the pressure to do, the need to be

the pressure to do, the need to be

Last evening, I was perusing my old website, The Dream Pedlar’s, with the intention of transferring my posts from there, one by one, over to this new home. And I came across something special.

A year and a half ago, just before D was about to start attending a half-day toddler Montessori program, I penned a post titled ‘The Gift of Time’. If I could go back and address that past-self of mine, I’d go and give her a hug and thank her for feeling all those feelings and for posting about them on the site.

Because what she felt back then, is exactly what I feel right now. In a different context, of course, but the underlying sentiment is the same. I believe that the Universe continues to put us in situations, which are eerily similar, until we learn the lessons that are being sent our way.

Back then, I was so overcome with emotion at the prospect of D going off to attend a half-day school for five days a week after having stayed at home with me for two years, that I made a promise to myself to put every minute of that time away from him to ‘good use’. By good use, I meant I wanted to write stellar stories, not mawkish blog posts. Every word that spilled from my brain on to the screen had to be terrific, perfect, and not like a crappy first draft of something that would eventually be edited out in its entirety.

Of course, nothing of that sort transpired.

Same situation now that we are all homebound because of the pandemic. I am truly grateful that my basic needs of food, clothing, and shelter are met, which frees me up to adopt a more philosophical and spiritual approach to the entire situation.

Five weeks ago, at the start of March break and the lockdown here in Burlington, Ontario, that urge to be productive leapt within me like a Jack-in-the-box. Fitness goals, baking marathons, and spring cleaning endeavours were all the rage in all the WhatsApp groups I’m part of. I myself decided to focus on my daily yoga practice and my WIP novel, while taking on more freelance editing work with the intention of earning more now to set aside something for a very uncertain future.

In the first couple of weeks, I worked so hard, often sacrificing sleep, that I developed vertigo. It subsided only when I took a few days away from the screen. Not to mention that I was snappy, irritated, and waking up in the morning only looking forward to an afternoon nap. It was quite the wakeup call for me. Was it all really worth it? I didn't like who I was becoming. An angry, sleep-deprived person who was mentally elsewhere all the time.

What you get by achieving your goals is not as important as what you become by achieving them. ~ Henry David Thoreau

I am slowly beginning to learn the art and benefits of doing more by doing less. Taking time off to read or watch a movie or simply sit and stare at the pair of geese that has taken up residence on the rooftop of the apartment building a block away from my place against the backdrop of the evening sky has simply done wonders for me.

I spend fewer hours at work, but when I work, I’m completely engrossed and way more efficient and faster than I had been when I was working non-stop. When it comes to my Yoga practice and writing fiction, I am now setting lower, more attainable goals, with the intention of developing daily habits that I can sustain for decades instead of chasing unattainable daily goals and then berating myself for inevitably failing to meet them.

I wish I could go back in time and give my past-self the permission to spend the time she had away from D simply being and breathing, without trying to sabotage it in the pursuit of a twisted notion of productivity. I can't change the past but I can certainly apply those lessons learnt to this present time.

Funnily enough, a portion of this realisation came from a WhatsApp chat with a long-lost-now-resurfaced friend. Earlier this year, on Women’s Day, I had read a post by the writer, Karen Russell, on the tradeoff between the time she spent writing and the time she spent with her child.

After I first read the article, right till the end, I promptly went back and read it again. It resonated with me so much. It was as if someone had just put into words everything that I had been trying, but failing, to express in these past nearly four years ever since D came along. That precious child!

The entire article is quote-worthy. Right now, though, I want to draw your attention to a particular aspect of it that resonated with me incredibly at the time.

The same tug-of-war that leads me to queue up pictures of my son when I should be working on a novel also causes me, on the days I spend with him at home, to pray that he will nap for an extra 30 minutes, so that I might, for example, finish two more paragraphs of this essay. The irony of wishing that my real son would sleep so that I can write about his avatar is not lost on me; what I find even more disorienting is my simultaneous wish that I could crawl into bed with him right now, and feel his warm breath on my neck, instead of writing this to you. For as long as I’ve been alive, I’ve known that it was possible to feel bereft and exhilarated and weary and stimulated and guilty and relieved. But I couldn’t have imagined, even a few years ago, that these acutely contradictory emotions could become one’s baseline state. This is one of many lessons that my son is teaching me. ~ An excerpt from 'Karen Russell: A Brutally Honest Accounting of Writing, Money, and Motherhood'

This constant tug-of-war that Russell talks about is the space I’d been living in all this while. Until, the aforementioned conversation on Whatsapp took place.

This is the same friend I mention in The Gift of Time. The one from the UK. A banker that too. Unmarried. Childless. After having D, I had decided I’d never listen to the opinions on parenting of anyone who’s not a parent themselves. No amount of empathy can ever reveal to someone what parenting truly entails, until they experience it themselves. Or so I was convinced. But I suppose, being so entirely removed from the situation confers some sort of much needed objectivity on the perspectives of those who do not have children themselves.

So when I begged my friend to read the article because I loved it so much, he did, and sent me the following in reply. “I can't say I relate to it well. Obviously will never know. But one thing worth debating is whether it’s a right comparison to look for marginal utility of $$ and time on a short term basis. … the whole concept of marginal utility of ££ or time being considered for close relationships is questionable.”

At first, I was quite miffed and thought this is exactly the kind of dumb, idealistic thing a childless person would say to a parent. Because the struggle is real and practically endless. So little time and so much to do! So many decisions to ponder over without ever knowing whether the one we make is the ‘right’ one or not. Daycare or nanny? Go back to work or stay at home? Puree from pouches or homemade? Pre-school or wait until kindergarten? Private school or public school or homeschool?

But he is a good friend and I thought about what he said for days. And then it struck me. When I spend time with D, what if I were to do it without worrying about all the other things I ought to/want to/think I should be doing? When I am writing my novel, what if I were to do it without worrying whether KrA will remember to give D his milk break or put on an extra sweatshirt on the child before he wears his jacket so he stays warm during outdoor playtime?

At the same time I can set some healthy boundaries. If all I can get in a day is only one hour of writing time instead of eight hours, I can zealously guard that time and write for an hour a day for years instead of trying to cram eight hours of work into a single day and spend the next eight days trying to recover from the accompanying fatigue and exhaustion.

I wrote back to my friend that I think I finally understood what he said. In the short run, on a daily basis, even mentally not equating time spent with, say, a child or partner with time that could be spent doing something else was quite liberating in itself.

I also shared with him that this whole social isolation thing to me is like me still being a stay-at-home mom but without that perennial nagging sense of FOMO (fear of missing out). And ironically enough, when given an opportunity to do something else, like when D was about to begin his first foray into an early school, there was nothing/no one else I cared so much about, so what was that FOMO even about in the first place!?

Now, lesson learnt. Breathe. Be in the moment. Entirely in it.

And rest. Resting, I’ve come to realise, is much more paramount than doing. From resting and being present, many miracles continue to unfold.

Attribution: Photo by Carlos de Miguel on Unsplash