It’s infinitely odd to move back into your childhood home as an adult.
You know this house inside and out - where each dish fits within the cupboard, the odd way you have to jiggle the handle of the bathroom door, exactly which stairs will creak as you try to sneak out after curfew. A thousand physical manifestations of the girl you once were. The comforting realization that at least here you know who you are. The terrifying realization that this place will give you no indication of who you could be.
Yes, these walls have seen you transform before - from the caterpillar crawling of your elementary-school days to the butterfly-wing stretch of high school graduation. But you have the sneaking suspicion that each chrysalis holds just one use. Now that this one has cracked open, you cannot crawl back inside. You cannot expect to emerge once again, another species of butterfly, wings larger and more beautifully painted than before. Becoming a butterfly was supposed to be the end of the story of the girl who lived in this house, not a midway pit stop in the larger journey of the woman who traveled away and back again.
You wander the rooms and the hallways, counting steps and ducking through doorways that seem somehow smaller. As you dust knick knacks, you note the cracks that you never saw before. Either ithey had not yet broken, or you had not been looking.
You fight twin desires: Enshrine this house, found a museum to a personal history, mount plaques proclaiming that B once slept here. And: Burn it to the ground, roast marshmallows over the dying embers. Watch the fire die down until you can sift through the ashes for the door hinges that survive to take with you as you move to someplace new. To compromise, you redecorate. You move into the bedroom that once belonged to your mother, feeling like a fraud as the days of playing dress up in her closet glimmer in the back of your mind. You clean off countertops and pack small items into boxes that you throw into your brother’s old room, a secret revenge for the fact that he is not here to help you sort the meaningful from the mundane. Unwilling to throw anything out for fear you might need it later, you shift furniture around as if moving them to a new location gives you ownership over the pieces that your parents once used to make a life. You tear down the curtains your mother always had on the window so that more light will come in, gleefully ripping the fabric into small squares so that it will again be “useful” as rags.
And though you may not yet know what to do with your days here, you have to admit: it’s lovely to wake to the sun streaming in on your face.
I’ve recently started a new full time job, a huge blessing for my professional life (and my finances) but much larger drain on my time and energy than I was prepared for. Obviously yes, I knew that 40 hours a week would be a huge change from the 25-30 odd hours that I had been working previously. And learning to be an adult that works a significant portion of my life out of my house has been a huge transition. I thought I had fully come into my own as an adult, taking care of all responsibilities and feeding my own creative and intellectual pursuits. I thought I had this whole work-life balance thing down. Oh boy, does that all take on a whole new dimension now.
I’ve been feeling harried lately, not by the demands of my actual job, but simply by the way I felt like the time I had to do literally anything other than work had compressed. Folding laundry, which used to be a leisurely three hour task for me, now became this huge stupid thing that I had to finish in 5 minutes or I would have NO TIME to do VERY IMPORTANT things like scroll on pinterest. I’ve also been keeping my work phone on me constantly, determined to prove that I am a committed employee who understands that work comes first.
To a certain extent, this is a good thing. Really, no one needs to spend hours of their life scrolling pinterest or Instagram, or what have you. And I do appreciate the way that having less time has made me prioritize what is truly important to me and forced me to do those important things first. But the general effect was that I felt like all of my time was spent on things that I care about deeply, and that I had to appreciate the heck out of. And that, in my strange little brain, is a direct recipe for feeling very, very stressed.
I’ve always been a huge proponent of self-care, especially when friends come to me feeling drained. Somehow, as seems to be the case time and time again, I wasn’t so good at taking that advice myself. The past month since taking the new job has been filled with some steep learning curves, exciting challenges, and wonderful opportunities. But it was also filled with things that I fe like I couldn’t say no to, which left a lot less time for the things that really made me want to say yes.
Today, Presidents’ Day if you live in the United States, was an amazing gift for me. I was thankfully not scheduled to work, and took full advantage of the morning. After some lazy time with coffee, reading an entire book (written for young adults, so not as amazing as it seems), and watching Planet Earth, I decided to take my pup up for a hike to the local dog park. It happens to have an amazing view of the lake and I sat and soaked in the sun glinting off the water.
The moment was nice enough that I wanted to take a picture. Reaching into my pocket, I noticed that I had let my phone battery get down to about one percent. Normally, this would cause me to rush home so I could be sure that I wouldn’t miss anything crucial that might come up. But today, after staying close to my phone for most of the weekend even though I was supposed to be “off the clock,” I decided that my phone could die and the world probably wouldn’t end. After snapping a quick photo of the lake, I slipped my phone into my pocket and forgot about it. Pupper and I went home when we got tired, rather than sticking to some arbitrary time table that I forced on myself.
