Back to Work

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office 1If you missed the news, I got a full-time position teaching college English at my alma mater, Southwestern Adventist University. As of July 1, I became the “working spouse” in our home; Buc became the stay-at-home parent. Now we are trying to figure our new roles, and those are not always clear-cut.

One thing is clear, though: I have trouble letting go of control when it comes to the home front, so it’s been an interesting summer with me transitioning my time more and more to the office and less and less at home.

I am blessed that Buc has wholeheartedly supported me getting back to work—almost pushing me out the door some days—because it can be hard for me to let go at home. Sometimes I need that little push to leave things in his hands.

Though the home-to-office transition has been a bit clunky (trying to get my mind out of mom-mode and back into academia), after weeks of hammering out syllabi, nosing through textbooks, and scratch-outlining assignments, I feel excited for the school year to come.

It helps that I’ve been assigned a list of “fun” classes: Essay and Opinion Writing, Composition Theory, Advanced Grammar, and Research Writing (“fun” being a relative term, there:) I think this English department sensed my nerdy, writerly self coming, which is why they also appointed me to become director of the campus writing center. I realize that, to some, this would be a bummer of a task; but not me. Every time I report to the quiet of my office, hunker down to hammer out writing curriculum and dream up teaching ideas, I thank God for allowing me to work at something I love.

And work at something that comes easily.

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I love my job as a mom, too. But, gosh, that job has not come easily. On the day I drafted this post, I was at home with two kids who had both been sick recently–including one very clingy and one very defiant child. I was also sleep deprived, and I felt panic rising. The tears welled up. I took an anxiety pill, which pills I haven’t needed very often since going back to work. But this little panic reminded me to look up and thank God for how He is working in my life—and in my family.

“Go to work. Please, go to work,” Buc has been saying since I got my keys to my office—not only because I tend to micromanage (and annoy) him at home, but also because he knows it is good for me. In my moments of panic, he adds the words: “I’m glad you’re going back to work so I can be the one to handle the kids more; they don’t affect me like they affect you.” (Wonderful, supportive spouse. Thank you, Lord.)

It is humbling to admit I feel so powerless and helpless as a mom. But I admit it so that I can praise God that He has seen and heard my struggle, and He has provided a way for our family to get through it: Mom going back to work and Dad staying home. Oh, and our vibrant and social Sam starting preschool in the fall with his “Nanny,” my mother-in-law and a brilliant Pre-K and K teacher. This is a beautiful blessing, too. (God bless all you family members, mentors, church members, community members, who choose to step into a child’s life and be a positive influence; we parents just can’t do it all on our own—and we are grateful for your support!)

Friend, whatever you are going through, no matter how frustrating, hopeless, panic-inducing it seems, please take heart. Know that God sees you. He knows your struggle. He understands, and He has infinite ways to lead you through the wilderness. When you don’t know the answers, when you don’t know the way, when you don’t know how to pray, here’s a little script for you:

Lord, thank you that you promise to provide ways I do not know, ways I have not seen. You promise to do a “new thing” in my life—when I seek You. You promise that I will find you when I seek you with all of my heart. And when I seek you first, you promise to add all these other things [the needs I worry about meeting] unto me. You promise to provide. Thank you for providing a way, even before I can see it. Now, just help me trust you to lead me there, and lead me through.

At God’s leading, and with my husband’s and mother-in-law’s overwhelming support, I am happily heading back to work.

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I wanted something inspirational to greet me when I go to work every day, so I placed this sign where I would see it first thing when I come to my office every day.
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Hard Lessons (Heed the Signs)

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from Creative Commons

My life recently has been hard. But not because of hard circumstances. It’s been hard because I’ve made it hard.

 For the past six months, I was trying to do too much (story of my life), and my family suffered, and I suffered. I was always stressed. Couldn’t sit still with my kids. Always angry at Buc, always nagging, always criticizing. I got angry even if Buc joked with me or tried to be funny with his answers—and his sense of humor was one of the things that  attracted me to him in the first place!

“I don’t have time for jokes,” I’d snap, literally racing around the house trying to get it livable in time to win maybe fifteen minutes of reading time at the end of the day.

“I can’t take this anymore,” Buc told me one morning. “It’s got to stop. You’re driving yourself crazy. And you’re not nice. It’s not fun to be married to you. You finish the projects on your plate and don’t take on anymore, not until you can deal with what you’ve got.”

I was overloaded. Overtaxed. Strung out. And I wouldn’t admit it, until that sobering talk with my husband. That stressful morning, I finally admitted that the pace at which I’d been living was insupportable. And I admitted that it was time to accept a new reality. I didn’t know exactly what it would look like, but I knew it would involve letting go of a lifestyle that just wasn’t working.

Roots of Imbalance

If you’ll recall, we hired a part-time nanny last August so I could get some help with the kids and resume some writing/ministry projects. We hired her for fifteen hours a week, with the intent that I’d be gone for most of that time writing or doing other ministry related things; but when her other part-time family let her go (the child went to preschool), she needed more hours. So we gave her more hours. Some weeks it was around twenty-five, more often it was closer to twenty.

