to just come deep clean the bathrooms and the floors in my then 3-bedroom apartment. In another season, I needed someone to come every couple of months to deep clean all 3 levels and full bathrooms and kitchen in my town home. In another season, I just needed help with the laundry. In another season, I just needed help with the bathrooms. It helped my life, my sanity and my home's efficiency to pay for it. I have established relationships with 3 superb babysitters and have had several in the course of the last 7 years. I've used Groupons and Living Social deals, friend referrals, independent contractors and college students. In seasons where I didn't have the cash, I bartered my skills and talents -- photos, writing, hair services, child care, tutoring. Where entrepreneurship is concerned, I have recently hired a virtual assistant who helps me with the administrative work in my businesses. She helps me maintain client relationships, oversees my calendar, helps me manage all my inboxes and is generally awesome. Virtual scheduling software programs save me hours, and I'm currently looking for a bookkeeper because I see the need at this point to delegate that work too.
3. Receive help if it's offered as a gift.
(Use discretion and keen awareness of all six of your senses here, because everybody can't be trusted, unfortunately.) I've personally had several life events that have left me either flat on my back for extended periods of time or consumed entirely with the work of caring for others. In those times, as if by cosmic orchestration, I noticed divine opportunities to experience what it's like to receive the gift of help that sincerely expects nothing in return: the friends and even strangers, at times, who offered to help me get a load of boxes to my van, came over in the evening to chat with me and help fold laundry, stopped by my home in the daytime to hold my babies when they were newly born, cleaned up around me when I was bed-ridden, offered to bring me and/or my family dinner during difficult times, cleaned my car for me before I delivered one of my babies, cleaned my house for me just before I came home from the hospital with each of my babies, or popped in just to read some books or do a fun art activity with the kids during recovery periods. I didn't understand community until community became the very thing that I desperately needed. My parents, my since childhood closest sister-friend, my cousins, my aunt, my godmother, my grandmothers when they were on this side of life, my blood brother, my spirit brothers and sisters, and all the dear ones who have come alongside me, asking nothing, to hold space for and lend helping hands to my endeavors ab-so-lute-ly have enabled and still enable me to do the things I do. They have all helped me at one point or another (and others consistently at many points) with the kids, with the shop/studio, with the house, with the vehicles, with public appearances, with my self. I affectionately also call these people "my village."
4. Set boundaries.
Learning to pay attention to my own words and responses has been one of the major keys in offering myself care and balance. In the past, when someone would ask me what I had planned for any given day, I'd commence the running down of my to do lists saying "I have to do this. I gotta do that. I have to do this, this this and this." And for me, simply realizing that the difference between my life living me and me living my life could be felt in a small but important way as soon as I changed the way I spoke about my day. Instead of "I have to.." I began saying "I will..", which suggested to me a thoughtful decision having been made on my part. "I decide" more vs. others deciding for me. Words like "no" and phrases like "not at this time" or "that doesn't suit my life in this season" have been hugely empowering. Even down to preparing to serve meals to my children in the daytime: In the last year I've been preparing my plate and pouring my drink first, to help ensure that I actually stop to eat too! Or if I'm being inundated with 4 children's worth of non-urgent questions and requests simultaneously, I assert that "I'm going to take care of mommy first, and then I will take care of you." They sometimes stop theirselves mid-inquiring and say it for me. I am teaching them how to treat me and hoping that I am also setting an example for them in establishing agency over their bodies, their mental space and lives in general.
5. Give yourself space and permission to rest.
And don't feel guilty or bad about it. You need activity. Things need to get done. And, you must rest; mind and body need white space to recharge and function properly. You cannot be active 100% of the time and things to do will always be there. If you're hungry, eat. If you're sleepy, take a nap. If you're thirsty, have some water. All of this within reason, but you are a human being in a fleshly body. You are not a machine. Pay attention to your health and basic needs (notice, I didn't say wants) and make no apologies for it.
Please be clear: I absolutely do not do it all--at least not all by myself. And it's probably safe to assume that if it appears to you that anyone is, they are probably not "doing it all" either. Keep things in perspective and know that seasons change. Set realistic expectations for yourself and have realistic expectations of others. Be careful about comparing your life and accomplishments (or seeming lack thereof) with those belonging to others too. In the words of the late Artist formerly known Prince, "we are [all] gathered here, [each of us without perfection or complete mastery, I would add]... to get through this thing called life." Be kind to yourself and to one another along the journey. Do what you can do. And just let that be until you can do more.
Power and love,
What does your support team look like?