At the cusp of a new year, reflecting on our busy modern lives

I started writing this on the last day of the working year. Maybe that day deserves a special title and some rituals of its own. On the last day of the working year, we eat cherries when we get home, we go to the swimming pool, and we have takeaways for dinner. That’s what we did this year. I can see it becoming our tradition.

I finished writing this on 1 January 2018. My holidays are almost over, back to the office on the 4th. I haven’t met my holiday goals – sorting out the garage, going for a swim every day, weaning B. Whatever. We’ve had a good break, pottering about Wellington, trying to balance D’s need for large amounts of out door time with B’s need to chill out at home. (D is like one of those puppies that destroys the furniture if he doesn’t get a run around).

When I talk about “this year”, it’s actually last year now. Glad that’s over. Phew. It felt rushed and squeezed, but I feel prepared for a good 2018.

When I first went back to paid work after having D, it was ok. We didn’t have spare time, but we had enough time, just. There was only one child to look after. Outside of work he could get my full attention. Despite being pregnant again that year, and despite weekends spent trawling the open homes, it felt like a pretty good year – a settled year. This year has been much more scrambled. I hadn’t realised how much harder it would be with two children, and how much harder again adding paid work as well. I have often found myself reflecting on the stress points introduced by two careers and two kids. Other years will be much easier – this has been an establishment year after all. But still. A stay at home parent takes on the role of the family shock-absorber, and without one, everyone in the family feels more of the jolts of our busy world.

It feels like there’s too much stuff to do and not enough space.

There’s a poem called “Fire“, by Judy Brown (go read it, I’ll wait). I have thought of that poem often this year, feeling aware that we are packed in too tight, and the poor little flames are trying gallantly to burn without enough space. It’s felt like a holding year, when you’re trying to prevent the fire going out, so that in the future you can fan it into a more stable flame.

My parents juggled two careers and two kids. I often feel this gives me more sympathy with the stress we end up putting on the kids with our busy lives. When I start reading a book like The Wife Drought, I feel more cynical than the author – despite being younger. I read descriptions of the chaos of the juggle, and I feel pushed and pulled, I’ve experienced it from both sides, and it’s not exciting, it’s boring and tiring. I’ve been the kid whose grandmother has stepped in time and again to look after me when I’m sick, I’ve been the kid who knows that school holidays are a time of extra stress for parents. I’ve been the mum who’s had a call from creche to pick up a sick child immediately, but needs to handover some stuff at work first, and then drive through traffic, knowing that the child is waiting waiting waiting and just wants mum or dad. Pushed and pulled, but mostly, exhausted. There’s a sense of already having lived this life as a child, and not wanting to live it again as an adult, not when I know the spoilers already.

Spoilers: You’ll still be working that hard in your 50s and 60s when grandchildren come along, you’ll still feel squeezed, the reprieve doesn’t come unless you make it come. The big important things you’re trying to do in your career will never be complete anyway – improving the world is a collective project and you are one small part, and there are setbacks and re-calibrations and it’s a never ending march. There’s a limit to how much you can minimise your own needs, and no-one will ever thank you for squishing them down, especially if they burst out later in irritation. The habits you pick up as coping mechanisms for the especially stressed patches don’t serve you well in creating a relaxed life. There are hidden costs to being super busy all the time, and it’s not a sustainable way of living.

My parents managed things well, very well actually, but there was never a point in my childhood when I would have turned down extra time with them. It didn’t occur to me to want complete availability, what I wanted was a bit more at the margin. It felt so special if mum left work early and picked us up from school. It was so rare. If either of them had worked five hours less a week it would have made a noticeable difference to our whole lives. They’d both agree with this, I’m sure. It’s not like they really wanted to be working as much as they were, it just sort of happened – even though by the standards of most workplaces, they both had very flexible and accommodating jobs. This isn’t a criticism of how they managed things. It’s a structural issue. But it’s also at the back of my mind, now as a mother, how the little extra bits at the margins really matter a lot.

The great, wonderful breathing spaces of my childhood were our holidays – especially camping and tramping. Our day to day life felt fairly full-on. Our holidays were the respite we needed. As a parent myself, I realise just how much more stress my parents were absorbing and not passing on to me and my brother. But kids still notice, probably more than adults realise – especially if the adults are busy. The sense of hustle, seeing that mum was always on the go at home, knowing that when we were sick it was a logistical hassle. There were enough gaps for a the fire to burn, but there weren’t enough gaps that we took them for granted.

In my teenage years, I also began to notice my mum’s leisure deficit. We got enough time with mum, more would have been nice, but we got enough. But she didn’t get enough time for herself. And I wish she had. Looking back, this is the most obvious feature to me, and one I have no desire to repeat (though to some extent it seems an inevitable part of modern motherhood, that tension between your needs and your time with the family).