When I got back to my house, I found that there were a few work messages. But I dealt with them all quickly and felt far less panicked about it all than I probably would have if I had been receiving the updates in real time. Yes, I was lucky that a true emergency hadn’t happened, but overall I think it was a good lesson. I’ve heard so many times about self-care, recharging one’s batteries, and filling the cup so you have more to give, and all of those lovely metaphors. The poet in me is tickled that my “recharging” experience involves a dying phone, though the rational part of my brain is muttering that this is a saccharine, overplayed image.
But the larger point is that I was choosing to feel like I had to keep my work phone on at all times. But the reality is that keeping my phone with me was a choice I was making. And I will be a better, more committed employee if I don’t feel like the rest of my life is suffering to make all that oh so important work stuff happen. I guess it took this gorgeous lake view to really make it real for me. I’m going to try protecting my weekend time much more, building in a specific hour for work and then turning my phone OFF. We’ll see how it goes.
What are your preferred self-care practices? How are you building a work life balance? Tell us in the comments!
Both entering and leaving college were huge times of transition for me, not only because of the obvious reasons like moving across the country and leaving my family and starting a rigorous course of study, but also because I felt this huge loss of community when I left my hometown. I grew up in a tiny town - small enough that the one time I tried to rent an R rated movie before I was 17, my mother heard about it in a matter of hours. Small enough that we have one McDonald’s and literally no other fast food. Small enough that any actual shopping trip involves driving at least half an hour. My high school graduating class was considered somewhat large at 120 students and I had been with the same classmates since kindergarten. SMall enough that I felt close to people from a huge range of age and life experiences and had a wealth of life-knowledge at my fingertips.
As a teenager, I both loved and hated this closeness. It meant that I sometimes felt stifled by the lack of big city culture and what I saw as close-mindedness among my peers and fellow residents. But it also meant that I always felt like I had someone to turn to, someone to ask advice of about any difficulty I was facing. In my small town, I knew my neighbors and was on a first-name basis with most of the community leaders. Most of the elderly people acted like surrogate grandparents for all of us teenagers - to our benefit and chagrin. There was a sense that I could look to the people older than me for their wisdom and that they would really care about helping me find answers to my questions.
In college, I missed the multi-generational feel that had always surrounded me. Outside of professors, who felt so distant to me when I first arrived, I was surrounded entirely by people about my same age. While I definitely found friends who often gave me advice, there were moments when I felt like we were all in a sinking ship and no one knew quite how to use the bucket meant to bail us out. Simple things, like filling out tax forms or learning how to use a laundromat, or even how to refuse a date I really didn’t want, seemed like insurmountable obstacles. Always a private person, I didn’t want to explain my lack of any clue to just anyone. Though I have a very close relationship with my mother, and am grateful for that every day, there were questions I just couldn’t ask her in a cross-country phone call. And there were some things that I just didn’t want to tell her as I asserted my independence.
Being naturally inclined towards research, I often turned to the internet to ask advice and figure things out. I googled things constantly, from inane things like “how to I ask for a friend’s phone number without making it awkward?” to potentially life-threatening choices like “Is it really safe to microwave chicken?” On the more serious side, I desperately looked for ways to help a friend suffering from depression. As you can imagine, I found all sorts of information and eventually learned to sort through the good and the bad.
Yet relationships remained a messy area that I couldn’t seem to find any advice on. There were thousands of magazine articles about Not Scaring Boys Away, and other sources of wisdom about the importance of clear, honest communication. But I saw very little advice about how to actually achieve that lofty goal when being clear and honest felt like the most vulnerable thing I ever had to do. I felt that my situation was different and I could see how to apply generic knowledge to my own life.
My freshman year consisted of a long-distance relationships that collapsed catastrophically into a very very rushed summer romance with a boy I hardly knew. I was unhappy but in denial; it all seemed like my own stupid fault and I couldn’t see how to get out. I thought of who I could ask for advice and came up empty. My mother, more conservative than I, didn’t know all the details and I couldn’t bring myself to fill her in. My friends, though supportive, were also busy with their own issues and decisions and I wanted to preserve my own image of having it all together. In the midst of this confusion, I stayed in a relationship that was wrong for me in so many ways and punished myself for feeling miserable in it.
Then, I stumbled along an internet advice blog. I won’t name names to protect the innocent, but I pored over every single letter this kind soul had answered. Still too scared to submit my own question, I read between the lines of other people’s stories of indecision and uncertainty. I felt validated, both that other people had these issues and that it was possible to ask for help without being blamed for getting into this mess in the first place. Finally, cobbling together my own path from these answers, I had a very tough conversation with Summer Boy and felt freer than I had in a year and a half.
Thus began a life-long love of advice columns. I still read the one that saved my sanity, though it has gone through several versions and no longer seems to give quite the same advice as it did 5 years ago. I’ve also added several other columns and blogs to my reading list, all of which remind me that it’s ok to ask for advice and that it’s ok to want to remain anonymous while doing it.