In my senior year high school history class, we read the book by Jacob Riis with this title. How the Other Half Lives. It took a candid look at the harsh conditions in the immigrant tenements of New York City in the late 1800’s. The conditions were deplorable, really and truly appalling. Squalor at an inhumane level. Filthy, putrid, unsanitary, over-crowded, congested, stifling, unhealthy, abhorrently degrading conditions. Worse still, the only escape from the tenements were the days of back-breaking, mind-numbing labor rendered without breaks, weekends, vacation days, or sick days to temper them. There was no hope, nothing to seek or aspire to beyond surviving to see the next moment.
Perhaps, the worst part is that those people living in the tenements suffered in virtual silence. There is little written or known of their struggles. The upper and middle classes, the ones we read about in our history books, paid no mind to the plight of the working immigrant classes. Unintentionally? Maybe. They just didn’t notice. Ambivalence, yes. It features prominently in the history of the human race, from ancient times to Jesus’ time to present time. There is no limit on what people can shut out. Or on how much they can insulate themselves. Most of us are probably guilty of this ambivalence in some respect. There is much we can choose not to see. Much we can ignore. Much we can avoid—whether it be places or people—by simply limiting our exposure to the forces that might prick our conscience and, all too often, justifying these self-selected limits in the name of safety or self-preservation.
In this modern age, complaints abound about work/life balance, particularly with the vast majority of households consisting of two working spouses/parents. Ironic, though, that those having these discussions typically aren’t those most in need of finding balance. Those people are too busy working. It is the well-educated, wealthy, upper classes who are having this discussion so loudly. Anyone else read Anne-Marie Slaughter’s loquacious treatise on “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All?” I did, and it’s a great read for those who have the time to read voluble articles containing more hand-wringing than hard-and-fast solutions. Not to mention those who have the financial wherewithal and the education to control the circumstances of their own lives. The thing is – I can’t really criticize Anne-Marie Slaughter. Because the truth is I relate to her. Probably much more than I wish I did or would like to admit. It is us—people like me and her—who have deep intellectual discussions about balance, usually coupled with discussions of gender equality in the work place or the gender pay gap. We speak without gratitude, with self-importance, as if our modern ‘brave new world’ is the first to confront or struggle with issues of balance.
We are arrogant.
Truth be told, the vast majority of us doing the talking (myself included) don’t really know what it is like to be denied any semblance of work/life balance. We would do well to take a lesson from those immigrants living in the New York slums in the late nineteenth century. Or even the anonymous individuals probably living there now. We should appreciate that we have the time and the power to launch a real discussion on this issue. Many of those who went before us never did. While that is not to say that our own struggles are not worth acknowledging or that we should not strive to cultivate better work/life balance, it is to say that this subject should be approached with some caution and a proper perspective, both historical and contextual. Those who went before us had cause for outrage. We have cause for tempered frustration . . . and appreciation. After all, we have come a long way.
It is with that perspective (or an aspiration to that perspective and that level of humility) that I attempt to open up on my own work-life balancing act and on my own hopes, wishes, fears, and desires for cultivating the ever-elusive balance in my life. To the extent that I wander off into the land of self-absorbed, modern-day, elitist whining (and I probably will), please forgive me and know that I will continue to reflect long after I put up this post. Because I do have it so much better than so many, and I know that.
I wrote recently on the questions I am navigating with respect to NFP, spacing children, and the legitimacy of any “serious reasons” I am contemplating for waiting a big longer before having another baby. I received wonderful comments in response to that post. Please know how much I appreciated each of you who commented. Since then, I have been ruminating over your comments for the past few weeks. Coincidentally (or, more likely, as a consequence of God answering my prayers), I happened to order Simcha Fisher's "The Sinner's Guide to Natural Family Planning" within days of penning that post. I didn’t really know what her book was going to cover content-wise, but it sounded like it might be a funny read about NFP, and Lord knows I could use some humor on that subject!!! It sure didn’t disappoint on that count! But it did surprise me. It provided me with thoughtful and much better-educated answers to the questions I had posed about NFP, with a bunch of other new ideas to consider as well. It was exactly what I needed, and it came at just the right time. Thank you, Simcha!
But I digress, slightly. Back to my post. In writing it and reflecting on it, I was forced to take a good, hard look at my life, my priorities, and my choices. My children are growing up before my eyes. I am working a million hours, tied to my smartphone, and, all too often, missing the little bits of progress my children make every day on their journeys towards adulthood. My children each spend 10-11 hours in the care of others every day. And, when I am with them, I am running at break-neck speed just to keep them fed, bathed, and healthy. The house is always a mess, the laundry rarely done or folded. There is precious little time to read books, play games, or go to the park. I worry over my two-year-old’s limited diet, my four-year-old’s oft overly defeatist attitude, and my failure to expose my nine-month old to as many new foods as possible; however, I have very little ability to control these things or make the changes that I think would serve them well to confront these challenges. I’m always exhausted and, therefore, less patient and more inclined to anger or get frustrated easily, even at the slightest offense or affront. And, although I know I want more kids, the thought of having more induces nausea and gut-wrenching stress. Moreover, is it even fair to bring another child into such an environment? And amidst all of this chaos, I am realizing that, somewhere along the line, I have lost myself, lost track of the dreams and ambitions I had for my life, none of which included being beholden to a job or the “golden handcuffs” it has used to trap me. Is this really what God wants from my life? From my vocation?
