A friend I don't see nearly enough stops me in the grocery store.
"How do you do it all?" she asks, jutting a graham cracker toward her toddler's outstretched hands. "Nora, please don't try to crawl out of the cart."
"Me?" I say, bemused. "You think I do it all?"
"Yes," she says, smiling. "You've got three kids, you're writing all the time, I see your car everywhere...I just don't know how you do it."
I squeeze the handle on my shopping cart momentarily, absorbing the notion that someone thinks I've actually got it together. My whole adult life I've tried to be that person -- a grown woman who's figured it all out.
This is that moment? Here in the Whole Foods yogurt aisle?
Do I tell her that I haven't showered in several days, or that I'm wearing the clothes I slept in? That I have about 5 different to-do-lists scattered in various pockets with things I haven't done, including helping my fourth grader with his birthday thank-you's from last year? That the furnace hasn't been serviced in 3 years or that I need to find an exercise regime I'll actually stick to? Does she have time to hear how my heart broke the other night when someone made one of my children feel left out...again? Or that I have ripples on my thighs that weren't there two years ago? That I can't read up close or see far away anymore without reaching for a damn pair of glasses? That I haven't even started baby books for kids #2 and #3 (ages 13 and 9)? Is it worth mentioning that I don't tell my husband nearly enough how much I love him, how much I appreciate how hard he works so I can stay home with our kids and follow my dream to write? Or that my kids get mad that I'm always on the computer (writing!)? That I move piles from one room to another? That I'm discouraged about an editor who found my protagonist's voice "a bit grating"? That I can't keep a plant alive or that I didn't speak to my biological father for the last 20 years of his life? That I get anxious every time I have people over which only makes my family nuts in the process? Or that I'm chronically late? That I suspect I have Attention Deficit Disorder, but every time I think about getting evaluated I get distracted? That I never feel I give each one of my kids the attention and love and support they need?
I let go of my grip on the cart and smile. "I cry a lot," I say.
My friend laughs, fishing out the cracker her daughter just whipped back into their cart.
"I'm serious," I say, tickling the top of her daughter's soft, dimpled hand. Looking at my friend, I say, "Crying's the only way I know how to get through this life sometimes."
I want to say, If someone seems like they've got it all figured out, then look a little deeper. The truth is, you can't ever do it all. You just can't. No one can. Instead, I look into my friends eyes and smile. "Believe me, it's all an illusion. You're just seeing the outside."
I've been where she and so many other mothers find themselves, cramming too many errands into a tight schedule with a squirming sidekick before it's time to pick up the older preschool brother, only to begin what feels like neverending negotiations with terrorists.
I know the exhaustion that comes from motherhood and all its worries and what-if scenarios.
I could build a small paper nation from the partial to-do lists I've created and never finished.
From young, stay-at-home mothers to single, high-powered execs, women endure unseen forces few men could bear. I've come to realize I don't need or want to have it all. What I truly want is balance, particularly when I'm asked to lean too far over. And so, when an editor rejects my manuscript, I seek another editor's opinion. When I've been managing all the shopping and the dog cleanup and the emotional outbursts and the broken window falling on my arm, I need another capable adult to step in and give me an afternoon to laugh as I write about it. When my child's spirit is wounded by someone's insensitivity, I encourage time with another kindred spirit to help put things in perspective. Women frequently carry on without asking for help because there's often just no time for that additional task. It's not being bitchy or demanding or obstinant or even controlling -- it's all a matter of tone. And remember: it's wise to speak up, speak out, explain and even spell out what it is you need in order to achieve balance. Whether it's a night off, an extra set of hands or a purifying cry, it's all just part of riding the waves.
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