Twenty years ago, before I was married, I worked for a woman whom I very much admired. She was in her early forties with two young children, and had risen to a senior level at the bank where I began my career. I wanted to be just like her and wondered if some day I too could “have it all.” But then one day after returning from a week’s vacation with her family she shared something that gave me great pause. In remarking how much she enjoyed herself while away, she told me that it was especially gratifying to have the dedicated time to “really get to know” her two year old’s personality.
Her comment was sad to me, even at a time in my life when I had no frame of reference to understand just how heartbreaking it was. Had this woman put work so far ahead of her children that she couldn’t truly “see” them on a daily basis? Did it take mandatory togetherness to forge these connections that seemed so natural and part of life? Apparently so.
I continued to respect this woman professionally but her words have stuck with me all these years, an ongoing reminder never to have reason to utter them myself. Last week, as I left for a five day vacation with my family, I almost did as the words reverberated in my head:
I really need to re-connect with my kids.
It was a variation on the theme – but I wondered if there was enough distinction to maintain my position high up on the parenting pedestal. I surely didn’t need to “get to know” the personality of the cerebral, sensitive, self-aware older one or the happy-go-lucky, oft-detached, eager-to-please younger son. Nope. I could predict their words, actions and habits from a mile away. Since the day they were born, I’ve been able to read these boys like a favorite book.
But admittedly, I hadn’t been doing much reading over the last six months – at least of them. I had been focused squarely and entirely on work, my children relegated to “a distraction from the important stuff.” And while I faked motherhood really well – not missing a school concert or a packed lunch or an opportunity to nag about homework – my mind had been elsewhere. What if their stories had changed and I missed it? Years ago, I could have made up for lost time, but I am becoming all too aware that we are officially nearing the end of childhood. The sun is setting on the most important and meaningful period of my life – and instead of taking in its awe, I’m checking email.
So this vacation was more than re-connecting; it was re-booting. Because when things aren’t working, you need to shut it all down and start anew.
Which is exactly what I did.
For five days, I focused on my family and I am happy to report back that they haven’t changed. I am quite sure of this as my only job while on vacation was to observe my children – one that I took quite seriously. We were lucky to be traveling with dear friends with whom we are quite compatible – and (if I may be so presumptuous) struggle with the same work/life balance issues that Dave and I do. Thus, our kids were almost always by our sides – a place we wanted them to be. We watched them catch fish, jump off a cliff into the world’s deepest blue hole, fill up on Virgin pina coladas and conch fritters, and swim in the bluest water we have ever seen. If there was conversation to be made, it was shared as a family. We collectively decided that everything was funnier in the Bahamas, that the word “moist” while offensive to some is easy to use in a sentence at any point during the day, and that we wished we could have stayed there – together – for much, much longer.
The harmony was somewhat contrived. After all, we were in paradise where there was little reason to escape from one another. But the time together was a much needed reassurance for me that I was a part of this family and not just that lady who sits at her office desk all day looking tired and stressed out. The premise has me thinking about re-booting my life.
I returned home to a pile of work – and the potential to sink deep into that career quicksand that always beckons and to which I so often succumb. I need to do better at steering clear of it, and asking for help when it’s up to my neck. Vacation reminded me that my boys are not only touchstones which re-affirm all that is good in my life, but also life preservers which are always at the ready to help keep my head out of the muck.
I needed this vacation — not to get to know my kids better – but to better know myself. For the first time in my parenting life, I feel woefully out of balance. And sadly, I’m probably not that much different from my mentor from long ago. Perhaps its just the realization I need to make a few changes before the sun sets. There are still plenty of tomorrows to get right.