Since my mom died, I’ve been thinking a lot about how I make decisions.
I’ve noticed that sometimes my decisions aren’t actually decisions at all. They are just a collection of choices.
Let me explain. Let’s take dinner last night.
I came home to three children gnashing teeth about various degrees of current hunger and previous disappointment and nutritional criticism of their day’s lunches.
I opened the refrigerator and said, “Do you want roast chicken or Quesadillas?”
My seven-year-old contracts lawyer-in-training countered with, “Could we order out?”
I did the quick mental math on the likelihood my crew would agree on a restaurant, the length of time and cost of delivery, and shut it down with the shake of my head.
Undeterred, he countered with, “then could I have half a quesadilla and a chicken leg?”
To which I promptly responded in my best I-used-to-be-a-teacher voice, “No. That is not a choice.”
So we ate roast chicken. It was delicious. No harm done.
But that dinner was really just a collection of choices.
We already had chicken, tortillas, cheese and enough time to make either meal. And more importantly, I was willing.
But, what if I wanted to make a decision about dinner? That would have to look different, right?
For me, a decision needs to start with “what do I want?”
Do I even want to make dinner? What do I want to eat?
Then, I move into the choices available to make that happen.
And look, before you even say it, I know that using ‘want’ as a feature of decision making is a privilege. Please believe me that you don’t need you to write and tell me about your sister who is raising a disabled child on her own and doesn’t want to make dinner either. I utterly and completely get that there are many, many people who would kill to have a fridge full of groceries, and the enoughness to get to decide on anything. I work with clients who have limited choice. It’s real and I am not pretending otherwise.
That being said, I still think making decisions rather than just choices is important.
And I think the longer I’ve been a mom, the crappier I’ve gotten at decision making.
My husband and I met at a concert a hundred and sixteen years ago. We both love a band from the 80’s (Crowded House, if you must know), and were among about twelve people who attended a Wednesday show at a trendy bar/concert venue in DC, for an album launch of a guy that had been in the band for a hot minute. A sketchy dude in a baseball cap asked me to give a quote for the “online music magazine” he wrote from his mother’s basement. I looked around for the kindest face I could see in the small crowd and said, “Oh, I’m with that guy.” Four years, a couple of rings and one puffy white dress later…that statement was really true.
But it wasn’t love at first sight. We spent four long years of dating, getting to know each other, and ourselves and making decisions about what we wanted our lives to look like. I went to graduate school, he went to graduate school. We each started new careers, and slowly (and for me, with the support of a very patient therapist), we decided to build a life together.
Four years later, I was pregnant with my oldest, my husband and I were still going to concerts. One particular show, for a band that had previously made music but now seemed to only make noise, with a belly was so big it needed its own ticket, in a thousand-degree venue reeking of marijuana smoke I looked around and realized, “I don’t want to be here.”
Almost instantly I wondered if I ever wanted to be there. It took a minute before I could land on a yes. Yes, back when I could stay up past ten without a pre-emptive three-hour nap, when a sixteen dollar bottle of water seemed reasonable and listening to band’s “new material” for an entire concert was appealing, I’d actually enjoyed myself listening to this very band.
But how long ago had that even been? And did I decide I wanted to be here now? Did I think, I’m a million months pregnant, some of how I would like to spend that time is at a hot, smelly concert for a band that hasn’t really made a good album in twelve years?
Or did my husband say something like, “hey that band is coming to town, wanna go?”
Based on my thirty-four-year-old mind and body, out of habit, without stopping to consider what both made sense for me, and what I really wanted, I just chose. Yes or no.
After I became a mom the “sures” seemed to be making more and more of my decisions.
How about a playdate on Tuesday? Should we join mommy and me yoga? What about working part-time? Do we let go of the babysitter? Can I make dinner while the baby naps?
I’m not saying my husband and I didn’t stop to make any decisions, because of course, we did.
But I can tell you that knowing, truly deeply understanding what is right for me, what I want, and what aligns with my values isn’t always an easy answer and I often don’t stop long enough to give myself time to figure it out.
These days I have three kids, ages 12, 10, and 8 and they are the best. They are exactly the kids I would have hoped to have.
Part of me loves being a parent. Its been fascinating to learn that despite a degree in early childhood development, babies are not easy for me, but I can do toddlers all day long. I love introducing kids to chapter books and reading with them, but so help me God with the legos and the play-doh. I’ll cook all-day and do hands-on math and measuring, but sweet holy mother, do not ask me if we have a gallon jug of glue to make slime. I don’t even let that substance of the devil in my house.
