Practicing Gratitude: The Struggle is Real

A while back I read a book called The Gratitude Diaries, in which the author spent a year learning to practice gratitude in the various areas of her life. Her experience was uplifting and powerful, and I wanted to learn to practice it myself, in addition to my other mindfulness and meditation studies. So far, it’s been difficult.

I have been resentful a lot lately, just because September has been a busy and stressful month. My credit card number was stolen, my house is bug-infested, I’ve been busy with my online class so I have little time to clean, and now I also have gestational diabetes. Because of all the extra doctor’s appointments, I had to take some time off work, which produces mega-guilt. Even if I have earned the time, I feel as if I’ve let people down by not being there, and I don’t want people to think I’m skipping out. (I have a bad habit of worrying what other people think of me.) My emotions have been volatile and all over the place, mostly because of the GD. Even in my limited down time, I haven’t been able to relax. All I do is search for more information on GD and how to fix it. So then I feel resentful that I’m not doing anything for self-care.

You know those people who, whenever you say that something is hard, they respond with their own problems? You feel frustrated because you don’t feel empathy from the other person. There may be sympathy there, sure, but suddenly the conversation is all about them. That’s how I’ve been feeling lately about myself. Why should the internal conversation be all about me, all the time, about my worries? I don’t want this to transfer to the external world. I don’t want to be the person that everyone hates being around because all she does is complain. So to do that, I can only be grateful, and spin things to the positive.

I have GD? It’s not my fault. It’s my pancreas and the placenta not getting along. I’m monitoring it because I want to have a healthy baby. I’m doing everything I can to create the best start for my son. I didn’t do enough with Henry? I didn’t know I had GD till after he was born – I just barely passed that 3-hour sugar test, and I didn’t realize I should have been watching it more closely than I was. But we did the best we could, and he’s an active, healthy child now, and I’m grateful for him. My medical team is giving me conflicting information? Well, GD is a complicated thing, and every person is different. You can’t make a blanket statement about it for anyone. My medical team is caring and compassionate, and committed to helping me get through this, and I’m lucky I have access to this kind of care.

Practicing gratitude is hard, but when you take the time to break it down, it can be powerful and intense. Everyone has something to be stressed about. You might think you have nothing to be grateful for. You might say it’s easy for me to be grateful, because of my income, my job, my spouse, whatever. Some people have even said I have no right to feel certain emotions about my life. But each of us has the right to feel our own emotions, and we should, so that we don’t tuck them away in a corner, where they will eat us. But then, each of us also has the power to create our own happiness. For some, it is harder than others, and yes – the struggle is real. We are all fighting our own battles, and some of us struggle with severe depression and anxiety, where the mere thought of being grateful seems like a pipe dream. Gratitude is not the answer for everyone, and for every situation. But if you can, if you feel a moment of joy, take another moment to be grateful for it. Build it, moment by moment, until it has become part of you. At least, that’s what I’m trying to do.

Having it All, Revisited

I rarely give a book less than three stars. For one, if I’m not engaged by it, I’m probably not going to finish it. For two, I want to acknowledge the amount of work the author put into the book. Every book is a labor of love, and my opinion shouldn’t matter in the self-worth of the author. That said… I have Opinions about I Know How She Does It by Laura Vanderkam, and I’m going to try to express them in a delicate and respectful manner. (I still gave the book three stars on Goodreads.)

Vanderkam is a time management expert. I enjoyed her book 168 Hours, and I was really excited by this book because it collected data on how women use their time. I was less excited when I realized that the time logs collected were from women who 1. have children and 2. make more than $100,000 a year. This was Vanderkam’s definition of “having it all.” I understand the need to have a definition in order to do a focused study, but this disappointed me. I don’t like this definition of success.

I read on. Many of Vanderkam’s tips are useful: find the empty spaces in your life, be mindful that time is short, prioritize based on meaningful use of time. But I kept getting unnerved by the presence of money in this book. For example, I initially cheered during the section on cleaning, as I’ve been struggling with that myself… until she talks about getting a housekeeper and letting that person do your laundry and clean your kitchen. I seethed during the part on child care, where she makes the blanket statement that a center is going to be better than an in-home daycare. Then I started thinking about the work section, which is so focused on flexibility, and the assertion that even women in big-time careers have more time than they think. People who make less money don’t have as much time, because they’re working more jobs. No one in Vanderkam’s study worked more than 60 hours a week – but their jobs are bringing in a ton of money! So they don’t have to! Moreover, people who make less money are working public-facing jobs, or blue-collar jobs. So we have to show up at specific times. I have to be at the library during library hours. I have flexibility in my freelance work, but it’s not like I can ask to work the reference desk from home, or cut out early on a shift if there’s no one else to cover it. In fact, most of the flexibility in my schedule comes from my management responsibilities: if I cover a shift for someone who has called off, I can leave early on a different day. Or if I work Saturday, I get Friday off.

Don’t get me wrong about the above statements. This is not a “poor me” thing. I am extremely lucky and grateful to have the life I do. We are not rich, but we are not poor either. We have enough to make our son comfortable, but we don’t have enough to buy a bigger house. We have enough to occasionally go see a movie or go out to dinner, but we don’t have enough to hire a housekeeper or a nanny. And that’s totally fine. All of us are in different situations in life. That’s the issue with Vanderkam’s book. It’s not diverse enough. A book like this can’t apply to everyone, of course, but we need a book that does.

I don’t know if I’m the one who should write the book we need, but I have a few takeaways.

