A Thank-You Missed

I was hanging out with a friend today and we started talking about research. Specifically, we talked about research on birth order, birth month and how when you are born in the year can impact your academic success. I told him that a long time ago I heard something about assertive tendencies in first borns and I stopped listening actively when the topic came up. I figured the die had been cast a long time ago.

But as we talked I shared the story of my own first-born. When she was four and getting ready to head into kindergarten she got assessed as part of a young fives program in our school district. I was certain from the get-go that the assessment would validate that my smart, talented child would be more than ready to start school. I sat back and waited, already planning what the year would be like for her and for me.

And then I got the call. The nice woman on the other side of the phone told me that the assessment indicated she would be a good fit for young fives, in advance of starting kindergarten the following year.

I still remember that conversation. I was stunned as I explained to the woman how important education was to me. I told her that I had two degrees and that I couldn’t imagine what academic readiness my daughter was missing to start kindergarten. She couldn’t possibly get behind her peers. In my head I heard judgement repeating over and over, “You let her down. She’s not ready. You let her down. She’s not ready. You let her down…”

But that isn’t what the woman told me. She told me that academic cut-offs were arbitrary and because of the month my daughter was born and the academic calendars in the United States she would either be one of the oldest kids or one of the youngest kids in her class. She told me my daughter had passed the academic tests with flying colors, but when they looked at risk-taking behaviors she had acted more like a four-year old than a five-year old. And then she told me the thing that made it clear: it’s not a problem in first or second grade, the problems come later in middle and high school. The problems come when they are sixteen and starting to drive.

We put her in young fives.

So, as I was telling that story to my friend I shared how much I have appreciated that advice since that day. I have seen over the years how being one of the older girls in her peer group has helped my daughter navigate her way through difficult situations. I watched her emerge, triumphant, through the hardest part of adolescence with her personality and confidence intact. And yes, now that she is going to learn how to drive, I feel better knowing she’s the one who will be behind the wheel, as weird as that sounds. And after I shared that story my friend looked at me and asked a question.

He asked, “Did you ever tell her thank-you?”

I had to tell him no. I don’t even know the name of the woman who helped me navigate one of the earliest and most challenging decisions of my daughter’s academic life. I’ve never thanked her and I haven’t been able to tell her how many times I have looked back and been appreciative that she was patient with me, that she listened and offered guidance for nearly an hour on one day more than 10 years ago. For her it was just another day, just one more talk with one more parent, but for me it was pivotal.  

I am sure I said thank-you then, but there is no way I could have conveyed in my thanks then what it would mean to me now. Then, it was just a thank-you for her time, but now it would be a thank-you for results. And it’s just too bad that I don’t have a way to reach out and let her know that taking the time to walk an overanxious parent through it truly mattered. I wish I had a way to let her know she made a difference.

Because all we really want to do is make a difference.

Recovering Type-A

One of the most driven and talented women that I know posted an article link on Facebook, “11 Things Every Type-A Person Wants You to Know.” I clicked the link, interested and nervous to see what generalizations, exaggerations and oversimplifications I would find. This was the list:

  1. We’re not impatient, just efficient.
  2. Arriving late to anything is agonizing.
  3. We live by to-do lists.
  4. Each task we’re assigned to is urgent.
  5. We’re extremely goal-oriented.
  6. It’s hard for us to relax.
  7. We get stressed our easily.
  8. We have nervous habits.
  9. We’re emotional.
  10. We’re constantly ruminating over something.
  11. We have a competitive side.

When I read the list the first time, I actually felt remarkably less Type-A. Maybe not less Type-A than most people, but less Type-A than I used to be.

You see, I recognize that I fit nearly all of those statements. But as I’ve gotten older and wiser I feel like I’ve been able to learn how to channel the positive attributes and reduce (but not eliminate) the negative impact of the harmful ones.

I am extremely goal-oriented and competitive. I can make anything a game and in games themselves, I can be a little motivated to come in first. I ran track for five years not because I like to run (I hate to run, really) but because I love to win. Heck, even now I set a goal of 2.5 posts per week on this blog and you better believe that I check my week-to-week views to see if I’m making improvement. 