I even love the scary part of parenting. Each of my kids has had medical scares that terrified my husband and me. Febrile seizures, a week-long hospital stint at six months for a tricky infection, and my personal favorite, a mysterious white blood cell count that the interwebs intimated was likely leukemia (all kiddos are currently healthy and we breathe in and out every day).
In the face of one particularly daunting issue, my husband offered to face the medical music alone saying, “You stay home, I’ll go,” I was startled to hear myself reply. “That’s not how being a mom works. There are no subs. You can take him in, but I’m coming, too. I want to.”
I meant it. It’s an honor to care for my kids.
So now that I’ve covered how much I truly love parenting (hopefully the mommy shamers are getting a quick avocado toast), I’m going to tell you the rest of the truth.
Part of me really, really doesn’t love it at all.
And it’s gotten particularly bad since my parents died.
When my kids were little, the day almost felt like my old college block schedule. Remember that? You had 120 required credits spread across math, science, arts, language, and English. Chose the professor, chose the day, Tetris it together. Bam. Four years of your life.
My kids’ schedules were the same. Wake a six am, bath time, some form of eating (boob, gerber), activity (mommy and me yoga, swimming, ballet book-club), nap. Wake, food, activity, sleep. Throw in a million diaper changes, a smattering of temper tantrums, diaper blowouts and few trips to the ER and you have infancy.
It loosens a little when they start preschool — almost like junior year when you can take more electives (only these electives are like, running to the dry cleaner, putting in a few hours of work, or sleeping for god’s sake), but it’s still largely the same as the early years.
For me, those early kid years felt like choices. A or B (or occasionally, in the case of children’s shoe options C-G).
When my dad was sick, the severity of his diagnosis combined with the speed of his decline made decision making easy. I wanted to be a part of the last few months of my father’s life as well as his death. It wasn’t a now or later choice. It was now or now. The limited choice made the decision easy.
When my mom died, I became literally sick with grief. My thinking was distorted and unreliable. I couldn’t make a decision about how I wanted to live my life or parent my children. I had to make a choice for healing my brain. Inpatient or outpatient. Eventually, even that choice narrowed itself to round the clock efforts to stop the PTSD of the pictures of death and relentless thoughts of blame created by my mind.
A year ago, I would have told you I couldn’t be away from my life for a month. The consequences would be dire. I would have insisted it wasn’t a choice. My husband, my kids, my clients — they couldn’t handle it.
But guess what? They totally did.
Listen, I’m not saying stepping back from life is #lifegoals. But I am saying when we limit our choices or don’t update our decision making to reflect who we are in our lives today, we own less of our lives. We give more of our lives over to “sure” rather than “I want.”
I was walking with my neighbor Deb, whom I adore, and her dog Brody who I would gladly trade for my Maddie (you guys, just don’t. Seriously. Judge me and I will send this puppy to you…) in the woods this morning. I was explaining my urgency to go back to making decisions in my life and she said something revelatory:
“Maybe this has something to do with your parents’ death — it probably does. But maybe this is also just what it means to be a mom of children who are a little older — who need less. Maybe you were always going to have to make some decisions about how to balance what they need and what you want at this stage.”
And so here I am, realizing my kids are older and they need me less. I can keep behaving like life is a block schedule of required activities and fill it up — sports here, Shakespeare club here, exercise here, dinner with friends here, sleeping (or not sleeping) here, writing here, volunteering here, discussion about summer camps here.
Or I can make some decisions.
How do I want to spend my life? Parents or no parents, kids or no kids. How do I want to spend my time? Do I only want to see choices A-C or can I take a minute (spoiler, we can all take a minute) and make sure there in emotional integrity in the minutes of my days?
Deciding to actively grieve, because I carry grief with me everywhere I go. To opt-in to the things that mean something to me — helping my kids navigate disappointment and success and to chase their dreams and not someone else’s. To opt-out of things that mean little to me — Valentine’s parties (oh do not get me started on LOVE DAY. People who are lucky enough to have love should not also get a whole day to rub it in the faces of the lonely on Instagram..but that’s another tirade), and crafts of any kind.
I often think of how many women have fought for me to have choice in my life. Choice about marriage and voting and babies and employment and my body…and can’t think of anything better than taking the gift they have given me and making my own decisions with it.
This weekend I’ll be at the astonishingly special yoga retreat center, Kripalu, with the ethereal Dani Shapiro. I’ll be doing some thinking, and some writing, and some bending.
And maybe I’ll decide some things…