June 8, 2018

3 Ways to Cope with our Busy, Messy, Beautiful Lives.

“I wish I could have back all those hours I wasted watching TV in my twenties,” I said to my parents, glancing at my kids as they licked their oversized portions of ice cream.

I shook my head, remembering how abundant time seemed when I was younger.

My dad had just asked me how the book I’ve been slowly working on was coming along.

“There just aren’t enough hours in the day,” I said.

“There never are,” he said.

Despite intentionally not overscheduling myself or my family, responsibility keeps creeping in to all the nooks and crannies of my life. Much of the time, I feel overwhelmed by everything I’m not doing: I get weighed down by the endless drudgery of dishes and laundry and crumbs awaiting me, the financial tasks I should be taking care of, and the myriad of things I’ve been meaning to do differently as a parent, partner, and employee.

Often, it feels like my base emotional state is overwhelm.

I don’t know if this is how most people feel in this muggy season of middle age, with families and jobs and homes all clamoring for our attention, but I’m starting to get sick of it. While I might not be able to whittle my life back to the expansive, untamed luxury of my twenties, I’m snailing my way toward accepting the level of adulting that is currently required of me.

Here are some things that help:

Reframe busy.

“I’m so busy,” my friends and I say to each other. It’s true—most humans living in the Western world have jam-packed lives—even those of us who intentionally try to keep things simple.

But I’m rethinking my automatic response of constantly declaring how busy I am. For one thing, I don’t believe that busyness is a virtue or something to compete over.

But more worrisome, reflexively talking about how busy I am makes it sound like I don’t have choices about the pace of my life—and I do. I’m ridiculously privileged to have many choices, including how much paid work I take on, how much of my time I volunteer in my kids’ schools, how many activities my kids are enrolled in, and how active our nights and weekends are.

It’s easy to forget that most of us have the ability to scale back. To refuse to opt-in for all the activities. To believe we’re simply on autopilot in our own sweet, singular lives.

So instead of saying I’m busy, I want to say—and perhaps more importantly, think—life is really rich right now. Richness suggests intention and flavor, and even implies an attitude of savoring or gratitude.

Make time for pleasure and play.

As adults, it’s far too easy to think we don’t have time to play or to incorporate pleasure in our lives. Or, upon adding new responsibilities to our lives, to eliminate some of the activities that bring us alive in order to fit everything in.

I’m struggling to make time for fun and pleasure at this stage of my life—I’m pretty sure I have “fun” confused with basic self-care, like exercise, or the simple need for connection, like performing the bare minimum maintenance on my friendships.

But the truth is that carving out a little time in our lives to play—whether that’s having a pillow fight with a spouse, getting together with a good friend who makes you belly laugh, or heading to the playground without your kids—is not only necessary for our spirits, but it also probably makes us better parents, partners, and workers.

In Finland, which boasts high international education rankings, kids enjoy 15 minutes of recess or free-play times for every 45 minutes of learning. What if, as adults, we rewarded ourselves for all our hard work by sprinkling in play and pleasure?

Remember seasonality.

We talk a lot these days about mindfulness and being present, and for good reasons. But there can be a flip side to mindfulness. Sometimes in hyperfocusing only on right now—especially if we’re in a challenging or hectic stage of life—we might lose perspective.

Chances are, our lives haven’t always been as busy/full/rich as they are right now. And someday in the future, they probably won’t be either. Children grow up; careers wind down. It helps me to remember that this season of midlife won’t last forever—both because it reminds me to enjoy the fleeting aspects of this time in my life, like getting to do work I love and having kids who are still super snuggly—and because it’s a reminder that right now isn’t forever. In another decade or two, I might be enjoying a much slower pace than I am today. I might even romanticize this season of chaos and love.

Accepting that our lives ebb and flow—that we’ll experience seasons that feel completely unmanageable and seasons of ease—can give us the perspective to cope with the demands of life and the stamina to keep treading forward.


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