At first, I thought this was great. I felt incompetent at home, and my kids stressed me out; I felt like I wasn’t a very good mother anyway. So when I was asked to speak at a women’s retreat and co-write a book and pray with three women at my church and form those women into a prayer group last fall—things at which I felt much more competent—I thought life was falling into place swimmingly. We had money to pay the nanny; she wanted more hours; and I wanted to go do what I knew I was already good at. So, I started leaving the house. A lot.

During that period of six months, when I often left home, one-third of a book got written. Four talks, complete with powerpoints, were prepared and delivered in Florida at a women’s retreat.  And I got invited to do some similar things that are coming up this spring (a magazine cover story, a TV appearance, another women’s retreat). These were and are all great things. But, I discovered, they came at a high cost to my family.

Although I believe God has given me a writing/speaking ministry, I started to sense I wasn’t getting the balance with my home life right. And the more stressed I got, the more I sensed I was using the good work/ministry as an excuse to run away from my first work—my family.

Signs Something Was Wrong

The first sign that something was wrong was that Buc and I couldn’t stop arguing about housework. I’d hired the nanny to watch the kids, not do housework, and when I started leaving the house more, more domestic things went undone—piling up for me at the end of every day, leaving me perpetually exhausted and resentful. I thought Buc should be happy to help me pick up the slack in the name of the good work I was doing. He thought otherwise; he’d hired the nanny to make his life easier, too, and that shouldn’t include more housework for him.

Another sign was Sam’s attachment problems. Shortly after I started leaving the house to go to “work,” Sam gave up touching me. He wouldn’t let me touch or kiss him for a couple months. But in other ways he became clingier. Where I’d previously been able to put him down to bed, no problems, now he screamed and cried when I left, as if scared I was abandoning him. I started staying in his bedroom until he fell asleep every night just to avoid these heart-wrenching scenes.

Beyond that, the nanny setup wasn’t training Sam to be self-contained—wasn’t training him to amuse himself while I got house things done during Seth’s naps. No, having the nanny to play with all day made him clingier to me. But it’s not realistic for a mom to play with her kids all day.

When the no-touching phase ended (after I made a concerted effort to sit and have more quiet times with Sam), he swung the other way and clung even tighter. He’d learned to expect that I was always leaving the house—so he started keeping tight reigns on me when I was home. And I’d let him, because I felt guilty for being away. He also started waking and coming into our bed in the middle of the night, possibly because he didn’t get enough mom time in the day. And then I resented him because I couldn’t get a moment to breath on my own.

As for Seth? He didn’t suffer as much as Sam, because he napped away much of my absent time. But because I felt guilty for being gone, I indulged him more than I should have. As he neared one year of age, I kept getting up with him in the night when he’d mutter, whimper, make little noises, even though he really didn’t need me to. Buc said I’d let him work it out himself when I couldn’t take it anymore, and finally a couple weeks ago, after our nanny quit (read on), I turned off the monitor (our room is next to his, so any loud crying I can still hear). I didn’t hear him at all that night. Or the next. Better sleep is mine.

But, for too long I was needlessly wearing myself out.

The worst part of the past few months was the stress on my marriage. It felt like there was no tenderness anymore, only rough edges. And that’s because I had not allowed time for tender moments. In order to keep up with my brimming agenda, I had to keep moving at all times—had to keep busy, had to keep on task. And those are not good conditions for growing love and affection. It was another hard lesson, of many. Thankfully, now that I’m heeding the warning signs, things are looking up.

Learning my Lessons

Our nanny quit recently,* and though I greatly admire and respect her, it was actually a relief. Don’t get me wrong, I still believe hiring help was the right thing to do. Back in August, I was a new mom of two without family nearby who felt overwhelmed and needed help. And I would still give the advice to “Get Help” to other new moms. But make sure it’s the right kind of help, and in the right amount.

Over the past six months, I discovered that what is most valuable to my family right now is not twenty hours of babysitting a week, but several hours of housecleaning a month (so I can be with my kids more) and one or two babysitting sessions each week to get my other things done.

I didn’t know, when I hired my nanny, what kind of help I most needed, so I didn’t set up expectations and schedules in the way that would most benefit my family. After our recent hard lessons, though, I am able to make much wiser decisions when it comes to hiring help for my family. And I have a happy update about this.

If you’ll also recall, we hired a cleaning lady last summer to clean twice a month. Well, after the nanny quit, I knew I would probably need some kind of babysitting to replace a little of what I’d lost (still no grandparents here in Missouri). My biggest problem was I didn’t want to introduce a new person into my kids’ lives after Sam’s separation issues. I mentioned to my cleaning lady that the nanny had quit, and what do you know? In addition to cleaning houses, she also nannies, and she offered to spot me one or two sessions per week of babysitting, fitting it around the cleaning schedule. Best part? My kids love her. And bonus: she’s one of my readers; she understands my non-housework “work,” and she wants to help me continue it (in the appropriate balance, of course). I am so thankful for God providing Janice right from under my nose! Thanks, Janice, for stepping in!

