When the scales of life tip too easily

A friend asked me yesterday if my work/life balance was going as well as it sounded like in this blog. “Yes,” I said. A fuss-free newborn and part-time work schedule has provided us with a pretty sane household. “But it’s a delicate balance.” And last week, the first week I’d hoped to fully dive into our new family schedule, I realized how easily it can be thrown off.

First, the kids and I came down with colds. Thankfully theirs were minor, but I’m still sick. I forgot my husband had a three-day convention to attend in town, leaving me to single parent for two evenings. I decided to host a garage sale before the weather turned too cold, adding another straw to the camel’s back. Then I had a family emergency.

That’s when the camel’s back officially broke.

Sapped of energy and emotionally drained, the first thing I let go was the three weekly gym workouts I wanted to make a priority now that my OB has OK’d me exercise again. The laundry, dishes and other household chores were the next to go. Because I wasn’t on deadline, I was able to cut back my scheduled 12 work hours to seven — something I’m thankful I could do, but won’t always be practical.

I realized that the work/life balance I’d established for our family was too easily tipped. While we did encounter more than our fair share last week (some of our own doing, some unavoidable), any one of those things would have thrown the balance out of whack. Right now, our family life will only stay in balance if nothing goes wrong. And something always goes wrong. That’s life.

For some reason, in the midst of all this, I started thinking about an article I read awhile back in a parenting magazine, written by a mom whose family was chronically late. She sought help from a professional organizer/scheduler. The mom explained how they always set a time to leave that should get them to their destination on time, but they were constantly behind. The organizer asked her what her “load time” was. The mom had no idea what she was talking about.

The organizer explained that you need to allow the amount of time it takes for everyone to get on shoes, get out of the house and buckled into the car. If you start to load when you should be leaving, you’ll always be late. So if your arrival time is 8:30 and your leave time is 8:15, your load time might be 8:05.

I began wondering what other “load time” principles I could apply to our life to help achieve equilibrium. I’m hoping two books currently on my nightstand, “Simplify Your Life with Kids” and “How to Raise a Family on Less than Two Incomes,” may offer some suggestions.

On Monday, I seemed to get some of the balance back, working two hours in the morning, and getting almost all my chores done in the afternoon while the kids napped. I still haven’t been back to the gym, but the four of us went for a walk that evening.

Then one of the pets peed on our bed, soiling the comforter and sheets I’d just washed that day. Ugh.

Maybe I need to accept that complete balance isn’t possible all the time. Maybe what matters is that it evens out in the end.

Family trip means adventures in air travel

Parents of preschoolers, please heed my warnings: Always, always, always book direct flights and pay to check your bags. Oh, and don’t give your child a fiber cereal bar as a traveling snack.

Eve the World Traveler (steering a pretend ship in Baltimore's Inner Harbor)

Our family of three (plus one on the way) recently undertook a trip out East to visit relatives in Baltimore, Md. It was the first time our 3-year-old daughter, Eve, had flown. She did really well on each airplane, with just a few reminders to use her indoor voice. The takeoffs didn’t scare her. Her ears didn’t pop. She stayed in her seat and even snoozed some of the time. However, other elements of our five-day vacation certainly tested our parenting mettle.

Trying to be frugal, we’d booked roundtrip flights that stopped in Chicago both directions. We also packed everything we’d need in carry-on suitcases, to avoid the checked baggage fees. That meant we needed to haul everything we brought with us between gates during our layover. I’d worked out a plan in my head: I’d sling the laptop case and my purse over my shoulders and wheel/carry two suitcases while my husband would carry his dufflebag and Eve.

Why, after three years, haven’t I figured out that children rarely cooperate with their parents’ plans?

No, Eve had to walk by herself. And she had to wheel her own suitcase. Only she wouldn’t pull it. She wanted to push the handle. Of course, she couldn’t really steer it. So she walked like a drunken sailor, bumping the suitcase into walls, kiosks and flight attendants.

