Making it up as we go

IMG_7057Margaret turned two last week. I spent a long time working on her cake, because it was the last time I would ever make a two-year-old birthday cake for one of my children.

Perhaps as a weird consequence of the dramatic events of Margaret’s birth, which included a lot of life changes that I didn’t get a chance to think through and prepare for, I have a habit of rolling events like this around, taking hyper-notice, really marveling at every detail. You just don’t know when it will be your last chance.

But as it turned out, this was not the last time I made a cake for a two-year-old after all. Actually that moment happened when I wasn’t noticing, back when Eliza turned two. Instead of being my last hurrah, Margaret’s bunny cake met with a cataclysmic tragedy and ended up as a sad mess of over-rolled fondant and broken cake pieces in the trash can.

As I drove to the grocery store to get an overpriced, under-decorated facsimile, annoyed and frustrated, I catalogued all of the things I could have been doing other than spending hours making a cake that didn’t even turn out: doing client work, writing a blog newsletter, sorting the five bags of whatnot in my closet that I really need to take to Goodwill…

You see, in this fifth time through having a two-year-old, I have the unique (for me) circumstance of having a life and schedule that do not work, even on paper. Usually, by the time the baby is two, the wheels are back on and I’ve MacGuyvered a way to fit everything all in. This time? Nope. I’ve tried. I’ve tracked my time. I’ve made schedules and ideal day lists and cut and cut and cut, but no. The stuff I want to do does not all fit at once.

So there’s never a “typical” week. I surge in one area, then another. One week, you’d think I’m working too much. Another, that I’m a slave to my homeschool. You might think I never exercise, or that I exercise so much I ought to be in the Olympics by now. Sometimes I’m learning French. Sometimes I’m barely writing in English. There are even weeks when I’m getting enough sleep (“Really?” my husband asks, “When are those weeks?”)

I’ll own it: this is not balance. Everyone has advice. I don’t fit into any box, but surely I could fit in a box if I would just focus on my business and work more. Or stop working entirely and write a novel instead. Or whatever. I get it from books, too. Jay Papasan would say that going off in so many different directions is a recipe for not achieving anything.

But I am coming around to being at peace with this too-much-but-not-enough life. The fact is, I’m not ok with clearing the decks of all but One Thing. I don’t match up with any given single role, but maybe that’s not a problem. Maybe that’s  a sign that I really am in the right lane. It’s not the same lane anyone else is in, and it’s not really a position from which I can come up with a bunch of universally applicable top-ten-ways-to-rock-it articles. But this is my calling, and I’m living my life, not someone else’s.

I like how Hope Jahren puts this, in her unexpectedly excellent and thoroughly fascinating literary/science memoir, Lab GirlI’ve never been personally interested in paleo-botany, but I love reading about other people who are passionate about their work, and who so clearly love their unusual and one-of-a-kind lives. I highly recommend the book in its entirety, but this part resonated with me, particularly.

I have been told that I am intelligent, and I have been told that I am simple-minded. I have been told that I am trying to do too much, and I have been told that what I have done amounts to very little…I have been admonished for being too feminine and I have been distrusted for being too masculine. I have been warned that I am far too sensitive and I have been accused of being heartlessly callous. But I was told all of these things by people who can’t understand the present or see the future any better than I can. Such recurrent pronouncements have forced me to accept that because I am a female scientist, nobody knows what the hell I am, and it has given me the delicious freedom to make it up as I go along.

I spent too much of my 20s and 30s worrying whether I was living up to everyone’s expectations and all the right cultural dictates, if I was making good on my education, if I was on the right path.

IMG_7062Now, miraculously enough, I have this fifth go-round with a two-year-old, and I’m just making it up as I go along. Work piles up, my kids can’t read Greek, and I sometimes buy the cheap soft bread at the store instead of the sprouted kind. But I take these one-off moments and savor them. I obey the toddler lisp to “Sing a SONG!” and stop to listen when the preschooler pleads, “And also, Mama, and ALSO…” I hug the moody pre-teens and tell them cautionary tales, and I am pleasantly surprised every day when my husband arrives home safe and sound. And yes, I also turn the kids over to the babysitter and write websites and marketing strategies. I go to writer’s group or book club. And sometimes I sit on the couch with a book while the melee careens all around me.

It’s all too much, it’s never enough, and it’s no one’s idea of a good time but mine. We have a two-year-old again, and for the last time ever. It’s a rainy day, there is oatmeal in Eliza’s hair, and the big kids are running around like headless chickens, having forgotten to do their theory assignments for piano lessons. I look at this never-to-be-repeated moment and notice each detail, and I say with the PsalmistThe Lord has done this; it is marvelous in my eyes. This is the day that the Lord has made; I will rejoice and be glad in it.

Happy birthday, Margaret. I’m sorry about how the cake turned out, but you were worth the effort!

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