Monday, October 18, 2021

Dear Gen Z (and younger)

I watched a panel of accomplished female professionals speaking to middle schoolers and high schoolers, sharing their experiences and lessons learned and cheering this next generation on. And something just felt…off. 

I understand the purpose was to give them hope and confidence for all that’s to come, but without acknowledging the inevitable challenges that face them, it just felt hollow. So here’s something for my daughters and younger that won’t make it on the TED circuit. 

There’s going to be a moment, and probably more than one, where you look around and go, “what happened to my life?!? This is SO not working out the way I thought it would.”

I’m not going to assume the circumstances. I’m not even going to share my own because here’s the thing. Most people have felt that way at some time in their life. 

And here’s the other thing: whether or not it’s your fault simply doesn’t matter. Fair or not, you’re going to have to figure out how to get through it. 

Because eventually, there will come another moment where you go, “oh yeah. I remember when I felt things were hopeless.” But only if you’re still here. 

So that’s Lesson #1: Stick around. Things will continue to change. The only way to see what happens next is to be here. 

I’m not trying to be flip about that. Suicide is too common. Even if you have those thoughts, you don’t have to listen to them. Not all thoughts have to become action. Please stick around. 

Someone recommended deleting failure from your vocabulary. If that works for her, great, but I actually think we spend too much time thinking about outcomes instead of process. Not just because that’s where we learn the most lessons, but that’s also where we are most of the time. 

Most of the time, our goal is in progress. School lasts years, but the graduations are few and far between. Of course, that’s what makes them special, but the majority of memories come from the during: when you’re in school. Whether it’s walking to school with a friend or sharing a look with a classmate during a boring lecture, or trying to finish that essay. 

The things to celebrate get even less predictable in the “real world” of work. Depending on the kind of work you do, you may just get a “great job” email at the end of a very long and hard project. Of course, do what you can in your own way to celebrate your accomplishments, but you’re most likely just doing it for a paycheck anyway. We all find what makes the work day enjoyable (or at least bearable) individually. It might be having a great friend as a colleague, or that you’re so busy, the hours fly by. Sure, you hope that work makes you feel fulfilled, but it’s rare that every day feels that way for most people. So we need to figure out how to get up every morning even when there’s not necessarily something exciting on our agenda that day. 

Lesson #2: Do something you love every day so that you can love every day. That’s a tall order, but it should be something small. It doesn’t have to be the same thing every day. In fact, it probably shouldn’t be. Maybe one day it’s a walk in the park. Maybe it’s listening to a favorite song while you dance around the living room. Maybe it’s just snuggling with a pet. Find a moment to be present and at peace. Even on the worst days. Especially on the worst days. 

I don’t mean those days filled with irritation. Pretty much every day this week something has gone wrong. I pulled a muscle, a delivery was missing an item, another went to the wrong address entirely, I mistakenly called someone the wrong name in an email, and my DIY attempt went so wrong, I had to call in a professional. 

And yet, I don’t look at myself or any of those days as failures. Because I also met a tight deadline, snuggled with my kitties, danced to a favorite song, enjoyed a stand-up comedy show through Zoom, and ate spaghetti with my parents. 

That’s one of the reasons I don’t get the mood tracker that’s popular in bullet journaling. I have a variety of moods every day. How on earth would I pick one? They’re all valid, and while they’re not all equal, picking one would give it too much weight. 

Sometimes, we should be sad. If we lost a loved one or were in an accident or lost our job, of course, we’d want to say that sadness (or fear or anger) would be the mood to describe the day. But that doesn’t mean we didn’t laugh at some point or smile at a fond memory of our loved one. And those emotions are valid too. 

Lesson #3: Don’t track your moods. 

Not dissimilar to the unexpected worst days are the unexpected wonderful days. You may think that there’s nothing fun on your agenda, but then you get a call from a friend with an extra ticket to a show you wanted to attend but was sold out. Or your kids surprise you by making dinner. Be open to those moments because: 

Lesson #4: It’s usually something totally unexpected that makes what you thought would be an ordinary day one of the best ever. There are a few days I’ll never forget. One of the most surreal was the day the OJ verdict was announced. I was at an event where Ed Asner bummed a cigarette off of me and we smoked together. Then I ended up at another celebrity’s house where I held her Emmy, borrowed an amazing dress, and we had dinner at one of my favorite (now defunct) restaurants. I woke up that morning with very different expectations of how that day would go. (Okay, so I’m not sure I expected an ordinary day with the event and the OJ verdict, but I think my point remains valid.)

And that dress I borrowed, I wore to another event that went incredibly well and we won! And then I broke the trophy. (We eventually got a new intact one.) 

Lesson #5: Sometimes, we screw up. Or fail, or make a mistake, however you want to frame it. Sometimes the things that go wrong are our fault. We just need to sit with it. Figure out where we went wrong, if we missed any signs that doom was coming, apologize as needed, fix what we can, reflect, and move on. And maybe too, try to find a little grace when someone else’s mistake affects us. 

When the delivery went to the wrong address, we eventually discovered who had it, and she gave it to me, but she also got in the delivery driver’s face with her finger pointed and said, “This is your fault!’