Last week, I went to Confession. It had been a year since I had been there, and I figured I better go at least once before Easter. After an exhaustive examination of conscience, I had much to confess. About halfway through my Type-A induced list of wrongs and transgressions, the priest cut me off (I think he was wearied by my endless list and worried that I would keep him there past both lunch and dinner). He asked if I had focused (or could focus) on who God wanted me to be as a wife and a mother. He emphasized the importance of that role. As my penance, he asked me to pray about that and to reflect on the lines in the act of contrition promising “to sin no more and to avoid whatever leads me to sin.”
After emerging from the confessional, I spent a long time in prayer, in reflection, and, candidly, in tears. I emerged without many answers, but with the profound sense that my life and priorities are (and have been) out of whack.
Since then, I have been discerning. And not the slow, thoughtful, well-considered discernment to which normally I am accustomed. No. This is the big, large, scream-your-brains-out, run ten lap around the entire country, fly to Hungary for no reason, major, huge, LIFE-ALTERING kind of discernment. This discernment has run the gamut from applying for new jobs (several) to considering whether I should quit my job entirely, sell the house and most of our furniture/possessions, cancel cable and smartphone service and most of life’s other luxuries, move into a townhouse, and stay home with (and possibly homeschool) the kids. Yes, wow(!) . . .
Ultimately, I guess I feel compelled to do something radical, to make some major, significant, life-altering changes. I can’t explain it, but something has got me lit up inside about it. I feel a tremendous sense of urgency with the passage of each moment of time, and I am convinced that only the most drastic, dramatic, and pervasive lifestyle changes will suffice.
I’m pretty sure I am scaring my husband (terrifying him, really), not to mention driving him batty as my target solutions change from day to day, hour to hour, and minute to minute.
I’ll admit that this quest also feels a little directionless. Because I don’t know exactly where to turn or what solution to seek. I feel out of control. It is chaos, but in a different way than my daily grind has been for the last half of a decade.
But it is breathlessly exhilarating too. In a month, a day, a week, or an hour, my life could look nothing like it does at the moment. There is something so simultaneously thrilling, empowering, and intoxicating about that notion, notwithstanding the terror that comes with it. As someone who has always been predictable, slow-and-steady, and inclined to overanalyze every possible outcome before making even the most minor of decisions, I don’t know how to handle this rush of what I can only describe as pure freedom, this “sky-is-the-limit” sense of opportunity. It feels like I am breaking out of my cage and finally escaping into the wilderness of possibility that is life the way God intended it.
I find myself asking the question: “How does the other half live?” Not those in the tenement slums that Jacob Riis covers in his books. But those who serve their families by staying home to care for them and be there for them and cook and clean for them and transport them every day. How does it feel to sacrifice yourself and your wants/needs/desires so completely for others? And why do I get such a rush thinking about it? Especially when I know that it is such a selfless, challenging, and patience-trying existence. One 7-week and two 12-week maternity leaves were enough to teach me that!!! This sense of exhilaration and freedom and even of purpose seem so misplaced when I consider the daily challenges of being “mom” and “wife” all-day, every day, without a job or money or any other outlet of escape to an adult-dominated world.
In the most profound sense, I am truly at a loss. Am I being asked to choose between employment/security/material safety and love/family/freedom? Are those paradigms even fair or accurate? If so, is this really where all of my reflections on work-life balance (and a Holy Week Confession) (oh, and maybe also my saint of the year, St. Cajetan, the patron saint of unemployed people?) have taken me? Or is this just a wake-up call to pay more attention to my priorities in life? A slight detour on the road to wherever it is that God wants me to head ultimately?
What is God’s will for me and my family?
I guess . . . Well, I just don’t know really. I wish I had the answers right now, but I . . . well, I don’t. I suppose I simply feel compelled to share that I am discerning, seriously and deeply discerning. I do not know if this process will be long or short, but it feels monumentally and critically important. Like life-or-death important. That probably sounds really melodramatic (especially in light of the anticipatory apology I gave not 14 paragraphs ago), and it probably is. But I can’t shake the notion that I’m on to something pretty significant here. At least significant in terms of my life.
With that said, I am going to do something that I usually hate when other writers do. I am going to end this post, which began with such promise and intention and focus, without any real answer, wisdom, moral, punchline, guidance, insight, or direction. Because, sometimes, that’s the way life goes, right? When we are in it, we don’t have the answers and wisdom that only experience and hindsight can bring. So I am simply going to ask, if you would, to say a prayer for me. I don’t know where God is taking me. I don’t know how much stock to put in the emotions, discernment, and even mental gymnastics I have been working through over the past couple of weeks. I simply feel the inkling of something moving in my life that could prove pretty significant. Like the scent in the air when Spring dawns after a cold winter, with its sweet smell of freshness and possibility.
God, guide me to do your will, and please give me the spirit of acceptance, fortitude, and commitment to follow you always, through love and laughter and also hardship and disappointment. And, in the spirit of how the other half lives, help me to remember always how far we have come and how incredibly blessed my life is. I ask this in the name of your precious son, Jesus the Christ. Amen.