I can’t remember now what made it all so scary. It was just a chapter in my eighth grade science textbook. But for some reason that chapter was the hardest one I’d ever dealt with in my life. I was terrified of plate tectonics.
Now, I wasn’t terrified of the actual scientific phenomenon of plate tectonics, those moving panels of earth below the surface, and how they could crash and cause eruptions and change the landscape of our planet at any time. I really was okay with it. We don’t have a whole lot of control here, and I get that. So I wasn’t scared, I guess, but I remember well that I really, really didn’t like it.
Perhaps it’s because, even as a 14-year-old, I could already see how these shifting plates would become a metaphor for the rest of my life. A metaphor that I would keep coming back to every time there was a seismic shift in the composition of my own landscape.
What do those shifts look like? Well, when you think about it, they’re easy to see. Graduations, college, career, marriage, career changes, moving, children: Those are all giant earthquakes, seismic shifts in one’s life.
I remember when my son Max was about to be born, thinking what a huge shift it was going to be going from one child to two. It had been four years since my daughter Hannah arrived, and I was dreading going back to carrying a diaper bag again, to all of that starting over. My precious girl took up almost all of the airtime in our home, and I worried about how in the world I was going to add somebody else to this puzzle. I thought Max would never get a word in, that Hannah would do all of the talking for them both. I never suspected that both of them would simply talk at the same time, usually with the radio or the television playing in the background, sometimes even with my husband also trying to get my attention. There is never going to be a shortage of words in our home.
Somehow I survived that shift from one to two children and adapted to our altered environment. I’ve survived other shifts along the way too: when we moved from our condo to our home, when we had to renovate the kitchen that was sorely in need of updating. I’ve weathered job changes and escalating responsibilities and health crises, and the landscape continues to change shape and shift. I’ve clung to illusions, really delusions, of control, managing the details where I could pack the lunches the night before, update the calendar, pay the bills on time.
While the big tectonic shifts, the ones that cause earthquakes, are all too easy to notice, there is still a constant, imperceptible motion happening. The earth shimmies beneath our feet, but it’s harder to notice things are changing when the changes are so subtle. Personally, I’m more likely to take stock, and to feel grateful for what I have, after surviving an earthquake. But if I’m always changing too, do I stop and take time to acknowledge the beauty of it as it’s happening? With the landscape always changing, when do I take the time to acknowledge the view?
Lately I’ve felt that another shift is underfoot, and the earth is trembling in a different way than it ever has before. It’s not just a shift regarding my children, although they’re shifting too. Hannah’s about to start middle school, and Max has conquered the early elementary years. My career is going well; I’m not coasting, but I’m also not aggressively proving myself like I did during a few epic Lean In years. I feel like I’ve gotten over the toughest hurdles of managing work with young children. And yet I feel shaken, unsettled.
For more than 11 years, I’ve been a married mother who works full time, and I have felt defined and constrained by the push and pull that society seems to dictate as mandatory these days. That I cannot possibly have it all, that I must compromise, that trying to do it all means I must be failing to please someone in this high-wire tightrope act. So I’ve been diligent. I’ve worked so hard to raise wonderful children, who occasionally have their moments but in general are a true delight. I’ve worked hard at my job, progressing through the ranks, achieving more than I ever thought possible for myself. I try to keep my home a pleasant place to be, and I work at my marriage, trying to grow alongside the partner I have chosen to build this life with. And yet.
The shift I’m feeling now is that it’s not enough. I have an awful lot of “all,” but I’m not enjoying it nearly as much as I should. I have been working so hard, and there are moments when I have reached the summit of a peak, this land mass formed by violent collision of the paths I have taken and those paths I have not taken. But often, even at those peak moments, the gorgeous sun-soaked view I expect is obscured by clouds. All I can see is the hard work, the brute forces involved.
There is still time. I know this, because I know that there are more peaks still ahead of me. Those peaks may come in the form of my children, or my career, or some as-yet-unknown part of myself. And I’m lucky to be realizing this now, because I can work on finding more joy along those newly carved trails. I can hope for a glorious moment at the peak, of course, but I can also stop staring at my feet as I stagger forward and, instead, take in the scenery. Life, and especially motherhood, cannot be spent waiting just for those peaks, because the valleys can be just as beautiful. A mother knows that it is not enough to take stock after an earthquake. There is so much beauty to take in, even in the hard work of shifting the landscape.
We cannot control the changing geology. The waves move faster, the result of some deep underwater shifting, and the sands erode. The shift I’m feeling is telling me to slow down. To promise to try not to be scared, to find a hand to hold and, once in a while, a reminder to stop and take in the new views along the way.
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