Shortly after COVID-19 forced the entire globe to a standstill, I found myself at home on a Tuesday morning with my six-month-old son, fighting a medley of feelings as I faced the question: what on earth am I going to do with you all day?
As a working mom who runs my own business and controls my schedule, I already find myself with more time at home than many other professional women, but the rise of COVID and the subsequent lockdown further ensconced us in the four corners of our suburban house. And on this particular day, reality hit me: our lives might look like, well, a lot more of this for the foreseeable future.
My initial temptation to fight boredom was quickly followed by a pang of ugly, nagging guilt. There was a time in my life when I longed for this: longed to have a child, for the privilege and luxury of spending time at home, and for the freedom to focus so much of my energy on nurturing my family. I was beyond grateful for the opportunity to spend time with him while still earning an income and building my career from home, and so my surge of panic—my “what am I going to do all day?” panic—made me feel like an ungrateful monster.
Underneath my dismay about the immediate future lay bigger, scarier questions. Did I really think that spending time at home with my baby, tending to his needs, wasn’t “enough” for me? That it wasn’t productive, or beneficial to my career, or stimulating me intellectually? Was this really how I felt, deep down? These thoughts made me feel sick to my stomach as I grappled with an unpleasant reality: I think I really, truly believe that if I am not pushing, striving, producing, or achieving, then what I’m doing isn’t worthwhile.
Fighting the urge to be productive
Since March, more and more families have transitioned into a blended work situation, where the nine-to-five framework has dissolved and more and more working mothers are finding themselves balancing work and taking care of their children during the weekdays. This makes life look very different as they struggle to share homemaking tasks with their also-working spouses, and can lead to some interesting revelations for those who aren’t used to this much time at home with their children. The often slow, simple life with small children can lead high-achieving women to struggle with the question of achievement and productivity: is this worthy? Is it enough?
But when so much of life comprises these moments, the routine, quotidian ones, what does that mean? Does that mean that the entirety of our lives is reduced to being “not enough” when they look unglamorous? (Indeed, anyone who has ever parented small children knows that it is much more about the gritty, Cheerios-on-the-floor-and-dirty-diapers moments than the Instagram-worthy, I-was-made-for-this ones.) Are we somehow less-than when we are focused on simply meeting needs rather than pushing, striving, dreaming, achieving, and plotting a course for success?
My feelings on that early spring Tuesday forced me to confront an important truth: often, in certain moments, all we are expected to do is meet basic needs, be fully present, and accomplish that day’s tasks, whether that means washing dishes, writing a brief, wiping a bottom, or jumping on a client call. Sometimes, that is a lot, and it is enough. And there is so much dignity, humility, and satisfaction in simply putting in a good day’s work, tending to what needs the most attention, and then resting in the knowledge that this is all we were expected to do. Granted, it can be hard to feel that you are fulfilling your life’s purpose when your child is screaming and throwing food. Nonetheless, the lesson holds: being present and focused in the moment carries tremendous power, meaning, and dignity.
Taking life day by day
Even as I’ve come to prioritize achievement and success less, this focus on the present moment has influenced my professional life in a powerful, positive way. I’ve noticed I harbor far less anxiety about my work when I approach it with a “what do I need to achieve today?” posture versus a lingering preoccupation with what’s coming down the pipeline. It allows me to transition into that coveted state of flow and not fret over what I could—or “should”—be doing instead.
A few years ago, I attended a speech given by then-U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley. When an audience member asked for her advice on how to plan a successful career trajectory, she imparted these words: “Just be good at today.” She went on to explain the value of an honest day’s work, of striving for excellence in fulfilling the obligations of that particular day, and trusting that you will eventually reap what you’ve sown.
On my harder days in quarantine, I reminded myself of Haley’s words and the power of showing up and saying “yes” to the day’s tasks. This leaves no room for hand-wringing or fretting over whether it is significant enough, meaningful enough, or working in concert to shape me into who I am meant to be. It is simply trusting that doing the duty of the moment is, more often than not, more than enough.
Focusing so much energy on my son during quarantine has started to transform me from a fretting, anxious overachiever to a much more present and peaceful mother, wife, and worker. Of course, I still have a long way to go, but this process of showing up and accepting the day’s tasks with open hands and an open mind has started to heal me from the inside out.
Motherhood started this healing process for me, but for others, the catalyst may be different. Maybe you are a caretaker for a sick family member. Maybe you are working through a challenge in your marriage. Maybe you are simply in the thick of trying to figure out your professional calling and struggling with work that you don’t find meaningful. Maybe you are looking for work and are trying to figure out how to fill your time. No matter what form they take, these opportunities can be powerful teachers of the beauty and meaning of asking, “What does today require of me?”
Recently, sitting with my son on the living room floor, I fought that familiar urge to craft a mental to-do list. Article deadline, training, continuing education course, client project. Meanwhile, my now sixteen-month-old grabbed his favorite alphabet book and climbed into my lap, his chubby cheeks spreading into a giant grin. At that moment, I knew that, yes, I did indeed have a lot to do—but for that moment, what mattered most were those chunky hands pointing out puppy dogs and dump trucks. The work would get done. It had to, and so it would. But for now, I told myself, “This is what needs my attention—and I am grateful to give it, wholeheartedly.”