But at this point, the goal is to make sure I reward myself with a hobby and the person I am trying to beat is myself.

And in terms of the potentially negative attributes — inability to relax, stressed out, ruminating constantly — being married to an easy going guy for 20-years has helped smooth out the rough spots. He makes me take vacation, helps me unwind over the weekend and reminds me that it will all get done…somehow. Years of seeing that the world did not end, the sun rose again and stressful times were endured helps. When I was young and thought that my success or failure would be the difference in the world’s success or failure, I didn’t realize how truly insignificant I was. 

It came to a head for me when I was pregnant with my second child.

At about 32 weeks, I went into labor. Not fake labor, real labor with real contractions. We went to the hospital and they were able to stop it, but the conversation with my OB/GYN was hard. The same thing had happened with my first pregnancy and I had ended up on bed rest for five weeks. Five weeks. I’m still not sure how I did it, except I had to, so I did. But I looked at my OB and asked her, begged her, “Is there anything we can do so I don’t have to be on bed rest?”

She knew me, the person I am and the way I operate. She paused and we just looked at each other for a long moment. Then she said, “We can try a limited work schedule and see if that works. Six hours a day. If you have another incident, bed rest.”

At the time it sounded like a victory, but working six hours in a job where you — and others — routinely work twelve is harder than it sounds. Especially for a Type-A person. And one day, when I was pushing it a bit past the established boundaries, my boss’ boss came over to my cube and said, “Mel, aren’t you supposed to be out of here by now?”

I started to explain all of the important urgent work I was doing and that I was only a little bit over the timeframe and that after all everything was fine — I rationalized. He waited for me to pause and then patiently said, “Mel, they made cars the day Henry Ford died. Get the heck out of here.”

I remember that moment because I didn’t for a minute feel unvalued. I felt incredibly valued. Here was someone would knew me, my current health limitations and my personal tendencies, and was able to make the right action so obvious in a single sentence. We’ve got it here, do what is important to you. I went home that day, right then. And ever since I have been able to remember the lesson he taught me. I sometimes use that line (or variations) when I meet mini-Mels.

My friend, the Type-A who posted the link, is a pediatric surgeon. Her job really is life and death, and not just any lives but children’s lives. I’m not sure how she finds a way to balance out the harmful stuff.

Except I’ve seen the pictures on Facebook — she goes on some pretty amazing vacations.

Late Night Ramblings

Have you ever had one of those moments when you feel like you should be thoughtful and philosophical and all you come up with are ridiculous inane comments? Things like:

  • If it’s artificial anyway, why do they make Cheetos that horrible color of orange that sticks to your fingers like crazy? They could make it non-staining — so do they just want to torture me?
  • If natural selection really works, why is every good tasting food addictive and bad for you? Is the cosmic plan to kill off humanity or just the people who like to eat?
  • Why do Nintendo DS styluses come in 5 packs? Is it so that I can pick them up and move them around between the floor and my junk drawer?
  • Why do we have junk drawers? If it’s junk, why don’t we just throw the stuff away?
  • And if we’re on the point about junk, why did we buy that stuff anyway? At some point did we think it wasn’t junk?

I could go on, but you get the point.

I’ve felt a little on the edge of witty all day, wandering around the swirling vortex of interesting and compelling ideas. But instead, when I sit down to write it’s not there. Which may be ok because there are times when even I realize that I take myself too seriously.

And that really is too bad, because I love humor. I really, really love humor. And yet, I am not very funny. At least, I’m not very funny to people who are not me. I’m drop dead hilarious to myself. Just ask me. Hilarious.

But, what I really want to be is The Onion funny. Those guys make me laugh every single time I read a headline. Even when they are making fun of me or some topic or issue that I am passionate about I still groan and the voice inside my head says, “You got me there, Onion, I am taking myself too gosh darn seriously.”

So tonight, I am not taking myself seriously. I am recognizing that sometimes you just need to write and if it isn’t a masterpiece, that’s ok. And if it isn’t as funny as The Onion, that’s ok. And if it doesn’t get shared or retweeted or liked or go viral, well…

…that might hurt my feelings. But I’m a big girl, I’ll get over it.