Parting Lessons (Heed the Signs)

I wish I would learn earlier the lessons God is trying to teach me. I wish I would heed the signs that life is spinning out of control before I come unglued. Unfortunately, I don’t often “get it” until I break down, or wear out, or get to the end of my rope. That’s when I finally seek God and really listen to my husband’s assessment of my current crazy; that’s when I’m open to change.

Now that I’ve gotten really honest and admitted these hard lessons (i.e., my mistakes), I hope I have encouraged you to learn your lessons sooner than I did. To heed the signs. And what are the signs? If you find yourself knocking your head against a wall every day and night, if you easily explode at your family and have no reserves of peace (and no time to build up those reserves), if you are running on empty and the pace of life seems insupportable and just too hard…then it is. I encourage you to admit the broken pattern and do something about it.

When You Know Something Needs to Change But Don’t Know What

If you realize that something needs to change but don’t know what it is, spend some time in prayer asking God what your first steps should be. (Prayer is always a great first step.) If you are having a prayer block, which can happen when we are too busy and strung out to sit still and listen to God, start by asking some godly friends or family members for their take on what needs to change; perhaps they can spot the problem you can’t, and get you back on the right track, as Buc did for me.

May God help us all to heed the signs when life not going as it should (and when we have power to do something about it). The quicker we are to obey God, the faster we will be to learn his lessons, and they won’t have to be so hard. May he help us to listen to his good and perfect plan and be obedient to live it out.

(Psalm 119 is a beautiful chapter about getting our priorities straight; I encourage you to read it in full. For now, below are a few of my favorite verses.)

“Happy are those who obey his decrees and search for him with all their hearts….Oh, that my actions would consistently reflect your principles! Then I will not be disgraced when I compare my life with your commands. When I learn you righteous laws, I will thank you by living as I should. I will obey your principles. Please don’t give up on me….If you will help me, I will run to follow your commands.” (Psalm 119:2, 5-8, 32, NLT)

“Before I was afflicted I went astray. But now have I kept they word.” (Psalm 119:67, NKJ)

“The suffering you sent was good for me, for it taught me to pay attention to your principles….I will never forget your commandments, for you have used them to restore my joy and health.” (Psalm 119:71, 93)

*We traveled too much, our nanny said, and she needed more regular income. When a full-time family came along, she took a position that fit her needs better. I am glad for the time she gave us and for what I learned from her. I am also glad that now we’ve both found situations to better fit our needs.

When Writers Retreat

The writer’s retreat is a common trope in writing circles. Often this term is used to refer to a place remote from the world where writers sequester themselves away to do their lonely work. Annie Dillard, in The Writing Life, describes some such places in her own writer’s journey. One is a pine shed on Cape Cod, another a room in a dark library, and still another a deserted faculty lounge where she spreads out the pages of her manuscript on the table.

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Often “retreat” is used as a noun, but for me, who doesn’t have a remote cabin in the woods or a breezy bungalow on a beach, the verb is the thing.

When I get deep into a project, like I am now with the book, I find myself pulling back from the rest of the world. Almost unconsciously, I become inaccessible. I pull away from Facebook. I resist my phone. The blog slides to beyond necessity and rests uneasily on some guilty mental to-do list.

Whether this is just a characteristic of writers in general or just certain personality types, I’m not sure, because I have the sense I used to do this as a college student. As a teacher. I pulled away from the world to sit and think and work. The current paper, or project, or unit, became all consuming, always looming in my brain.

These days this mass consumption of my mind means I become flaky in all else. I don’t like  feeling that I won’t be able to read my Bible again until this book is out of my head. But frankly, my brain is just too full, too busy chewing on lately manifested manuscript problems, to hold another thought.

Sometimes I feel guilty for going light on my devotions, but I still pray every day, sometimes spending up to twenty minutes on my knees.

When I remember that the Bible says Jesus rose early to pray—it doesn’t say He got up early to read His scrolls—I think maybe this is okay.

It’s a kind of retreat even Jesus needed. In these times of prayer, when my head is full with work and my mind can’t accommodate whole chapters of the Bible, sometimes I can latch on to just one Bible verse and meditate on that, such as “Jesus is the Word of life.”

I’ve liked that one lately, because I’m struggling to find words. But knowing I can rest my cares on Him who created words—who is the Word (even if I don’t fully understand that) gives me peace.

As a Christian writer, I get a special kind of retreat that other writers don’t. And best of all, it doesn’t cost a thing. Today I’m thankful for the Word of life—I’m thankful that God doesn’t need my words to get the job done.

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When I look at my dining room table these days, I am reminded of these lines from Annie Dillard:
“How appalled I was to discover that, in order to write so much as a sonnet, you need a warehouse. You can easily get so confused writing a thirty-page chapter that in order to make an outline for the second draft, you have to rent a hall. I have often ‘written’ with the mechanical aid of a twenty-foot conference table. You lay your pages along the table’s edge and pace out the work. You walk along the rows; you weed bits, move bits, and dig out bits, bent over the rows with full hands like a gardener. After a couple hours, you have taken an exceedingly dull nine-mile hike. You go home and soak your feet.”
–Annie Dillard, The Writing Life