What "Busy" Is: Lessons Learned

I had never known what "busy" was until I became a mother.  In college, mind you, I thought I was busy.  I remember that at one point, I was taking 21 credit hours, working as a Teacher's Assistant, volunteering as a Meals on Wheels driver and as a Girl Scout troop leader, serving as the Senior Class President, serving as an officer in two academic fraternities, co-directing a student play, researching and applying to graduate school, and being heavily involved with my church, including teaching kids, singing in the choir, and preparing for the ministry.   (I had my heart set on getting the Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford, of all the crazy things... I went for pipe dreams.)  I thought I was swamped!  However, the difference between college and motherhood now is: A) I could have quit at any point, and B) My free time really was my own.  I could have actually slept in most mornings, as well.

At the time, I really relished being active and involved in all of those activities.  In fact, I thought that the busier I was, the more productive I was, and the more productive I was, the better I was.  I kind of valued myself in terms of how much I could produce, and man, was I proud.  I had even won a couple of achievement pageants in college, mostly so that I could show that I was capable of winning.  To me, that's all that mattered: being the best.  I had to have the best grades, the best achievements.  It's that whole perfectionism thing again.  (Children from dysfunctional backgrounds tend to overcompensate out of insecurity.  Noted.)

My first turning point came during my senior year of college.  I was insanely busy and could barely make it from one meeting or class without having to go to another.  I was also in a relationship that I was worried about.  I still had good grades, but I was procrastinating on my work, particularly on my term papers.  Who had time to think about writing a term paper, much less researching for it?   I eventually ran out of time to write a major final paper for one of my most respected theology professors, who also happened to be a priest.  In my haste and overconfidence, I wrote something that was only a few pages long, with minimal research, and I turned it in late, expecting somehow to have it go under the radar.

It did - that is, until I received my grades for the semester.  I got an "F" for the class.  It should be said that the lowest grade I'd ever received was a single "B" prior to this, and so I was sufficiently freaked out enough to approach my professor in his office when we returned to school.  I told him my concern about the grade, and asked if there was something that I could do to make up the work.  He turned to me with a cold look in his eye and gave me the most frank words I've ever had in my life:

"I gave you the F because your paper was crap.  You knew it was crap, and yet you submitted it anyway, thinking that I would overlook it.  That was an insult to me.  I wrote a recommendation for you to Oxford, and this is what I get?  It was an F paper, and that's what it deserved.  You spend all your time worrying about how popular you are, about what clubs to join, instead of studying.  But when you leave college, no one will care what you did here.  No one here will remember you."

At that point, I burst into tears.  He was right, and I burned with shame and embarrassment over being called out.  He continued: "But what will matter, for you, is the effort that you put into your work here.  I will give you another chance.  If you research and rewrite this paper, and make it good, I will change your grade, and you can have an Incomplete until then."  I thanked him and apologized, and left his office with a new perspective.  [Postscript: I completely rewrote the paper and presented it at a conference, which got me an "A" for the class.  Unfortunately, I had worse luck in grad school.]

I came out of the professor's office shaking, but those words were exactly what I'd needed.  In retrospect, I was depressed and burnt out.  However, I spent lots of energy trying to put on a good face and pretend that I had things under control.  I owe that professor a huge debt of gratitude for not only giving me another chance, but for being real with me.  Sometimes the best words aren't the sweetest. 

When I became a mom, I outgrew the desire to be busy for the sake of being busy - or for the sake of getting outside accolades.  Yet I am now more busy than I've ever been in my life: my schedule mostly revolves around mealtimes, bedtimes, school lessons, and playdates.  I once tried to track how many diapers I changed in a day, but I lost track at the twelfth diaper.  I usually choose to eat standing up when my kids are awake, because I can't guarantee that I'll sit down for long.  Multitasking is my reality, and I don't even work outside the home anymore.  This is not meant to be a complaint, but just an observation.

Yet there are times when I really worry that I am treating motherhood like the way I treated college: like a marathon to be won.  I fear I could be channeling my personal competitive energy into being a mom, and counting my children's achievements and milestones like a checklist.  There are some moments, thankfully, that cause me to sit down and just appreciate what the kids are doing, just for being who they are. 

If ever worry about my children's goals more than their personhood or their happiness, please let me know.  Life is just too short for any of that.  In fact, the more kids I have and the more they grow, the more I feel myself pulling back, wanting to do less.  Lazy might be the best word for it: I just want to be lazy and live more simply.  That is a goal in itself.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, your college story totally felt like you were talking about me! Unfortunately, my professor wasn't so understanding. He was under the impression that I had to experience the consequences in order for the lesson to stick. Having all my family travel to my graduation, and not be allowed to walk across the stage with everyone else (they handed you our real diplomas on stage at my college, so they had strict rules about walking) was a hard and embarrassing way to learn that lesson. I still bite off more than I can chew sometimes, but at least now I realize it before the point of no return. I just finished my second round of college and the withdraw deadline became an important date on my calendar. If I felt like I wasn't going to be able to do my best in a particular class, I would just drop it before the deadline. I had to do it only a couple of times, but at least I allowed myself to do it, whereas before I never would've even entertained the idea of withdrawing from a class.

    It sounds to me like, even though you can't "withdraw" from being a mother (not that you would really want to anyway), you're learning to step back more and just do the important things in life. That is a good skill to have.



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