100% is Not Available

reading bio sizedSandra 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.

10 thoughts on “100% is Not Available

  1. Sandra, I love this. Wise and true. I wish I could be everything to everyone as well, and I am constantly praying for grace to make up for my inadequacies.

  2. It’s so critical to remember that Christ is WITH us through the exertion of our days IF we invite Him; He doesn’t kick in after we’re emotionally and physically spent
    I am at the adult children phase of life – and conflicting needs of others with still working, an aging mother in crisis and church demands hasn’t waned. But HE is there with me as I struggle to be a blessing in the lives of those whose needs I hope I can meet. (And still find me)

  3. Thank you, Sandra. I’ve basically understood the “after all we can do” principle for quite a while,but your essay has put it in a new light for me. Being a mother is hard in so many ways that I never anticipated! But it is a good work. Thanks for sharing your struggle and what you’re learning.

  4. I love this. I think almost all of us (especially as women) have felt this way before: pulled in too many directions by too many things. I’ve not put this in context of grace before, though, and clearly I should.

    I’ve always loved this quote by Anne Lindbergh (which Neal A. Maxwell had on his office wall): “My life cannot implement in action the demands of all the people to whom my heart responds.” Elder Maxwell also wrote a beautiful essay years ago on the same idea, the need to prioritize, even when its difficult to do so: https://www.lds.org/ensign/1994/06/wisdom-and-order?lang=eng

  5. This is absolutely beautiful – I know it’s not “just” about being a working mom, but it touched my working-mom-heart deeply. You really captured the struggle of deciding where to put your energies. I grew up in the middle of the “we can have it all” 1980s and believed well into my 20s that if I organized things perfectly enough, I could, in fact, have it all. It is so refreshing to hear you acknowledge the pains of having to choose, while still giving yourself credit – and grace – for the good you are doing. I’ve often thought it unfortunate that moms in particular tend to frame questions of work and home in a moral light; when really, whatever type of balance we find between work/home comes at a cost. Thank you for sharing your personal journey in creating your own unique balance.

  6. Your comment about wanting to be a professional but not being able to be a professional hit me hard. I know that feeling all too well. Before I had kids I wanted to be a professional scientist. No, I still want to be a professional scientist. I recognize that’s not an option for me anymore, though. I am a homemaker. Not the job I wanted. Really, REALLY not the job I wanted. Just the job I fell into out of necessity.

    Homemaking really is a far more difficult, far more demanding job than any other I’ve ever had. As you note, prioritizing tasks often requires painful sacrifices that I, as mother, have to make. Some days I’m bitter that I’m the one who has to give things up, that I’m the one playing the role of facilitator to the lives of other people. Sometimes I want someone else to facilitate me for a little while.

    There are so many people who do facilitate me, though, and one very important one in particular. Grace is a huge part of that. Thank you for the reminder.

  7. What a well written piece! As a mother of five children, three who have flown the coop, this expresses so many true-to-my-life feelings. You are wise to also be able to look into the future and we the weddings, births and even adult children who still need you from time to time.

  8. The older I get and the older my kids get, the more I realize the principles you have discussed in your post. I spend a lot of time evaluating my priorities and figuring out what I can do, what I need to do, what someone else can do, and what no one needs to do. It’s hard and I often fall short too–I have realized that in addition to learning grace and forgiveness for myself, I have to teach my kids about those principles too, because their mother is not always going to be able to be there for them all the times in the way they want her to be.

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