Back To School (Sort Of)
Missing the Start to Manage the End
I skipped school this week. I felt bad as it was the first week back for the second and final term of my much-appreciated Harvard ALI year. But I had a not-to-be-argued with excuse. I accompanied my son on a journey to introduce my 10-month granddaughter to her 97-year old great-grandmother for the first, and last, time. Watching my elderly, wheelchair-bound mother smile adoringly at the firecracker of an African-born gal ricocheting around her quiet Canadian home was slightly surreal, relentlessly terrifying (what will she destroy next?) and hilariously moving. It was a moment of circling the circle, family meaning-making and emotional leave-taking all at once. A once in a lifetime event. This whole summer has been one hell of an emotional ride.
The irony of the continuing confrontations and negotiations between personal and professional life isn’t lost on me. You’d think, by 61, that I might have moved on. That empty nests open vast new vistas of time. That was briefly true. I wrote about the astonishing joys of that moment a few years back. But you realise as you go through the decades, that family systems and needs morph and evolve, but never disappear.
So when beloved son says he’s going to say his goodbyes to my mother, why would I be surprised that the three days he proposes are exactly those of my Harvard term launch? That, would say my friend Yas, is the universe speaking. I don’t mess with the universe. I went with my son.
The Many Faces of ‘Midlife’
Three conversations this week made me think of the caring roles we take on in life, how they impact our work and purpose, and how they evolve over life’s decades.
Not Quite Done
An ALI friend I will call Rachel, at 60, was telling me that wherever she is in the world, she makes some of her loved ones happy - and some unhappy. Conciliation, making everyone happy all the time, is impossible. If she is near her (somewhat demented) mother and the sister who cares for her, they are thrilled. But her four children, especially the youngest, back home on another continent - are deeply unhappy. They miss her, and say so in no uncertain terms. Her youngest, I should note, is 21 years old. If she returns to them, as she did this summer, her sister is left with the full brunt of the elder care. Like me, she is pulled by these competing claims and finds it hard to concentrate on what is supposed to me our primary focus for the coming months - our social impact ‘projects.’ We laugh ruefully at this lifelong tug of war. Will it never end? We begin to suspect, now, that the answer is no.
Friend Ros is just entering her Third Quarter, at 52. That means she has a couple more years of hands-on parenting. But her relationship with her daughter is transforming as the charming little girl morphs into independent young woman, complete with boyfriend and opinions of her own. Ros’ work is evolving too. She wants to be more adventurous and edgy with her clients, but is wary of going too far too fast, when she still has big parental bills to pay. She is wary of letting go of a successful professional formula she has perfected over years. She is, I tell her, an archetypal Third Quarter entrant. Ready to reinvent and innovate by creating something new that builds on her strengths and experience, and doesn’t just repeat it ad infinitum. But a bit fearful of leaving behind something that works - and pays. She is cautiously navigating a crucial midlife transition. Like so many of my 50ish coaching clients, she is pacing herself through a few more, very predictable, years of ‘leaving’ primary parenting, and entering the ‘looking’ phase, exploring and testing the elements and building blocks of the next chapter. Which may well last an unexpected couple of decades.
Entering the Q2 Crunch
My son Adam, on the cusp of 30, is a new dad and husband. He’s just started on the heavy lifting of Q2 - launching a company, a couple and a kid. I forgot how exhausting babies are! Between Tim and me and Adam and wife, there were four adults laid low by one highly energetic, meltingly adorable offspring. It was both funny and a huge reminder of the challenge of work/ family conciliation. As I watch two young professionals start the dance of trying to figure this out, I realise both how much progress we’ve made (the two parents are fully hands-on, skilled and invested), and how little - the access and affordability of daycare is still limited. Careers are increasingly demanding and all-consuming. Diapers are expensive!!
In the end, personal and professional conciliation is a moot point. I’ve let go of the dream of being able to write my next book in a tranquil cottage by a lake, uninterrupted, for a few months, by anything other than the bleating of sheep. Like all my other books, and probably most of your projects too, I’ll likely be writing it betwixt and between, squeezing in a moment here or an hour there. Between Harvard courses and client coaching and elder caring and child visiting and course correcting.
You just do your best, nudge your agenda stubbornly forward, and occasionally look back to realise you’ve done a bit more than you thought possible. So as I type gamely away at my keyboard, with one eye on my ToDo list and the other on my agenda, shaking my head at the impossibility of it all, I know enough now, at 61, to laugh at myself.
I’ve raised, adored and launched a couple of the world’s most wonderful kids. Loved, married and cooked (a lot) for two wonderful men (sequentially, I hasten to add). Loved, tended and cared for my mother enough for even my guilt-ridden distant-child heart to be at peace. And on the side, over the decades, ran a few businesses, wrote a few books, changed a few companies. Did some yoga. Walked my dog. Shared some lessons.
The dirty little secret is that there is no work/ family balance. Like the American ‘pursuit of happiness’ - it’s all in the ‘pursuit’ bit. The daily reality is a screeching, careening roller coaster ride between warring priorities, lashings of family and society-induced guilt, sheer bloody determination and, at least in my case, a healthy dollop of laziness. No wonder we’re all exhausted.
But in the end - or even somewhere in the middle - if you pause a sec and look back, what do you see?
Probably more than you thought possible when you began.
So that’s all I’m committing to. This September. I’ll begin, yet again.
Right now, I’m going to yoga.
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