She didn’t know that just moments ago, he’d sincerely apologized to me and I accepted it. He admitted he’d been distracted, and clearly felt bad about it. When she yelled in his face, he just turned around and left. I couldn’t blame him. 

We will all do something wrong at some point that impacts others because we’re all human. The consequences may not always be just, so we can’t count on that. We just have to keep going. 

“Resilience” has become a popular buzz word for this moving on thing. I think it’s just life. Sometimes, it feels like you’re just going from set of problems to another. For me, I try to enjoy every moment from the solution to the next problem. That can last for a few minutes (like the time we picked up Riley’s new glasses and she broke them that. Same. Day!) or a few days. And sometimes, the only way to get to a solve is to stop thinking about the problem for a while and do something enjoyable. 

Lesson #6: You’re going to make it. You’re going to succeed and you’re going to fail. You’re going to have moments of pure joy and you’re going to feel loss. If you stick around, you get to have all of that! 

The victories will be that much sweeter because you understand loss. You will appreciate the moments of peace because of the chaos you’ve experienced. You will be grateful to kind people because you will witness the opposite. 

You may have a moment where you wonder what went wrong with your life - as I have. And I have also had moments where I can’t believe that this is my life. 

Now go fix the world! (Sorry we screwed it up.) 

P.S. I’m not really sure if the kids in middle school or high school are also Gen Z. Does anyone know what we’re calling the generation after Gen Z? 

Friday, October 15, 2021

Balancing Children's Needs With Your Own

I was talking to a friend recently that I haven't spoken to since I was deep in the midst of single parenting - my daughters were in middle school and high school back then. He was truly surprised that I wasn't broken up about being an empty nester. I think because he saw me put my children first always, he thought I would have a hard time letting go. I did not. 

I told him, I think it's because I was a full-time single parent for most of their lives. There were far fewer breaks for me than parents who split custody and certainly two-parent households. 

But I also think that I was making a mistake by putting my children first, always, for them and for me. 

As they got older, there was still an expectation that I would drop everything for them, and it took me not doing so a few times for them to understand that they were capable of figuring out the solutions for themselves. It's not that they weren't a priority, but what they needed me to do was let go so they could shine. They needed to believe in themselves as much as I believed in them. 

But this isn't really about them. I also lost sight of me.

While I have said many times that I'm not a fan of labels (and I'm not), I didn't realize how much I depended on them to define me. Mostly, as a single mother. Also, as a loyal employee and colleague, as a paralegal, a feminist, supportive friend, my cats' loyal human. And while I am proudly all of those things, there is still so much more to me. 

I've been reveling in the gift of more free time. Without kids to shuttle to and from school, without having to commute to work in these COVID times, and without locking myself into Boards of non-profits, my evenings and weekends are mostly mine. And what's non-sensical is how much I still feel like the hours are limited!

It's not that I'm running around like crazy, it's that there's so much I want to do! I'm not anxious about it, I'm luxuriating in it. 

I'm taking virtual tap dance classes, I'm reading multiple books, I'm watching whatever interests me, I'm writing in my journal, I'm writing here again, I'm trying new recipes, thinking about the past, planning a future, taking online classes, enjoying my cats, asking Siri random questions, coloring, I'm getting to learn and explore anything that interests me. 

And that's exactly what I wish my children saw me doing more when they were growing up. Instead, they saw me always giving to others, and role modeling that behavior. 

Now, I think they already understand this better than I did at their age, even with my mistakes. So my regret is not about what it did to them, but about the time I lost for me. 

Some of our fondest memories are the times we spent immersed in theatre together; being in plays together, going to see musicals, listening to them in the car. A lot of conversations were sparked by a song or a line. 

I know that sharing my love of theatre with them is what brought this connection. I think more connections could have been built if they'd seen me enjoying other things as well. 

And I think I would've been stronger, a better mother, a more patient human, if I hadn't let so much go. 

Now, obviously, we have to put our kids' safety first. We have to make sure their needs are met. Sometimes, just doing that can take up most of our energy. 

Usually, when mothers talk about "me time," it's a ladies' night with alcohol or a bubble bath. Those are great, sure, but they're indulgences. Somewhere along the line, I also lost sight of reading books for pleasure, listening to music when I wasn't driving, taking my eye off the to-do list. 

On a walk recently, I realized that even though I wasn't listening to a podcast or music, my mind was spinning with my to-do list - which was ridiculous because I didn't have my planner with me to write anything down, and I was actually doing something at that moment that was on my to-do list! I could just enjoy the rest of the walk and not think about what comes next. 

We mothers get criticized anyway you look at it - we're either hovering or negligent; too distant or too friendly with our kids; spending too much time at work or not giving the kids breathing room. Screw it. 

Once you answer these type of questions for yourself, the best thing you can do for both you and your kids is to remember what brings you joy and to share that joy with your kids. 

Yes, their grades matter, but more important is their mental health. They will learn to take care of that by you role modeling what works for you. 

It will probably help to think back at what you liked when you were their age and introduce that to them. They might not love it as much as you do, but they'll love being with you when you're happy! 

That's the crazy, cool thing about it - focusing on your needs is actually good for your kids, too.