When my to-do list became a coaster.
** These are missives from my past. Many of these posts were written about 2 years ago, when the realities and circumstances of my life were quite different. I am now a single parent to a toddler. The past is an uncomfortable and rich terrain. By occasionally delving in, without lingering too long, the past provides the needed perspective to step rightly into the future. **
It took me a few months to realize that my to-do list had become a coaster. After my daughter was born I was a hopeful, green grasshopper. I believed that despite having an adorable, small human strapped to my body almost all the time, I’d still get shit done. I’m a get shit done kind of person. Surely something that is 13 pounds and has no hair cannot end all productivity as I know it.
Ha! I laugh at my former youthful optimism. I discovered that parenting has much in common with a game of tetris. The blocks represent daily tasks of parenting and running a household. This includes things like meal prep, reading to your kid, playing outside, snuggling, unloading and loading the dishwasher, managing fussing/discomfort/temper tantrums, potty training time, running errands, sweeping the floor, etc. All the blocks come quickly and I need to speedily figure out how it will all fit together. If I don’t go fast enough or fit everything together perfectly, the music speeds up and a wall shuts the whole thing down. This is a totally normal day of parenting. Then, my to-do list asks me to fit in renewing my driver’s license. Or moving that bin of old clothes I plan on donating to Goodwill to the basement. Or doing a Goodwill run. In other words, my to-do list is a cruel, tortuous asshole.
It seemed my productivity died and was buried unceremoniously when I became a parent. Most days I feel like I get nothing done. Yet, I also feel completely bogged down with tasks. I’m constantly doing things, just not things that are “to-do list worthy.” My to-do list sat around collecting mug rings, dust, toast crumbs, enchilada sauce, and yogurt flung from a baby spoon. It collected everything except for lines crossing off completed tasks. My inability to get things done weighed on me. It made me feel inept and insufficient. I threw the gross, loathsome thing into the recycling bin.
The reality is, I do tons of work every day. I do the work of running a house and raising a small child. The kinds of tasks that fill my days are so repetitive and basic, they don’t even make it on a to do list. I wash, dry, fold, cook, bake, put away, sweep, wipe, hug, give space, observe, redirect, teach, plan, encourage, and comfort. Not one of those things ever ends up on my to-do list. The work I do is indispensable, yet also completely invisible. For a long time, I barely acknowledged everything I was doing in a day.
Focusing on the big tasks that make it to a to do list makes all the other tasks seem like time-filling tedium. But, those time-filling tasks are my days. It’s drudgery. And, it’s not. Because these are the daily practices that sustain my family. These practices make our house into a home and the people that reside here into a family. It feels like an unfair arrangement of things to dismiss the essential work I do everyday.
What I eventually realized is that I don’t have a productivity problem. Our culture has a perception problem. It’s a problem that clouds my understanding of my own limits and self-worth. I refuse to be a superhero stretching my abilities beyond that of a human. I am a human who does the most human of things: care for my family and home. I will be compassionate and careful with the human that I am. I will not be bested by a to-do list or by a culture that dismisses my labor. Everyday I fluff the nest, water the seed, scavenge the field, and tend the hearth. And, I’m learning to see it. I’m learning to see and value the work I do. I’m teaching myself that the small work I do is full of meaning and substance. I’m teaching myself how to pay homage to the simple and loving hearth-tender within.