Sandra Tayler is a writer of essays, speculative fiction, children’s fiction, and blog posts. Her writing can be found at onecobble.com. When she is not writing, Sandra divides her time between four children, a cartoonist husband, a business, two callings, a scattering of friends, a neighborhood, multiple online communities, some hobbies, and a cat.
“Thank you so much for all of your help this year.” My son’s fourth grade teacher told me earnestly as she extended a little gift bag toward me. It was the last day of school and I’d walked into the classroom to retrieve a forgotten backpack. The room was stripped of its purpose, almost barren, with desks stacked in one corner. My hands paused before reaching to accept the gift. Her thanks were heartfelt, and I knew they were undeserved. I’d assisted in a classroom science day and attended one field trip. These activities had been in direct response to my son’s needs, not motivated by a desire to help. I’d filled my time with work, illness, more work, a sibling whose needs chewed through more emotional time and energy than I had to give, and yet more work. The work paid the bills and since I was self-employed, incomplete work paid for nothing. My son had been a trouper, calm and cheerful, until the strain started to show in a dozen little ways both at home and at school. So I had carved out the time to be there for him; helping in the classroom was purely ancillary.
“Really?” I wanted to argue, but the word stuck in my throat, caught by the same emotion that was pricking at my eyes. I got thanks for an effort which amounted to being physically present. Surely effusive thanks and praise should be in answer to a true effort from me, not the bare minimum that I had given.
Several months before that final day of school, there was a flyer taped to my door. “Girl’s camp will be June 11-15” the note said in a cheery font across the top of the paper. There were details below, but my heart had already plummeted. Those dates were in the very middle of a writing retreat that I was supposed to help organize and run. My friends and business partners were depending upon me to support the event. More than that, it was a personal dream come true. I would go to a place I loved, have the chance to teach, and perhaps I would finally make progress on writing fiction. I’d been so careful not to let anyone schedule me during that week, or even that month, because I wanted to give my full attention to the event. But my girl had just turned twelve and this would be her first camp away from family, reason enough for her to need my full support, yet there was more. In the prior month, my daughter’s emotional world had exploded into anxiety. She was so strong, so determined, and still the panic overcame her. I was at her school weekly, then twice weekly, then daily. I’d come home from just such a school visit to find this note taped to the door. I held the paper in my hand and knew with heart certainty that my daughter needed camp and that I had to do absolutely everything necessary to make it work for her. Even give up the retreat.
A person does not have to be a working mother to have conflicting priorities, yet I’ve experienced it far more often in my life since I began working, particularly once I began to have career dreams attached to that work. It is work I feel I have been called to do. During my stay at home mother years I was often harried and stressed, struggling to meet my own expectations, but all the demands worked in support of each other. Trying to grocery shop with young children brought me to tears more than once, but ultimately the purchase of groceries was to feed the children. This year has pounded into me, over and over, that I have to choose between work events and family. I cancel a teaching gig because of a child’s school history night. I miss a child’s class presentation because of urgent work. I tell myself that sometimes it is good to choose the work things, that they matter, that I must show my children that mothers have dreams too. It is good for them to sometimes sacrifice a little so that I can have something. However, it is even more critical that my children know I will drop all of my things if they truly need me. Conflict after conflict I evaluate, I weigh the choices, I decide, and often I cry for the cosmic unfairness that I have to choose. Even after I choose, some part of me is grieving the other choice. I am rarely heart whole.
A month after that last day of school I sat at the table of a restaurant with one of the friends who ran the retreat. In the end I did not have to miss all of it. I’d cobbled together a compromise which had me boarding a plane mere hours after sending my daughter to camp. I arrived four days later than I’d intended and would leave three days earlier. It did not allow me to be the essential help that I’d wanted to be, but it let me do something instead of nothing. I bemoaned this to my friend. He listened and understood my dilemma, he has kids too. We talked about how the retreat might go the following year. Then he said “Our plan needs to not depend upon you being here, because this might happen again.” He meant it to reduce pressure on me, as a gesture of support, as an understanding that family must come first in cases like this. Yet his words also made clear that I am not the professional person I wish I could be. I want to be dependable and mostly I am, except when my other priorities interfere. I am not the mother I wish I could be either, because even though I carve out the time my kids need, some part of me is counting the work waiting for me. I can never give one hundred percent because I must always hold a reserve for my other priorities.
It is tempting to believe that this will get better once the kids leave home, but I’m not sure that it will. My adult children will put weddings, births, and illnesses into my schedule just as surely as my young children put concerts and graduations. Also, the conflicts are not just between parenting and work. Sometimes the needs of one child prevent me from meeting the needs of another. Sometimes church responsibility enters the mix and pulls me away from both family and work. There is also extended family and my larger community to consider. All of these things want pieces of my time and energy. I would dearly love to do it all to the very best of my abilities. I would be amazing if I could do that. Instead I parcel myself out, ten percent here, thirty percent here, always holding back a little because I never know when some unexpected crisis will land in the middle of everything else.
Then come the days when the crises hit like waves. When I’m at my daughter’s school twice a week, then daily. When in the middle of that, my son’s teacher calls me to let me know she is concerned, so I rearrange to be in his class. When the work can only be delayed so long before it simply must be done. When I’ve given percentages of myself until I’ve given more than I should have been able to do because God granted me the strength to stretch myself beyond my own limits. Then I ponder the scripture which says that “by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.” (2 Nephi 25:23). Sometimes I can give ninety percent and other times five. I can only give what I have, no matter how much I might wish to give more.
On that last day of school in my son’s classroom, I held a bottle of hand soap, the cellophane gift bag crinkling in my hands.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t do more.” I said and it was not just polite words. I felt the sadness for what could have been. My mind’s eye could see me on the field trip, gathering the kids and working with them instead of trailing behind. I could see myself better prepared to teach about fossils on the science day. I could have done so much better. Maybe. If it hadn’t been that month. If I’d rearranged to steal energy from some other thing. I could have done better.
“Oh you were fantastic. I am so grateful for all the time you’ve given.” The teacher reached out and touched my arm. She did not just mean showing up in her class, she’d seen the way I rearranged to help my son. He was her student and she’d been worried about him. Things got better and by the end of the year he was fine again. She’d seen my efforts on his behalf and was grateful. I blinked and nodded then turned and carried the gift of hand soap with me as I walked away. The greater gift she had given me was a glimmer of hope that my bare minimum might have been good enough. I held to that hope, because for months it felt like I was failing at everything. Yet my son regained his cheerfulness, my daughter went to girl’s camp and returned home happy, the overwhelming quantities of work got completed, and the retreat was a success.
I want “all I can do” to mean that I do almost all the work. I want to solve all the problems and make everything better. No human being can do that. We are gifted with only limited amounts of energy and those gifts are not distributed evenly. We are asked to spend our energy as wisely as we can, to do all that we can do, and leave the rest in the hands of God who will grant us Grace enough to cover the rest.