Mama M.: Work is Crimping My Life
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Dear Mama M,
Being in grad school here is putting a horrible crimp in my family life. I have a wife and two young kids, and all my time spent in the lab doing research is just killing me. I can't find the energy to be fully present with my wife or with my kids. I get home tired and frustrated, and even though I tell myself on the ride home my new mantra: "Tonight, I will be fully present," I can't seem do it.
I feel I am failing at being a meaningfully present partner and parent. My wife has been so supportive, but tells me lately that she feels I am “selling out,” and that I am losing touch with this very important part of my life. She is right, but what can I do? Please help.
Not Fully Here
Dear Not Fully Here,
Have you ever heard of the book, “Thoughts without a Thinker?”
I am not suggesting you read it, because Lord knows you have enough on your plate. I had to take a nap just reading about your life. It sounds very full and very overwhelming to be you right now. So, you don’t need to read the book, but it might be helpful to think about the title. It came to mind when I read your question.
Our conscious thoughts get turned on about the time our eyes begin to open in the morning. (And this does not even begin to address the unconscious processes at work). It is hard to remain present when our thoughts zoom off like an over-achieving athlete taking performance-enhancing drugs on race day. The Self is often left behind. But, there is good news!
You can do some things to bring yourself into your body and be present in the moment. Being present is an art. It sounds like you are ready to cultivate the practice of mindful living, which is more of a philosophy than a single activity. You have a lot to be present for, sweetie, so try to be kind with yourself as you figure it out.
First, a simple inquiry into your psyche: Ask your Self if you are just overwhelmed and being pulled in too many directions at once, or is there a more fundamental need to “check out”?
If it is the latter, you may need more support to work through underlying fears that keep you rippin’ and runnin’ through life, never here and never not here. It is not an uncommon American problem.
As a culture, we tend to run from our fears rather than sit with them. Busy-ness is sometimes a coping strategy and sometimes a fact of life. You have to decide which is true for you.
On the other hand, if you just can’t get your work out of your mind when you come home, and there is no underlying unconscious process to work through, then some simple practices will help you on your way to being present.
Second, drilling it in to your tired head, that you “will be present, godammit!” on your way home from work may not be the best way to be ... well, present. I think, for the time being, you are going to have to refine what presence means, and kindness to Self is your first practice.
I don’t want to load you up with a bunch of meditative practices that you will feel bad about not having enough time to accomplish. I’d rather help you shift your mindset. There are ways to integrate a practice into the fast-moving, packed-to-the-gills lives we choose to live.
Some basic breathing practices will drop you into your center, open your heart, and allow you to bring your full Self into any given moment. In short, sweetie, you need to breathe longer and deeper than ever before.
I used to work in a maximum-security men’s prison in the middle of the desert. It was hard to get those images out of my head when I came home. The stories … the trauma … my own responses to the work, kept me far from my Self, long after I left the job for the day.
I had to cultivate some simple, daily techniques to leave work behind, or I would have stayed in prison all day and night. If you can’t get out of the lab or away from your research at the end of the day, you will miss out on the joys of partnership and parenting, and everything else that brings joy and balance.
Disclaimer: Breathing and imagery techniques are not lofty practices, sugar. They are subtle. They sneak up on you. They don’t give you instant presence either. There are no quick fixes here, my dear. But, over time you will find, with these practices, that you are closer to your Self and more available to the people who love you.
One more thing, I don’t know what your wife means by “selling out.” Let’s give her a pass, and forget she said it. She is tired and she misses you and probably misses the life you both used to have. Ask her what she wants and give her as much as you can.
Kiss your babies. Love yourself. Make a plan that works for you both and develop a daily (and it does have to be daily, sweetie) practice that aligns your Selves at the end of the day. Remember, you are enough as you are.
Practice 1: Breathing Through Doorways
Doors are magic. We pass through them all day long. In and out of offices, buildings, cars. If you can use these doors as a mindfulness exercise, you will be meditating all day long without ever sitting on a pillow or crossing your legs like a yogi.
As often as you can remember, whenever you cross a threshold, take a deep breath. A really deep breath — one that begins from the center of the earth and travels up through dirt and bones and concrete and into the soles of your feet and up your legs, belly, rib cage and into your heart …
Then exhale... Exhale as s-l-o-w-l-y as your day will allow. Exhale all the way down your body.
This will take less than a minute. When you are ready, add images to your breath … As you open a door, imagine you are showered with love and hope and energy… As you close a door behind you, imagine you are leaving behind all that is unlike love.
Practice 2: Coming Home
Take a minute before you enter your home … set an intention to be present. Not a yelling, bullying command, but a simple, calm, heart-felt intention.
Take one full minute to drop into your belly and leave your work thoughts behind you. As you enter your home, imagine light and love and peace … and it will be there on the other side of the door, in one form or another.
Even if it looks like chaos. Even if your wife is so very ready to hand you her day. Peace is always there. It is always there. It is always there.
Mama M. and her editor are health providers at UCSF who understand the challenges facing health professionals. This column offers students honest, compassionate advice, wisdom and love. All communication is confidential. Names and identifying information will be withheld to maintain anonymity. Send letters to MamaM.email@example.com.