I soon realized the parenting tactics that work at home don’t work well on the road. You can’t put a kid in timeout for several minutes when you’re rushing to catch a plane. And you can’t let a kid cry it out when you’re staying in a hotel with paper-thin walls. (Eve threw a fit our first night at the hotel because she wanted to sleep in a pack-and-play instead of a bed. By this point, I had no sympathy and sent my husband outside with her, where she worked through the tantrum in the car.)

We knew this would likely be our first and last East Coast trip for quite some time. It’s considerably easier to travel with two kids when one is still in your uterus. But that doesn’t mean the yet-to-be-born babe didn’t cause his share of problems.

Every pregnancy book talks about how the second trimester is a great time to travel, because you’re past the morning sickness and sluggishness of the first trimester, but aren’t huge and uncomfortable like you will be in the third. Except I’m already huge. And the morning sickeness never waned. Just ask the Japanese business men who laughed (I assume at me) as I hurled into the bushes outside a shopping mall in Hanover, Md.

One of the hundreds of jellyfish on display at the National Aquarium in Baltimore.

We did have a great time at the National Aquarium (Dolphins! Jellyfish! Sharks!)  and watching the Twins win at Camden Yards. Eve got to play with her favorite 8-year-old friend/cousin and we spent quality time with family.

On our way home, our first flight was delayed so much we would have missed our connection in Chicago. So the airline rebooked us on a different airline’s flight direct from BWI to Minneapolis. “Direct!?” my husband and I said in unison as we looked at each other giddily. Despite our efforts at a frugal vacation, I don’t think we would have been happier if they’d given us $1,000 cash.

Oh, and about the fiber bar … I’ll spare you the details. Just trust me on that one.

Surviving motherhood when life happens

My motherhood as of late can be summed up by a recent status update I posted to Facebook: My current parenting philosophy has devolved from ‘best practices’ to ‘let’s just survive the next three weeks.’

“Amen,” a new-mom friend replied. “Nine months in and I’m already on ‘One day at a time.’ ”

It’s a good lesson for all us moms, whether dealing with the day-to-day struggles of keeping a little human being alive and thriving, or those times when life throws us curveballs. Lately, my family has been trying to stay standing in the batter’s box.

Our wonderful daycare provider is pregnant with twins and due in May. I’d been working on finding new daycare for Eve beginning in April, and had best-case and probable options worked out. Then our provider was put on modified bed rest, and her daycare had to close three weeks sooner than expected.  It was a worst-case scenario none of us were prepared for, and I suddenly needed to develop plans C, D and E.

We were facing three weeks without constant care, a stretch of time that also included a combined five doctor appointments for me and Eve, a shaggy dog in need of a haircut and vet visit for a bladder infection, and a certain 3-year-old’s birthday party. Oh, and have I mentioned my husband is an accountant in the midst of busy season, putting in 60-hour weeks?

(Insert heavy sigh here.)

I don’t mean to sound like a pity party. Really, it’s just … life. Life happens, more intensely at times. You make it work. You survive. My friend Jenny’s favorite phrase is “This too shall pass.” It’s served her well raising two kids less than two years apart in age. I’ve been repeating it lately.

We’re down to three doctor appointments now. And we’ve worked out childcare for the next three weeks. It involves more transitions than I’d ideally like Eve to experience, but she’ll survive. And so will I. That’s all the matters in the end.

One day at a time. This too shall pass.

Parenting Perspectives: Can we ‘have it all’?

Here’s my Jan. 25 Parenting Perspectives column … You can chat about it on the Topics blog.

For most of my motherhood, I’ve worked part time. In many ways, the limited workweek has provided me the best of both worlds: Adult interaction, career fulfillment, contributions to the household income, and plenty of full days spent with my daughter.

