Back when I managed a team and was also occasionally in a position to “manage up,” I used to repeat the phrase: “Focus is your scarcest resource.” To my direct reports, this was a mildly gentler way of saying: “Eye on the ball” and discouraging meandering side pursuits and the kind of perfectionism that impedes progress. To my own boss, this was a means of requesting clear priorities, i.e., “We can do this, or we can do this — which matters most to us right now?” I leaned on this phrase so much that I included it in employee onboardings and quarterly reviews and pinned the letters FIYSR up in front of my desk.
I was reflecting recently on how this concept has both shaped and occasionally worked against my life outside the workplace. If I find myself with a pocket of unclaimed time, what do I fill it with? I am a master of checklists and so I will often slot in a quick to-do (“make an appointment,” “order shoes for micro,” “iron dress for tomorrow,” etc) when I find myself with, for example, twenty minutes before a call — not enough time to start writing, but not so little time it makes sense to just fritter it away on my phone, which can be distressingly easy to do. This is, of course, during stretches of time while the children are at school or in the care of our nanny, because when I am with them, those slices of unclaimed time are even skinnier and scarcer, and I must then face the dilemma of whether “getting something done” (laundry, dishes, dinner) outweighs “doing something meaningful with my children.”
Today I sit here and think: there are times and seasons and places for everything. Perhaps the urgency with which I conducted myself in the office was called for. I worked almost exclusively for small, nimble, under-funded start-ups working to solve substantive social problems. A clipped pace felt not only necessary but ethical. But perhaps there are other realms and times of life where we can live a bit more free-form and footloose. I keep thinking about a phrase one of my Magpies introduced to me a few months ago: “toxic productivity culture.” And I continue to have a nearly allergic reaction to the optimization talk in James Clear’s book. And so I posit: maybe I could stand to do a little less. Maybe it’s OK to get to those “to-dos” tomorrow. Maybe every minute doesn’t need to be accounted for. Maybe it is gratifying to tinker, or linger, or take the long way home. More importantly: maybe, too, some of my most meaningful work as a mother is not easy to capture in tick-list form: hugs, encouragement for mini’s persistent attempts at somersaulting, whispering nonsensical “Woody and Buzz stories” in the hush of my son’s room at night, identifying the small bird flying just outside our window as two pairs of curious eyes peer outward. None of those feel like progress, or focus, exactly, but my God — they are the stuff of parenting, and absolutely essential.
Then again —
Life with small children rarely feels “free-form and footloose” in the sense I want it to (i.e., chasing bubbles through the park or deciding to run out for milk shakes on a Tuesday), and we all know what happens when we push a “mom to-do” back and suddenly your child arrives at pajama day at school without pajamas and the inevitable mom guilt ensues. Oy. I often feel that there is little give in my day, as though my mornings, noons, and nights are wearing non-stretch denim. I’ve recently started scheduling “solo dates” with my children on my calendar, because otherwise, life will wash over us and weeks will have gone by without those trips to the ice cream shop and moments at the museum I’ve always imagined.
Then again —
The ice cream shop and moments at the museum are lovely, but I must not let those exclamation points stand in for the quiet, unremarked labors of love that fill my days and form the fibers of my motherhood. The trips are exciting but I am certain that it will be the feel of my arms during a midnight terror and the sound of my voice reading “Goodnight, Moon” that my children will remember when they think of me. Mini often tells me: “You smell like mama.” I know already the impressions I have made will have little to do with whether or not I bought her a scoop of mint chip.
I suppose what I’m saying is that I’m stuck somewhere between clinging to ruthless prioritization (born of habit, necessity, and the vague sense of “hygienic correctness”), kicking myself for being so disciplined, and not celebrating enough the trivial-but-not activities of motherhood. Because motherhood does not feel like focus to me. It feels like a blurring. Yes, it requires focus and intention, but so much of it is impossible to capture: it is the smoothing of hair, and the repeating of “you can do hard things,” and the application of bandaids and ointments, and the “wow!” you issue for the trillionth time when your boy yells, “Hey mama, look!” and he is clinging to the kitchen counter in an imitation of SpiderMan he has been performing every couple of minutes for the past week straight. It is whispers and kisses and concerned looks and time-outs and it all fades into the mist of day, and you find yourself flopping onto a couch and asking: What did I even accomplish today?
Maybe, just maybe — more than I think. Maybe I have done the hard work of motherhood and not even realized it because I tend to mistake “progress” for “folded laundry” and “a completed to-do list” rather than the hundred tiny and un-notable interactions of love that go into parenting every single day.
A good friend often tells me: “life happens between the drumbeats.” Am I missing things because I’m so hellbent on keeping those drum beats on tempo? Or am I focused on the wrong percussion entirely, in that, if I look at the music from the eyes of my children, they see the warm and consistent pattern of bedtime stories, breakfast plates with segmented fruit, prayer before dinner together at the table, shoes deposited neatly in the shoe bin–and what on earth deserves my focus besides the constancy of those utterances of love?
+A small relinquishing.
+On the notion of downtime.
+The pattern on this pillow!
+Love the color of these leggings.
+Stocked up on this mineral spray sunscreen for the warm weather months. It is the best for the entire family (Mr. Magpie and I use it too). A lot of mineral sunscreens are difficult to blend in, but this one sprays on easily and has a nice liquid-y texture that makes it easy to apply on wriggling, impatient children. I use the little stick sunscreen for the children’s faces.
+Chic entryway table.
+Fun evening clutch.
+Adore this oversized eyelet blouse — would be cute as a coverup! ($60!)
+A great outdoor storage solution for pool toys, yard toys, towels, etc.
+Perfect overnight bag for a baby or child.
+CHIC woven bucket bag.
+Bucket hats are back, baby — here is an affordable variation on the theme.
+Love this boucle trim jacket! Chanel vibes.
+This white dress is stunning.