Thursday, October 27, 2011

On Priorities

So I’m now a year into this whole balancing motherhood-working-illness thing. I originally planned to write this post, the first in a two-part series, three weeks ago, and yet here I am. There’s a lesson there for anyone tempted enough to write about balance:

It doesn’t really exist.

Reflecting on the whole baby/book/job/illnesses/family illness/new business scenario—and while my particular brand of hectic may differ from yours, the point is, we’re all managing a lot of moving parts—I think it’s more accurate to say that striving to prioritize is much more useful than striving for balance. Something will always have to give, and the real lesson is learning how to be okay with that.

My daughter, my family unit, come first. Whatever else I have going on immediately fall into place behind her needs and what is best for her and by extension, what is best for our family. That priority is at the heart of the
constant negotiations
that come with a non-traditional full-time work situation (part on campus, part from home). The amount of time I spend with her every day and the flexibility I have to do things with her make up for the challenges involved in squeezing a lot of that work in late at night, early in the morning, and on weekends—without hesitation.

It is worth it, it is indescribably worth it; it is just not easy.

But it’s not supposed to be.

It is easy to prioritize when things operate as we assume they will, when we can plan out our schedule and depend on our productivity. Parenting and chronic illness do not subscribe to predictability.

The really rough patches, the weeks where nothing goes according to plan and illness throws everything out of whack, have been the most illuminating. Times when I am sick and Baby Girl is sick and she needs to go the doctor and I need to go to the doctor and students papers are piling up as quickly as the laundry is and the book revisions are haunting me, when I am worried about her and rocking her and cursing my own stupid infections for making me cough just when her little eyes closed and I startle her awake, are when I have the most clarity:

There will always be papers, and they will eventually get graded. The revisions will get done, just like somehow, some way, the draft got done. The extended family obligations and illness obligations will settle out. The laundry and the dishes and the editing and the phone calls will all get done. The most important thing I can do, that I will ever do, is be there in this moment, physically and mentally. I kiss her damp forehead and whisper in her ear that there is nowhere else I’d rather be.

I have dropped a lot of balls this year. I have missed deadlines (and quite epically, too), I have canceled plans and forgotten tasks. I’ve made promises I haven’t always been able to keep, I’ve disappointed people who have wanted more from me than I physically give. I’ve climbed the stairs at 11pm with coffee in hand, ready to pull a long night in front of the computer, and I’ve put hot coffee in the refrigerator and creamer in the microwave. At points I’ve moved so far from any sort of balance that it is laughable.

But I’ve learned to be okay with that, because I think that my current lack of balance means I am prioritizing as I should. Right now, what matters most (baby and husband, family, students, book, my health) depends on me knowing when to pull back from everything else: when to say no, when to put up boundaries, and when to say all I can do is my best and really believe that is good enough.

A long time ago I saw this quote on Penelope Trunk’s blog: One thing at a time. Most important thing first. Start now. I may have even blogged about that line before. Honestly, I repeat it to myself often, and I find that it’s knowing how to judge what are the most important things and letting go of the white noise that is the key.

While a lot has slipped through the cracks, what I’ve gotten in exchange is incomparable.

(And because I want this writing to be more of a priority again, I am holding myself accountable: next up, the second piece in this series about all the pragmatic stuff that helps keep life in motion. A happy baby who sleeps great, an extremely hands-on husband, and a whole group of people who love this child, support this book, and care about my family? That helps!)

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Baby Talk

I joke that our daughter needs an intervention. Really, the child is obsessed with Baby Signing Time.

Haven’t heard of these DVDs of the oh-so-grating musical score? I hadn’t either, until a few mothers whose blogs I read started raving about them. I know some parents in real life who taught their babies sign language, and I’d read a few articles that talked about its benefits for babies, but I didn’t take really take the plunge with Baby Signing Time until Baby Girl was about 10 months old.

Now, we have a baby who will point at the TV and sign “please,” and if we don’t put it on, she points to the remote as if to say, “Listen, all you need to do turn it on. I’ll take it from here.” Sometimes, I swear she hardly blinks she is so intent on watching. It’s hilarious, but also? It’s a bit much, and from what I’ve read on other blogs, the obsession is fairly universal among the baby set.

To backtrack a bit, we did teach her a couple of the most basic signs at about 6 months—“more,” “all done,” and “cup,” and she caught on pretty quickly. Her sitter knows a ton of signs, and has been great about reinforcing them. But then she started saying a word or two, and then a few more, and our rudimentary signing slipped to the wayside because we were so caught up in hearing her words. And we got a bit lazy about it.

At around 8 months, it really hit me how much of the world she was absorbing, how much babies in general absorb, and just how much was going on in that little mind of hers—she recognized colors, could find hidden toys when asked, etc. Though she was saying a handful of words, I really wanted to find the right way to tap into what else she understood.

“We just need to ask her the right questions,” I said to my pediatrician, marveling at how amazing the experience of watching a little human emerge really is. Perhaps signing was one way for us to do that?

I hesitated at first, not because I wasn’t sure about signing but because I wasn’t wild about the thought of her watching a DVD (yes, we’ve read the American Academy of Pediatrics’ guidelines on infants and television, and we don’t disagree.) But the DVDs are short, and one of us sits and watches and signs along with her, so it’s an interactive thing. (And this explains why I currently have “One shoe, two shoes,” on repeat in my head right now.)

Between what we’ve learned from signing along with her and all the signs her sitter knows and uses, in the past month or so she has really become versatile with her signing. We didn’t realize how much of it translated until she moved past signing things on request. Last week, we said our dogs’ names in passing and she signed “dog.” She will now sign “please” and then indicate what she’s asking for, instead of needing us to ask her to say please after she’s pointed at something. It’s so neat to see her use signs in the appropriate context.

Someone asked me if I was worried signing would stunt her vocabulary development, which is a reasonable question. I’m not, since she says a lot, and since she hears the terms for so many things over and over when she learns the signs for them. In fact, from what I’ve read, signing can enhance vocabulary.

But from a purely day to day perspective, it makes communicating so much easier. She has a way to express the things she can’t yet say, and it’s a blast having meaningful interaction with her where we know she knows what we’re asking. It wasn’t something I set out to do when she was born, but I am happy we stumbled into it. If nothing else, it’s made me really stop and appreciate just how cool it is to witness a baby growing up and learning about his or her world.

Have any of you out there tried signing with your kids? Do you have any insights for those who may have heard about teaching babies to sign but aren’t sure it’s for them?

(And yes, I know this is a chronic illness blog. Stay tuned for some posts of that persuasion soon!)
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