Finding Balance With Outside Affirmation Part 2
In part one of this series, I talk about parenthood and a demanding workplace forcing me to confront my insecure need to be the Hardest Working Person in the Room.
To say that my family values work ethic is an understatement. If we had a crest, it would be a mop and a broom crossed behind a W2 form. The men worked thirty-odd years and countless overtime at skilled trade jobs, and the women ran households like Navy barracks. Both my mother and grandmother kept their homes so spotless that I was in double-digit ages before I realized not everyone's house looked like the set of Everybody Loves Raymond on the inside. The f-word was bad in my family, but lazy was worse.
As an only child, and particularly a budding queer Christian one, I wanted to emulate both of my parents' examples. I wanted to be the Marlboro Man AND Betty Crocker, for Jesus. I got my first job at fifteen when I still young enough to need a special permit to work, and didn't spend a significant amount of time unemployed again until I had Eleanor at 26. But I was also domestic as a motherfucker. I spent only one year of college living in the dorms before transferring to a commuter school in my hometown and renting a house with a roommate where I could decorate the living room and plant flowers on the porch and host Mary Tyler Moore-esque dinner parties with three course meals, because that's totally what every 21-year-old dreams of doing in their spare time.
To all of this work, both personal and professional, I brought a Puritanical belief that I was creating spiritual value for myself through labor. It became my primary love language--I showed God love by being the first to volunteer at the homeless shelter on Thanksgiving. I showed my roommate love by doing her half of the dishes without being asked. I showed my boyfriend love through elaborate handmade gifts. And when people complimented my work or told me I did a good job, I felt love in return.
It wasn't until I was married to Marc that I started to see the unhealthy side of this. Marc's primary love language is quality time, so he was all too willing to put off the laundry or the dishes or the yard work in order to fit in a coffee shop date or a movie on the sofa. He'd convince me to ditch the chore, and I'd spend the majority of whatever enjoyable thing we did obsessed with the unfolded clothes sitting on our bed. I'd look over at him and wonder, "How can he be so carefree? Doesn't he know we're being garbage people right now? Has he no shame?"
But I wasn't really forced to confront this part of myself until I entered the most demanding workplace of my life and raised a toddler at the same time. Suddenly, not even the most Herculean efforts on my part could get all the work done. There simply weren't enough hours in the day, and something was going to suffer for it--either the lesson plans, or the floors, or the baby sign language, or on the rare occasion I did manage to check everything off my list, my sanity and sex life. My Marlboro Man/Betty Crocker cyborg identity had been tossed in the wood chipper, and I had no idea how to construct a new one with the pieces.
Over the last four years, I've grown a lot. I have a long way to go, but so far here are the things that have been most helpful to me on my quest for balance:
Be nicer to yourself, goddamnit.
There's a critical difference between self-reflecting and self-deprecating, and it wasn't until I started consciously trying to separate the two that I realized just how much of my life is accomplished by berating myself into action. It's ok to think "I didn't get as much done today as I wanted to." It's not ok to think "I need to finish this tonight or else I'm a lazy-ass tree sloth whose word isn't worth the ink I sign my name with." If you wouldn't talk that way to someone you love, Nikki, don't unleash that toxic waste on yourself.
Resist the Multi-Task Monster.
The days when I'm the most drained and feel the least productive are the days when I've been franti-tasking--just hurling myself at jobs and chores with no sense of priority because being busier feels like working harder. It's not. Checking my work e-mail while I'm playing with my kids is helping no one and accomplishing nothing. Striving to be fully present in whatever I'm currently doing helps me fee calm and purposeful, and more energized to tackle the next thing down the line.
Cultivate the other parts of your identity.
I used to be The Hardest Working Person in the Room, and now I'm not. It's just a fact. In my professional life, I'm never the first one in the building or the last to leave. I don't volunteer for many additional duties or extra commitments. In my personal life, I'm not making my baby food from scratch. A 3-day gardening project ends up taking a month. In the void that's left, I've discovered that I'm lots of other kinds of people as well. I'm a Creative Person. I'm a Funny Person. I'm an Empathetic Person. And those qualities exist whether or not I return calls for all my voice mails that day.
It's called OUTSIDE affirmation for a reason.
As in, there are lots of sides. And no one person in my life is privy to all of them simultaneously. I can't go to work and expect, however subconsciously, to be affirmed for how hard I worked rocking my baby back to sleep at 2 AM the night before. I can't expect my four year old daughter to affirm all those instructional materials I created before I picked her up. I have to affirm myself, so that I have a reservoir of self-assurance to turn to when I get in lazy-ass tree sloth mode and feel like a failure. I have to tell myself that trying my best is enough, and I have to believe it.
This is a beast of a topic for me, and one that I'll likely grapple with for years to come. What things would you add to this list? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments. Help a hardworking, insecure sister out.