“You can’t do everything and do everything well.”
I was sitting at a piano, confiding in my piano teacher as I often did, when she doled out this piece of advice that has stuck with me ever since. At 16-years-old, I didn’t yet have a clue what she was talking about – she was probably making me feel better for mediocre grades on my finals or a lost audition – but those words of wisdom have been with me for years.
They were with me when I got married, when I worked and took 21 credit hours my last semester of college, and especially when I had my children and couldn’t decide whether or not I wanted to have a career or stay home with them.
You can’t do everything and do everything well.
The difference between now and then was that I had a choice. Fortunate that my husband had a good job and could support us, I made the decision to stay home and focus on my kids. I knew that I was lucky, that there were many women out there who didn’t have that choice. I’d seen them at the grocery store on Sunday, madly trying to get the shopping done for the week or showing up to a Gymboree class still in their clothes from work.
Some of my friends did have a choice and chose to stay at work. Many of them couldn’t understand how I could put in long days with a newborn while they went into an office and had actual adult conversation.
But knowing that I couldn’t do everything and do it well, not having a career was the sacrifice I was willing to make.
Ironically enough, what many of my friends asked me all those years ago was this: “Aren’t you worried that something might happen to your husband?” And thinking that the worst thing that could possibly happen was that he might get laid off, but knowing that we had back-up funds, I was able to say, “What could possibly happen that we’re not prepared for?”
And then I found out.
As a widow, my piano teacher’s advice, although helpful years ago, repeated itself over and over in my mind and began to haunt me. Because for the first time I was forced to do everything and I feared that I wouldn’t do any of it well. Being spread so thin – raising kids, keeping up the house, and worrying about the future – I thought that we were all on a path to destruction.
Guilt became my constant companion because I always felt like I was failing somewhere. If I worked too much, I was neglecting my kids and if I spent quality time with them, I was failing in other areas. If I bought fast-food because I didn’t have time to cook a well-rounded meal, I felt terrible. When I tried to hold onto the meager social life that remained, I felt like the worst mom for hiring a babysitter. And then, on the rare occasion I would go out with friends, I felt awful because I hadn’t kept up with what was going on with everyone else.
I just couldn’t win.
As we all learn sooner or later (widowed or not), not one person on the planet is harder on us than we are on ourselves. It’s taken me 5 years to figure out that I actually can do things “well” – just not perfect. It’s not worth running myself into the ground, chasing the impossible notion that I can have the perfectly manicured lawn, a billion dollar business, and get all of my kids into Harvard by the time they each turn 13. As I type this, my grass is long, I have paperwork I need to do, my kids are inside playing a video game on a beautiful summer day, and I think I forgot to pay my water bill.
I’m not perfect. And I can’t do everything.
I think that that advice needs to be amended a little. Maybe something along the lines of, “You can’t do everything and do everything well, but life is too short to beat yourself up about it. So just do what you can, hope for the best, and remember that life, with all its imperfections, is meant to be lived and not wasted worrying about the things we can’t control.”
I know the shorter version would fit better on a bumper sticker. But I like mine better.
Catherine Tidd 2012