But in some ways it’s the worst of both worlds as I allow myself to feel a constant tug between the two. I remember one warm Tuesday morning when I was jealously eyeing a mom pushing a stroller as I drove to the office. I wondered, “Why can’t that be me?” And then I remembered it was, the day before. But the day before, I was probably thinking about my to-do list at work.

I have a feeling this is something a lot of women struggle with, regardless of how many hours they punch in to a time clock. As a whole, my generation was raised with the belief that we can do it all. The women of previous generations paved the way to this mantra, breaking glass ceilings and taking their seats in the boardroom. While our gender no longer makes us question whether we can achieve our career goals, we’re now left with a new nagging doubt: At what cost?

“We’ve hit the new glass ceiling, one that keeps women who want a life outside of work from getting ahead and doesn’t allow women who are getting ahead to have a life outside the office,” wrote Lia Macko and Kerry Rubin in “Midlife Crisis at 30,” a book I read this summer as my big 3-0 rolled around. Women across the country are collectively but silently experiencing this individual identity crisis, Macko and Rubin say. Statistics show 75 percent of women ages 25 to 37 say their jobs interfere with their personal lives. Those who choose to focus on their families often deal with the guilt that they “should” be able to do it all. The authors say we need to redefine what “having it all” means.

I agree. I’ve come to believe we can’t do it all

Mothers too often go on an unnecessary guilt trip

My latest Parenting Perspectives Column, from Aug. 11.

When women begin the journey into motherhood, we inevitably book a concurrent voyage: the guilt trip.

Mommy guilt is a special brand of self-reproach and a universal experience, evidenced by an abundance of books, blogs and articles offering tips to overcome it.

It’s the nagging feeling that clouds the work-life decisions we make, found in stay-at-home and working moms alike.

It’s the remorse we feel when we just don’t want to read “Goodnight Moon” for the 12th time or play Barbies for an hour, again.

And it’s the shame that comes from the faulty thinking that somehow we’re not enough – for our spouse, our child, our employer and everyone else who relies on us.

For me, it’s the emotion that pierces my heart when, despite my best intentions, harm comes to the child I’m charged to protect.

I feel it at bath time when soap slips into my daughter’s eyes. It hit hard when I helplessly watched her tumble down the stairs. It’s the wave that crashes down when, in some way, I feel I fail her.

The mommy guilt got me especially hard last week. I’ve written about my daughter’s crossed eyes, how I came to terms with my child’s imperfections and struggled to decide on the best treatment.

We’ve continued to visit the ophthalmologist after a corrective procedure in April, and have been delighted by improvements, until last Monday.

The doctor decided Eve has a congenital condition that caused her eyes to cross and still prevents her left eye from looking outward. It’s called Duane syndrome.

Crestfallen, I researched it online, and recognized its characteristics in my daughter. Then, I read about its causes.

It’s a birth defect. A nerve in her brain failed to develop around the sixth week of pregnancy. It could be hereditary, environmental or both.

My heart hurt. I wondered if something in my genetics is the root of her problems. Or, worse, if something I did a month before realizing I was pregnant caused this “mis-wiring” of her brain.

I wondered if I truly had made the best decision for treatment, given this new information. I beat myself up for not noticing this particular problem earlier.

Then, like I always try to do when I feel the weight of mommy guilt, I remembered the words a kind pediatrician told me several months ago.

We were at the walk-in clinic, having Eve’s ears looked at. I hadn’t realized she had an ear infection until my own ears started to ache.

Tearing up, I asked him how bad it was, how much damage I had caused by not bringing her in sooner.

“Whoa,” he said. “Unpack your suitcase.”

He didn’t want me to go on that guilt trip. It’s difficult enough being a mother without all that baggage.

She was fine then. And she will be fine now because I have the best intentions for her well-being.

Now I just need to read some of those books, blogs and articles to figure out how to change my guilt trip itinerary, and check that suitcase once and for all.

Sherri Richards is mother of a 17-month-old daughter and employee of The Forum. She’s also “Top Mom” at http://moms.inforum.com