Easy Money

Last night when I was scrolling through my Facebook feed I saw a post that made me pause. It was a picture of a woman in a car at an ATM machine. The caption was from Crime Stoppers and noted that she was wanted for theft. Records indicated that she had arrived at the machine to find the prior customer had left their card, still active. She had withdrawn $600.

Ahh, the lure of easy money.

I know how hard it is to fight the lure of easy money. In 1994, I was celebrating my last night in Australia with friends and pizza. We’d already had the big party, so this night was just conversation tucked around my packing frenzy. We were heading back to the dorm so I could finish up when my eye caught a reflection on the sidewalk and I paused to looked down.

It was an envelope filled with cash.

To be specific, it was a bank-issued ziplock baggie with $750 in crisp bills folded neatly in half. There were no identifying marks, nothing that could help anyone determine that it was theirs.

My friends joked that it was a sign from above that we should have another blow-out going away party. “Drinks are on Mel!” There it was in my hand, easy money. No one would have judged me if I had said, “Heck yeah!” and lead them down to the closest bar. No one, except maybe me. I felt sick to my stomach.

One of my friends saw my distress and realized that I needed help. Together we came up with a plan. We went into the closest store and told the cashier that we had found an envelope outside and that if someone came looking for it we would leave it at the police station. Then we walked to the station and I sheepishly walked through the doors and up to the counter. The conversation went something like this.

  • Me: Hi. I’d like to turn in this envelope of cash so that the owner can come here and get it.
  • Police: Who is the owner?
  • Me: I don’t know, there’s nothing that shows who it belongs to. 
  • Police: So, how did you come to have it?
  • Me: I found it on the sidewalk.
  • Police: You just found cash in an unmarked envelope and you want to turn it in? 
  • Me: Yes, that’s it.
  • Police: You know the odds are very low that anyone will come for this?
  • Me: I guess. But we told the shop owner near the place we found it that it would be here, if they came by looking.
  • Police: Ok. [Pause] If no one claims it after 30 days it will be legally yours. You understand that, right?
  • Me: No, I didn’t. But I’m an American and I’m leaving the country tomorrow. Can you just give it to a charity if it isn’t claimed?
  • Police: [Pause] Sure, I think. You know, I don’t think I’ve ever seen this.

And that should have been the end of it. The story should have ended there, something we brought up to the grandkids when we’d run out of good stories. “Hey kids, did I ever tell you about the time I found a big wad of cash on the ground my last night in Australia? My friends and I had a big laugh and then I donated it to some police charity. The next morning I got on the first of three planes to fly home to your granddad.” Chuckles all around.

But that isn’t what happened. We left the police station and walked back to our dorm. I ran back to my room and focused on packing up the rest of my things and getting ready for the 36-hour travel extravaganza that would take me home. I was getting ready to settle in for the night when the phone rang. It was an older woman and she wanted to say thank you.

She went on to tell me her story. She told me that she had gone to the bank that day to withdraw a large amount to pay house painters. She told me she didn’t have a lot of money and that she had saved for the expense and if she hadn’t found the money it would have been a hardship.  She had panicked when she realized the envelope had dropped out of her purse somewhere along her way home and meticulously backtracked her route. She had found our cashier, just down the street from her bank, and he had directed her to the police. Our crazy scheme had worked.

I told her how happy I was to hear that it worked out and then spent several futile minutes trying to talk her out of giving me a reward. Not because I couldn’t use the money (I was a typical struggling college student and every little bit of cash helped) but because I had no idea how I would fit one more task into the morning’s travel plans. I explained that I was leaving early in the morning for a 10:00am flight. I told her I was heading back to the United States and it was really fine, I was just glad she would be able to pay for the painting. But she refused to take no for an answer and that’s how I ended up getting $75 from a complete stranger minutes before I left for the airport.

Standing in duty free later that day I used the reward to buy myself a Swatch watch. At the time it seemed like a perfect symbol of the 1990’s and the kind of souvenir I could carry easily half way around the world.  I wore it for years to remind myself what it looked like to say no to easy money and yes to something hard, like saving hard-earned dollars to pay a hard-working crew to paint your house.

