You don't see my name in several of the places you used to, like volunteer boards, autism organizations, and guest posts. But that's not because I'm flaking, it's because I'm focusing. After I found myself on the verge of an overload-triggered nervous breakdown a few months ago, I decided to prioritize -- to put my family, friends, and critical work first, in that order. I now get to the stuff I can get to, and I try not to lose sleep over the rest, mostly because letting myself become sleep-deprived over anything not in that top three is something else I've decided not to do. So, I'm sharing my experience and approach because I suspect I'm not the only parent trying to avoid a meltdown.
The breaking point for me came when my husband and I found ourselves witnessing several family members' and friends' nasty unfixable divorces, a few in which children we love very much became casualties of strident acts made in their names, and which no efforts of ours could prevent or even soften. These conflicts broke our hearts and made me want to spend more time with my own kids, because being with my children was something I could do.
This divorce avalanche and its resulting heartbreak also emptied the reserve tanks that had allowed me to function with chronic sleep deprivation for years; sleep deprivation anchored in too often saying yes because I am a nice person (in theory) and nice people always say yes when something important needs doing. Right?
Wrong. Not for me, not anymore. Saying yes too much leads to being over-committed. Being over-committed makes it difficult to follow through properly on every last one of those yeses, makes a persons look like a flake. It leads to being over-busy. And being over-busy is unhealthy, plus it takes time away from my family, and from the downtime I need to remain lucid and not shriek like a harpy at every minor irritation. So I've decided to prune and streamline my commitments, regain some balance. But how?
Fortunately, through BlogHer and other connections I have met many wonderfully successful women who balance their demanding professional and personal (including family) lives with aplomb. Who have their priorities straight. And the number one thing I've noticed about the women I view as role models for prioritization? Their focus.
They know when to cut things off, as BlogHer's own Lisa Stone did when she gave up email for two weeks to spend time with her family. And, like the Jim Henson Company's Halle Stanford and Babymouse author Jenni Holm (quoted), they know how to use social media productively or as a tool for keeping connected:
"There's definitely a pre-kids and a post-kids. Pre-kids, I was a late afternoon writer starting around three and going through dinner -- and now I'm done by then because it's time to pick up kids and make dinner. I've definitely become more productive with the time I have -- I think I used to waste a lot of time. [...] I actually think social media like Facebook is great for writers, I think we're on it a lot, because being a writer can be very isolating."
These women's examples have given me the resolve to draw some needed boundaries, especially around email and social media. Maintaining boundaries is not easy for a people-pleasing type, but it works. I try to respond to personal email, but I don't always. Not responding doesn't mean I like people any less, shouldn't be taken personally. But unread email now gets deleted after a few weeks. And I left my computer (and work email) behind this past week when I took the kids to a well-deserved trip to Disneyland.
I ignore or hide most non-autism-related postings or petitions people put on my Facebook wall (you've been warned). I don't do Pinterest, Instagram, or Tumblr; I have accounts on all three, but only so I can access them quickly if a logged-in action is required, and more power to you if you've been able to use those platforms in a non-virtual-quicksand fashion.
Focus sometimes means shifted deadlines due to work coming behind friends and family on that priority list. Focus means I now say "no" or "I'll find you someone who can" more than I say "yes." This may mean fewer work opportunities in the future, but I'm OK with that, because -- again -- priority list: Family, then friends, then critical work.
I've also prioritized how I volunteer at my kids' schools. My autistic son's school has the greatest need for parent support, so it is parent volunteer seed number one. My younger daughter's public elementary school has the second-greatest need for volunteers during California's education budget crisis, so I go there when I can. My eldest daughter's public high school, though, is doing pretty well. I'm not saying they don't need volunteers; I'm saying they don't need them like the two other kids' schools do. I haven't volunteered at the high school yet. Not once.
Prioritizing and focus aren't all about cutting things out; often they're about what we choose to do instead. And I am spending as much time as I can with my kids and my husband. Spending nearly every Friday date night with said husband, instead of taking time alone. Spending time hiking as a family, or with whichever kids are not at a soccer game or Minecraft play date or in a respite session. Shopping for herbs and bulbs together, planting them, watching them grow. Taking the kids to Disneyland, as mentioned, as they've been a bit traumatized by the past few months -- my son Leo had seizures and was hospitalized, then had a bad reaction to changes in medication, plus we all got sick and my eldest sustained a concussion. (I'm not sure how I would have weathered the last few months if I hadn't already been prioritizing.) Paying attention. Being there.
I'm not saying I've achieved anything like perfection in my new dedication to focus. My laptop is still out too often when my family is home. My house is still an unruly mess, not the homey mad professor jumble I'm comfortable with. I still occasionally let myself get talked into really sweet-sounding projects, which I shouldn't do. And I remain behind on many things that matter. But overall things are better, so much better. I no longer go to bed in a state of unbridled panic, having let myself get several leagues beyond my commitment comfort zone. And then there's the fact that I go to bed at all, instead of nodding off over my laptop, on the couch. I'm no longer tired of being tired. Well, not as tired. And this means that sometimes, anything not related to keeping my kids happy and balanced gets jettisoned.
There are people who thrive on and amidst over-commitment, of course. I've just discovered that I'm not one of them, really not one of them -- not as long as I'm also a parent, and a partner. If focus, prioritization, and over-commitment are something you've struggled with as a parent -- particularly as an autism parent -- I'd love to hear how you manage, and the lessons you've learned the easy way -- or the hard way.
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