Chalkboard Triage

I used to think that being a good steward of our time meant using each moment efficiently. Now, I’d like to not make the people around me miserable with impossible expectations. 

A few years ago, my husband fell during a mountain bike race and had to have major knee surgery. The twins were starting kindergarten and Bryan couldn’t drive for six weeks. It was overwhelming to figure out four kids schedules and Bryan’s rehab with no family in town and me as the only driver. 

On our kitchen chalkboard, I sketched out a triage of sorts. Things that were “absolutely necessary” were: school, Bryan’s PT, Elizabeth’s vision therapy, and keeping Bryan’s business operating. Things that “would be good” included: sleep, exercise for me, kids sports and activities that we’d already committed to. Things that “weren’t going to happen”: birthday parties, school fundraisers, and big gatherings where no one was expecting us.

Even once Bryan was well, I kept this model in the back of my mind. There are so many things that come across my email or come home from school that I once saw as mandatory that I now see as very, very optional.

I’m a forty-six year old woman who has only recently started asking myself, “What do you want to do, Anna? Do you want to go to that?” I usually know the answer in my gut. If I wish that we hadn’t been asked, then I should say no. I have spent a lot of years saying yes to things and then resenting having to do them. That’s not fair to the people who have asked for my help. I’ve noticed that if I rush to sign up for something because I want to help, then that’s a good sign. If I only sign up because someone makes me feel guilty, then it’s not going to go well. 

I know a family who made a spreadsheet detailing how many weekends their high school students would still be living at home. Before committing to new things, they would look at the commitments they already had for work and other obligations. If you know your kid is only around for another fifty weekends, and thirty of those are already full, do you want to fill up the remaining ones breathlessly racing between activities?

Of course, it’s best to figure these things out before you commit to a team or a project. Ghosting on people who are counting on you feels rotten for everyone. If I am thinking straight, I can look at our calendar and say, “Signing my child up for a gymnastics team that requires us to travel will end badly.” 

What I often say when I’m trying to carve out time for our family is that we “just can’t pull that off.” What I mean is that the energy and time required will put us at a deficit. Yes, we could possibly make it to math night at multiple schools, but at what cost? If half of us arrive in tears and we are all exhausted the next day, is it worth it? 

Sometimes I have to ignore the guilt that I feel for not doing everything and remember that none of these things are mandatory. I have a strong sense of who I want us to be as a family. The last thing I want for my kids is for them to look back on their childhoods as a sort of forced march. 

The poet Mary Oliver died a few weeks ago and I noticed a flurry of people posting a quote from one of her most famous poems. “Tell me, what it is you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

At first glance, it seems like a call to cram in as much as possible; but then I remembered that she spent her days observing and writing about nature. She sought astonishment in quiet places. The poem isn’t a call to overcommitment or to efficiency. It’s a call to live deeper and more intentionally. 

In the end, we get to shape these families of ours.

One of my core values for my family is that my kids grow up to become fierce companions and advocates for one another. Time spent laughing in the kitchen moves us towards that possibility; so does time playing basketball in the driveway. There needs to be some uncommitted time and space for us to just be a family. To me, those sacred moments aren’t optional. 

 

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