Funny thing, though, today was the first time I’ve wondered what color the house was.

Lean In Or Recline Back?

I have read many articles about how women should approach work and I have just one word for my feelings: enough.

Enough of this constant whipsawing between Lean In and Recline Back. Why haven’t we figured out that there isn’t one answer? Why do we insist on arguing the rightness of one position versus another? Why do we let ourselves be guilted twice, once because we work too much and a second time because we don’t work enough?

Come on, ladies. We’re smarter than that.

Every woman in my professional and personal circles is intimately familiar with the limits of time and the challenge of prioritization in their lives. I see them make hard choices every day between important aspects of their lives. I’ve watched a woman take a fellowship that will open doors for her professionally but will keep her on the road Monday through Friday for years away from her children. I’ve watched a woman who always planned to have a career decide to exit the workforce to be the primary caregiver after her second child was born. I’ve watched a woman work holidays to get two weekends off in a row to attend her child’s collegiate sporting events.

I’ve watched friends and colleagues navigate graduate school, parent care, child care, long distance relationships, international transfer, infertility treatment, medical emergencies, job transfers, layoffs, divorce, dating and tax season. And you know what I saw in every single instance? Great women living lives of purpose, making trade-off and hard choices with grace.

Each woman that I know is living a unique experience under different circumstances. To say that any one of them is doing it wrong is so simplistic as to be laughable. There are hundreds of variables (including professional aspirations, financial well-being, field of work, marital relationship, life stage, etc.) that have impacted their decision making; change one criteria and each of them might have made a different choice. They have made different choices.

And that is why I reject the idea of either Leaning or Reclining. I’d rather SWR: Swivel without Regret.

Choosing SWR over Leaning In or Recling Back is about picking flexibility. It recognizes that no single action or choice defines you, and it empowers you first and foremost to listen to the little voice in your head. The one that tells you that what you are doing is right or wrong, the one which nudges you when you need to be nudged or reinforces you when you need to be reinforced. In my experience, the little voice knows the right answer before you even know there’s a question.

Maybe I like the SWR mindset because it’s worked for me. If I had tried to operate as either a Leaner or Recliner, I would  have walked away from great professional opportunities or missed personal moments of zen.

When I chose to leave a high-octane career in industry it was a big deal. I had been leaning in hard since making the choice to go to graduate school and pretty much every choice I had made since then was a choice to lean in. And then one day, that voice in my head started to point out evidence that maybe I was leaning too far. Eating fast food on the drive home and arriving with just enough time to tuck the kids into bed. Getting angry when they would ask for another bedtime story. Falling asleep on a toddler bed or on the couch without even realizing it was happening. Mandating “No Cook Friday” so we could eat together one day a week.

The voice poked at me and said, “Yes, we know it’s working for you professionally, but is it what you want? Is this the life you want?”

When I made the decision to recline back, taking a less demanding, lower-paying job in public higher education, people thought I was crazy. My closest professional friend and mentor took me to lunch and tried to talk me out of it. My successful female boss took me for drinks and tried to talk me out of it. My husband even tried to talk me out of it. Didn’t I realize how capable I was? Not everyone could lean in, so why the hell would someone who could do it choose to recline?

It was the voice that reassured me that I was smart enough to know what was right. Maybe not forever, but for now.

For six years I went down a different and slower path. I ate more meals with my family. We went on more sails and bought season tickets to hockey. I was cookie mom and went to Girl Scout camp. I had dinner once a week with my grandfather after my grandmother passed away. In a hundred different ways and moments I shifted the equation, choosing to recline back. It was the right thing to do, until it wasn’t. The voice spoke up again, “Hey, I think it’s time to lean in again. The kids are older, more independent. It’s ok.”

I swiveled again.

Because of my experience, I try not to suggest a right way for anyone. Even people who might be natural Leaners or Recliners have a right to embrace an SWR life. So maybe I do believe there is a right way — swivel, as much or as little as you need to. Don’t let someone else tell you what is right for you and don’t regret listening to your voice.

Your voice knows what it’s talking about, even if it’s not a bestseller.