There’s not really any opt-out, for most people. Less career stress and daily rush usually means more financial stress, either when kids are small or longer term. There were many many benefits to a two-career family. We didn’t have to worry about money. It wasn’t a bad option. Modern life seems pretty high stress for most people, whatever we do. I suppose we try to balance shielding our kids from the stress and teaching them how to navigate it. The demands of modern adulthood are immense – we take it for granted, but humans are so amazing, consider how much more complex our world is now than it was when modern humans first evolved! So much cultural capital to convey to our kids. And quite a bit of stress involved in deciding what to do with your life, which is an interesting one, how recent it is to have sooooo many options, how poorly equipped we are to make those decisions when the stakes are so high (tens of thousands of dollars of student debt, at least, and hoping fervently you’ll get a good job at the end of it; knowing if you don’t you’re a bit screwed).

Modern society demands an extraordinary level of skill and imposes a big cognitive load on all of us. The complexity of the problems we face globally is almost incomprehensible, yet we see it play out on day to day issues too, brokering compromise among people with different values, navigating new technologies, meeting new people all the time, figuring out how to earn a living when the nature of work is constantly changing – there are myriad small scale equivalents. No wonder we barely have energy to tackle the giant global problems. We’re too busy with daily life. Not enough time.

Being busy is itself stressful, part of the problem. When time is scarce, any loss of time becomes a source of frustration. The queue at the post office. The child who doesn’t want to leave the house quickly. Traffic. The colleague who stops to talk just as you’re leaving your desk. The spouse or partner who doesn’t bring the washing in, leaving it to get wet again overnight. And the habits we develop make it worse, not better. Trying to do more than one thing at once. Starting something and not finishing it. Always worrying about whether this or that is the best use of time, feeling peeved when an expected break is derailed, because you don’t know when you’ll get another one. Feeling that sense of cortisol rising as you near the end of a holiday, or feeling like you can’t relax even on holiday because you want to get the most out of it, and you know it’s only short. Feeling burdened by relationships where you’re in the role of giving more than you get; and not wanting to be in relationships where you receive more than you give, because you don’t want others to be burdened, because you know everyone is busy. Being harsh on yourself – oh, if only I was more organised, if only I needed less rest, if only I didn’t have this or that human limitation, we’d be able to do so much more. If only my kids or my spouse did this or that differently, life would be easier (why can’t the kids play by themselves quietly, likes kids in movies?). Many of the irritations in life come down to wasted time.

We can imagine how much smoother life would be if we removed all the irritations, but instead, what if we left those bumps, accepted them as an interesting feature of the road, and went more slowly, so they didn’t matter?

Autonomy and self-direction are enormous wins for humanity; but not so the pressure to do things exactly right in your life, the moralising individualism. We don’t have to let people fall so hard and blame them for their injuries on impact.

A couple of days before Christmas, walking down Lambton Quay, I saw one of the regular buskers, the guy with the full face ta moko who does Kenny Rogers covers. He was the only person standing still on the street full of busy shoppers trying to get stuff done in a lunch break. People just streaming past him, hundreds of people, all with their purposeful missions, their time marked out for achieving a set goal, not to be distracted by something else. I saw the same guy outside our local supermarket on election night when I went to get snacks. I’ll always remember that. Me, buying chips and maltesers, emotionally invested in the election, wanting a particular result but knowing that whichever way it went our lives would be more or less the same. And this guy, sitting there singing “know when to hold em, know when to fold em”, in the dark and the cold.

D had a check up at the doctor last month, and it wasn’t our usual doctor, it was an immaculately groomed young German guy (#notallGermans) who sternly told D to stop wriggling because “you are not here to have fun, you are here so I can listen to your chest”. D said “But Doctor James ALWAYS warms the stethoscope up in his hand first so it doesn’t make me wriggle!”. The doctor put the stethoscope back on D’s chest, not buying into this childish pandering of warming it, and told D to take a deep breath. D took a deep breath in… and held the breath. Dutifully trying to follow instructions, he was standing there stock-still with his mouth gaping, not breathing out. Instead of seeing the humour, the doctor was getting more and more agitated at this unexpectedly difficult patient. Now, D can definitely be a handful, but he wasn’t being naughty here. He took the deep breath exactly as he was told. The doctor didn’t seem used to children, and was chiding him for an innocent misunderstanding, and D was getting flustered and anxious and confused, picking up on the stress, which made him less likely to co-operate.

I thought over it, how we try and get kids to buy into the importance of doing things efficiently (your fault you didn’t co-operate with the doctor), and how small cultural differences in expectations can bring these things to light. Being intolerant of kids might make the kids snap into line more quickly, but it’ll also make them intolerant of other people stepping out of line (his fault for not getting a job, don’t give them money, it just encourages them). Something is lost when we try and coach kids to muck about less, to keep their heads down and focus on the task at hand all the time (even when the task at hand is a leisure activity, it’s often focused leisure). It might make our busy lives easier. But creativity, humour, heart, flexibility, all start to slip away. There’s a balance somewhere, we can’t have complete chaos, and there are different rules for different places, but complete order is also unobtainable. We need to be able to tolerate a bit of messiness in our reality. If we’re constantly trying to keep things under control, we can never relax.

As I like I tell D sometimes when he is upset over small things, maybe the problem here is an attitude problem. The attitude that we have to do as much as possible, work hard play hard, earn our leisure, categorise our activities and plan our days.

We do need more space though. We can only shift the attitude when we get a bit of distance from the rush.

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