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Writer, mother, extrovert: a tricky balance

Salter Rake: Worn paving stones on the Pennine Bridleway above Walsden

Photo credit: Flickr/Tim Green

Career counseling 101: Choose a career that’s a good fit for your personality.

College me: Okay! There are so many things I love to do! No matter what: I want to work with people. I want to be a part of a team, working together toward a common goal. I want to be out there talking and listening to people. I want to be out there!

So how did this extrovert who thrives on human energy end up self-employed as a writer, followed by stay-at-home motherhood? Two of the most isolating, solitary jobs one could do?

Funny how some of life’s big decisions sneak up on you. One’s career path, for example. Mine looks nothing like a smoothly-paved walkway from Point A to Point B (in college, I was envious of those for whom it did). It looks more like a series of stepping stones strewn across uneven terrain, leading somewhere interesting…but just off the edge of the map.

Since college, I’ve hopped from one interesting job to another mostly because opportunities presented themselves — not because I was executing a self-directed plan. I also assumed I’d eventually stay home with my kids. But that was as far as my thought process went. I didn’t think of it as choosing between work and family — I assumed I would have both in varying proportions along the way. The details would work themselves out.

And, for the most part, they have. I’m incredibly fortunate to have a fascinating career and healthy family. Each has required sacrifices, but they were sacrifices I was willing to make. What I didn’t count on was how gradually and painlessly I could veer away from some of the basic things that make me happy. Every job was so engaging — and every choice, including the choice to have children, felt so right — that I didn’t notice when I drifted off course.

In an oversimplified nutshell, here’s me:

  • Extrovert (get energy from being with people)
  • Big-picture thinker
  • Nature lover
  • Enjoy making decisions based on intuition

And here’s my life:

  • Writer (great job for introverts)
  • Homemaker/at-home parent, which requires constant command of a million shifting details and little recognition for the work that entails
  • Married to an urbanite who thinks “the outdoors” is best experienced from a comfy chair situated behind double-paned windows
  • …with an anxious kid who gets nervous in social situations and can’t stand going on my let’s-see-where-we-end-up “adventures”

Despite how much I love my family and value my career, there are quite a few disconnects.

Now it would be spoiled and more than a little naive to expect that one’s life should just unfurl in the “right” direction, like a red carpet leading to the Happiness Awards. (Didn’t I just tell you I’m not spoiled, even though I’m an only child?) I know this. Difficulty and challenge are crucial parts of happiness, and chance plays a bigger role in our lives that we might care to acknowledge.

But it’s far too easy — even amidst the bounty of a family, a home and a community — to forget to check in with ourselves. To let the day-to-day tasks, pressures, and needs chip away at our self-knowledge. To remember that we have a right to claim space in our own lives.

The beginning of a solution can be as simple as remembering what you love and what you need. When I told my husband I really needed our family outings to move past the bookstore and the movie theater to the hiking trails outside the city, he listened. We’re giving our son lots of support and practice getting comfortable in social situations…and have even invited some folks over for dinner. Work-wise, I’m focusing on team projects with people I admire and enjoy.

I’m lucky that my life has room for flexibility and that my family is open to (and capable of) change. If I had tried this a few years ago, I wouldn’t have gotten very far because my son simply wasn’t able to take on more social challenges, and I couldn’t afford much “pick and choose” when it came to work.

No matter what the timing or circumstance, though, we owe it to ourselves to keep an eye on the path to our happiness, and to notice where it parallels — and where it diverges from — our lives. Because sooner or later a space will open up — a kid will get settled in school or an ongoing problem will get solved — and when it does, you’ll be ready, and you’ll know which direction to go.

A few years ago my son’s doctor asked what I was doing to take care of myself. When I looked confused she gently rephrased: “If you had two hours to yourself, what would you do?” I couldn’t think of an answer. That red flag got my attention, and I’ve come a long way since then. The old cliche “if you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of anyone else” is absolutely true. You can fake it for a while, but not for as long as you think.

If you’re having a hard time remembering what you love to do, try jogging your memory with a Happy/Sad List.

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