Let’s stop defining success by money and/or whether or not we have children. Instead of comparing ourselves to other people, let’s compare ourselves to ourselves. Look inside yourself. Do you feel successful? Is there something you could do that would make you feel more successful? Challenge yourself based on what you’ve done already and what you could do, not based on what other people have done. You can certainly use others as mentors or role models, but envy and jealousy only pull you down.

Use your definition of success to prioritize. You can benefit from Vanderkam’s time logs here. This will give you an idea about how you use your time. Keep your success definition in mind, and make over your days based on that. You may have to start with small changes, and you won’t be able to do everything. That’s okay. Focus on being self-aware and mindful.

Build your support system. If you don’t have children, you still need a support system. If you don’t have a lot of money, you still need one. If you’re a single parent, you still need one. It doesn’t have to look the way it does in Vanderkam’s book. Everyone has a different story, different needs, different resources. I used online resources to find my excellent in-home caregivers. I interviewed them, checked references, and did trial runs. We have had four amazing sitters who have all had an impact on my son’s life. I am also extremely lucky to have a supportive spouse who does just as much of the childcare as I do. He has Henry right now while I am at home typing this blog post. Our family and friends are also there and willing to pitch in when necessary. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Rethink flexibility. For those of us who have to show up at work – we have to learn to be flexible based on our responsibilities. My husband works 8-5, M-F. He teaches training classes, so he can rarely call in sick, and he has to take vacation in between classes. He can’t run errands or make calls during the workday. So I’m the errand girl: I drop off Henry, take him to doctor’s appointments, call in sick when I need to, go to the bank, make calls, and am the primary point of contact for our caregiver (and preschool when it starts in the fall). Ed is the primary caregiver on weekends and in the evenings. Not everyone has a spouse like I do, so you must find other support (see above).

We also have to be flexible within our jobs. People who work with the public have to learn how to switch from task to task quickly. We can’t multitask – that’s impossible – but we can parallel process and toggle. We must learn to roll with the needs of the customer and accept the fact that admin work may not get done in a given day. I adhere to “what’s the most important thing I have to do today?” If it can’t get done on a public-facing day, I have to carve out the time for it somewhere else in the week. Some of us work with the public all day, every day, and those people have to be more realistic about the tasks they take on. You might be able to get a more intense project done during downtime if it’s quiet, but you and your supervisor need to agree on realistic deadlines if you hit a busy streak. My department is quieter in the summer, but we pick up in the fall, so I’m not about to give time-sensitive tasks to my clerks in September.

Remember, it’s not easy. I beat myself up about my anxiety a lot. I tell myself I shouldn’t be anxious about things that don’t matter. My therapist reminds me that my concerns and emotions are valid and true. What I feel may not always be reasonable, but it’s better to feel feelings than to repress them. You cannot feel joy without feeling sadness. If you numb the pain, you numb everything. In order for us to be mindful and understand the beauty in the world, we must acknowledge that times will be hard. I don’t have all the answers, and I never will, but I keep seeking them, because curiosity makes the world go around. Vanderkam asserts that time is flexible, and this is true. In some seasons of our lives, or even week by week or month by month, we are stretched to our limits and we wonder when this misery will end. In other times, we have the space to focus on the silence, or the inspiration to bang out a short story or a novel, or whatever else makes us feel alive and whole. Plan your life the best you can – do the best you can – and keep seeking to grow, but allow yourself to flow with the bad and the good. It’s what makes us human.

Living With Intent

A few weeks ago, I read a book that turned my brain upside down for a while. Living with Intent, by Mallika Chopra, raised so many new questions. I am naturally a goal-setter and a planner, but this book wanted me to take things to a new level. I had to take the meditation and mindfulness principles I’d been studying and apply them to life planning. I couldn’t wrap my mind around that concept. With mindfulness, you live in the moment, experiencing things as they are. How does that translate to planning for the future, when the future doesn’t even exist?

Chopra gives an acronym for the process: Incubate, Notice, Trust, Express, Nurture, and Take Action. I realized I’d always been in the Take Action stage. And to be fair, I’ve accomplished a lot, especially in the past year. Setting specific, achievable goals is the way to finishing what you start. But as I stepped back to the Incubate phase, I started to realize how much expectation I’d built around my achievements. I expected perfection from myself, for one. I wanted to be the best at everything I did, and receive only positive, glowing, grateful feedback. When it wasn’t that, I beat myself up. I expected my friends and family to be proud of me. In some cases, they were; in others, they were dismissive. In some cases, I received biting, unfair criticism – as opposed to helpful feedback that inspires growth.

I wasn’t enjoying anything. I was rushing around, adding more things to my plate, wanting the shot of dopamine that never came.

I asked myself: what fulfills me? I realized that my work was more about the process than the final result. I felt fulfilled by writing a short story, not by getting it published. I felt sad after my bassoon group was done performing – rehearsal was more fun. Why did I want that validation at the end? Because I wanted to believe my work was meaningful. I wanted others to tell me that what I was doing was right. From Brene Brown, I’ve learned that I am enough, no matter what stage I’m in, no matter what anyone says to me. I have to believe it.

How does this lead to intent? Normally, I would spend hours thinking about what concrete things I want to achieve in the next year. I want to write this many short stories (or words). I want to finish this many house projects. I want to teach this many webinars. And so on, and so forth. I still believe that specific goals are important (Chopra covers this in the Take Action phase). But I’m not going to be as focused on the final products. I’m going to see where this journey carries me next year. I have a full-time job and freelance work, and I’m going to have two children. I need to be able to go with the flow. Be proud of my house even when it’s messy. Let stories go unfinished. Let my mind spin out to sea from time to time. Say no. Stick up for myself.

I don’t know how I will measure this success, since these goals aren’t measurable. I’ll just have to see how much gray hair I have by the end of the year, I guess.