Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Nike was right after all

For several days I've been struggling with major frustration and aggravation on my part, bordering on depression. Every minor incident sends me into a tailspin. My good friend Sheri likened it to going up the down escalator. I am fighting not to make any forward (or upward) motion, but just to stay at the same level. This requires all of my effort and the moment I let up I'm going backwards.

I tried (hard!) to intellectualize myself out of the slump. I had long conversations with my husband (who is very supportive), I reminded myself of all of the reasons that I should, in fact, be happy: health, freedom, great husband, good friends, healthy, happy kids, supportive family ... really, the list goes on and on. But just telling myself that I had so much to be happy about wasn't working. In fact, I think it made me feel worse. How could I be so damn ungrateful when I had so much to be grateful for? What does that say about me?

A few days ago I lit on the idea that maybe I wasn't happy because I didn't have any real goals. I wondered if this was a common reality once you hit mid-life. When you're younger there are all these milestones to reach, goals you set (real or perceived) ... graduate from college, get a job, move out on your own, fall in love, get married, buy a house, have kids .... [insert your own goals/milestones here]. Maybe once you've "arrived" (wherever that destination is), you just get on this treadmill of sameness. So the question is, can we be really happy treading water or is it the going forward towards something that gives us that sense of satisfaction?

I thought I would be happy being a stay at home mom because I thought it would be so great to have all of this freedom. I can make my own schedule, do things when I need to do them, and there's nobody telling me what I need to do when. That's what I thought. Of course that's not exactly how it works and it turns out that a three year old and a baby can be quite the demanding bosses (particularly when it comes to scheduling) when they want to. But I'm getting off track here.

What I did figure out about being a stay at home mom is that I've managed to give up those goals and milestones of my own. Sure I can set the goal of teaching my son to play the piano by age four or potty training my daughter by 18 months ... but the reality is that those kinds of milestones really aren't achievable because I'm not (at all) in control of them. I can no more make my son learn to play an instrument than I can grow wings and fly (and that's not just because I'm not musically oriented). I can bring him to piano lessons, buy him a piano to practice on, play piano pieces while we're driving in the car and hanging out at home, but if he doesn't want to learn to play the piano the simple fact is that I can not make him learn. I am in charge but I am NOT in control. This is the old addage about "leading a horse to water".

So what about setting goals outside of parenting? My own goals? Run a marathon perhaps. Been there, done that. And I don't mean run a marathon (although I have run plenty of those). I mean the setting and achieving the goal part. After Will was born I was bound and determined to reclaim my life, my former identity. As soon as the doctor told me it was okay (6 weeks after my C-section), I started running again. I set a goal to run a marathon as soon as possible - and I did. Seven months after Will was born I flew to Nashville with two of my sisters in law and ran the Country Music Marathon. The funny thing about that was, I didn't feel any better. I checked the box: run marathon soon after giving birth. Done. So either the goal or the achievement of the goal weren't enough or it wasn't the right goal. But if it wasn't the right goal, what is? Can setting false goals and milestones help change your attitude?

Then today, while assembling the Imaginext T-Rex Mountain (which is Will's Christmas present from us), I lit on something that seems resonant. Maybe it's not achieving things like goals, maybe it's just doing something, anything really, that boosts your morale, help you feel like you can get through the rest of the day.

Today I built a T-Rex Mountain.  Sure, that doesn't sound like much of an accomplishment or any kind of measure of success ... but it was amazing how assembling all of these tiny plastic pieces into something actually made me feel good.

I started with a cardboard box of miscellaneous plastic pieces.

I had bought two Imaginext sets off of Craigslist for about 1/10th of the price of one of them new. Good deal. But the bad part of the deal was that the sets were a) all mingled together and b) came without any directions. I managed to go online to Fisher Price (which makes Imaginext) and find the instructions. Kevin very nicely printed them out for me ... so all I had to do was follow the directions (and I LOVE directions). Easy peasy right? Wrong.

First I dumped the box out onto the floor.

Then I sorted as best I could into two separate piles by the color of plastic ... brown and tan were T-Rex Mountain, blue and grey were the Dragon Castle. Then the real fun began ... trying to follow the diagrams, select the correct pieces and put them together. Like most things, the first part was the hardest. It took me ten minutes just to find one of the three parts shown. Then suddenly I kind of got into a groove and after about twenty minutes I had half of the base built.

Then the other half took only about another ten minutes.

But there was something magically therapeutic about fitting those pieces together and assembling the mountain. It is only a heap of plastic, I know, but somehow completing this little plastic mountain felt like I'd summited another more metaphorical one.

I couldn't intellectualize the problem. And I couldn't just change how I was feeling. But just digging in and building a mountain helped me climb over one. Maybe the marketing folks for Nike aren't so stupid after all. When thinking and feeling fail, sometimes "Just Do It" is a good life philosophy.

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