Things I’ve (Re)learned on Break

Every so often, I ask people what they would do with themselves (not their money–their time) if they won the lottery or otherwise didn’t have to work again. Most people respond with things they’d buy–for themselves, and for other people. So I ask again about how they’d spend their time. Very often, they’re at a loss. They mention trips they’d like to go on, things they’ve been meaning to get around to for forever, maybe spend more time with their kids and friends, but it’s almost always stuff that would only last them a few months. I always notice this, because I spent a fair amount of time a few years back thinking about what exactly I would do if I won the lottery, and I revisit the question every so often. I never really get much past the first year.

Even so, there have been many days in the last couple of years when I’ve wished I could just…stop… running. Stop running around in circles. Stop always dashing from kid-thing to work-thing to home-thing to kid-thing. Stop always being the mom who’s always in a rush and seems unfriendly because she doesn’t have 15 minutes to stop and chat. Stop spending two or more hours a day behind a steering wheel. Have time to think, without interruption. Read. Think about what I’ve read. Move. Get outside. Have a conversation with a family member that doesn’t start and end with “Hurry up”. You know the feeling, I’m sure.

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My two weeks off are nearly over. I could use another 2-3 days, really, but I’ve gotten to most of the things on my to-do list:

  • Purge dressers. My kids hadn’t been able to close their drawers easily in months because they had clothes from last winter as well as the summer in them. I didn’t even know if they had winter clothes that still fit, or how many. Bad Mom Karma was hovering over me. It took most of last week, but I’m close to ensuring that my children won’t freeze in the coming frigid winter (ok, we live in coastal California, but still…) I’ve also purged the house of ALL of the too-small clothes–some 15 trashbags worth. THAT felt really good.
  • Exercise and physical health. In my 20s, I used to do a 4-mile loop hike in the nearby hills several times a week after work. My plan was to get back to doing that hike in the mornings after I dropped my daughter off at school. I have to give myself a middling grade on this: I’ve managed to do it 3 times. Morning appointments have come up, and I’ve been sick for a few days. It also takes quite a bit longer than it did when I did it before: I live further away, and I’m slower and flabbier, so it takes up about half the day, all in all. Still, I so rarely get outdoors during my normal life that even that little bit of nature time has been good. I’ve also finally done something about the constant neck and shoulder pain that’s been dogging me for months. It’s not all better, but certainly improved. We’ll see how long that lasts.
  • Book hotels for an upcoming family vacation. Still not done. Hopefully by tomorrow.
  • Clear off my desk and deal with household administrivia. Also not done.

On the other hand, I’ve made a number of good meals. I got together yesterday with one friend I haven’t seen in months, and I have a date tomorrow with another I haven’t seen in over a year. (Yeah, I know.)

But it struck me the other day, as I was running one of the numerous little errands that we normally cram into our hectic weekends, that the last time I was running errands in the middle of the day–during the two years I was a stay-at-home mom (SAHM)–that…that’s all there was. Running errands. Changing diapers. Meals. Dishes. More diapers. More errands. I used to struggle desperately to come up with something that I (or more often, my kid) had accomplished during the day just to have something interesting to say to my husband when he got home. I did have some time to read, but on the whole…let’s just say I was not cut out for SAHMdom.

It was a good reminder. Because while I’m really appreciating the opportunity to slow down a bit for a couple of weeks, I still have a number of things I needed to get done in a finite amount of time. I appreciate the finiteness of that time. And I know I have a big new thing in front of me that I’ll be diving into soon. I’m not looking at the quiet desperation that comes with frittering away endless weeks and months with nothing but domestic minutiae.

Basically, because the time is finite and the goals are specific and concrete, it’s still easy to maintain a sense of drive and purpose, even as I take my foot off the gas pedal for a bit. (Metaphorical gas pedal–if anything, I’m driving around more than usual.) That’s a lot harder when the time seems infinite. The other element that’s still largely missing is the social element. Work–when it’s a healthy environment–provides a shared sense of purpose. I have some specific things I just need to get done right now because they need to get done, but the kids aren’t that excited about their newly manageable drawers.

I was thinking this morning about my parents’ friends, who are all now retirement age. A lot of the men are kind of at loose ends, trying to find ways to fill their days. The women, on average, are doing better: they mostly have already in place social networks that were unrelated to work, and/or have created new ones through volunteer activities. The two who really seem to be doing well are ones who really haven’t retired at all–they’re just doing work on their own time and terms, and not worrying about the money. One started a non-profit focused on science education, especially targeting underprivileged schools. She also volunteers in the science classes of those same schools, and helped her son get his startup off the ground. The other first did a tech startup with a friend–he had this huge grin as he told me about figuring out how to work a label-printing machine and packing up widgets in boxes for shipment–and then started a mineral water label with his ex-marketer wife, so now he’s learning all about retail considerations and the food business.

So: however crazy it makes other things–I, personally, need to have interesting work to do with interesting, curious, creative people. I’m not good at not having any concrete goals. I should probably figure out how to balance things a bit better so I don’t wind up like the retired gentlemen at loose ends, but as the kids get older and more independent, that seems like it will be increasingly more possible. I’ll probably “retire” someday, even without the benefit of the lottery, so I should probably have some notion of what to do with myself. Beyond the first year.