When having it all feels like it’s not enough

By Purnima Mani

By all appearances, 2014 should have been a banner year in our household. After several years of trying to have a child, my husband and I were the parents of a thriving one-year-old boy. I had restarted my teaching career after a hiatus, at a school I’d admired from afar for over a decade. My husband had just been promoted at work, and we had purchased our first home in a desirable Bay Area suburb (with a waterfall in the backyard, no less!). To complete this already perfect picture, we added a rambunctious rescue puppy to our family.

Sounds great, right? It should have. Oddly, instead of celebrating our successes, I found myself deeply unhappy. And the unhappiness intensified each time someone commented on how wonderfully happy we seemed to be. This was followed by nagging feelings of guilt. We had it all. What was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I be content?

Turns out, “having it all” was exactly the problem. “Having it all” was the beginning of my season of discontent. The more ideal our world seemed on the outside, the more I felt like I was racing on a treadmill, out of breath and unable to get off.

Fast forward four years, and things at our house look a little different. My husband and I now have two young boys. And I still work as a teacher, but for just a few hours a day. It’s amazing how this small change has created a huge shift in our days. Making the transition to teaching part-time was not an easy one. Being an educator is an integral part of my self-concept. I had spent most of my adult life devoted to my job, feeling like I was making a difference. And like every good overachiever, I had also started my journey as a parent determined to be a present, involved, fun mother.

Somewhere along the way, in 2014, instead of feeling either of these things, I had the sinking notion that I was doing a crappy job both at school and at home. When I was at school, I was preoccupied with whatever was happening with my own child, wondering if I was depriving him of attention. But ironically, once I actually picked him up from daycare, instead of being fully immersed in our time together, my professional to-do list would kick into high gear. I would get anxious over all the papers that needed grading, lessons that needed planning, and students with learning needs I wasn’t meeting adequately. The result? I was impatient and distracted, no matter where I was. Cooking, my one-time favorite escape activity, now felt like a chore that had to get done. My longtime teaching mentor tried to counsel me, saying, “Even when you’re performing at 70%, the children are getting 120% of what they need,” but the words felt hollow. I was so used to doing things WELL. If I couldn’t arrive at school by 7am every day and stay until 7pm every evening, was I even a real teacher anymore? As for how this impacted my relationship with my poor husband…let’s not even go there. He was lucky to get whatever scraps remained after I was done with everything else.

There are many ways I could have responded to these feelings of self-doubt, and they would have all been reasonable. Yes, I could have decided to be a stay-at-home parent. I’d done it before when our first son was an infant, and it had been an incredibly rewarding experience. But somehow, the timing didn’t seem right to stay home again — I can’t say why, just that teaching still called to me. Yes, we could have hired help at home for our boys in the evenings. But after spending so many years working with other people’s children, I couldn’t make peace with someone else caring for mine. Did my students deserve my round-the-clock blood, sweat and tears more than my own flesh and blood? Yes, I could have woken up a little earlier, gone to bed a bit later, made some tweaks in my routine to help me accomplish more in 24 hours. But the truth is, I was tired. Having it all was exhausting me.

So instead, I made a mental shift in my expectations. A few months after our second son was born, in early 2016, I started to feel the itch again. I had decided to take some time off work but knew I wanted to go back at some point. I also wanted to continue teaching, but something had to give. After weeks of sleepless nights and creating ridiculous pro-con charts (yes, I’m THAT person…), I decided to be intentional and search only for part-time work. My husband was incredibly supportive, and I never felt pressure to do anything other than exactly what was the right choice for me. Not many schools are interested in dealing with part-time employees, but I was lucky enough to find a school nearby that hired me on my terms.

There are so many downsides to the way our lives run today. I don’t make as much money as I could working full-time — but hey, we all know what teachers make on that front anyway. There are days when being with my kids for every minute of their time at home makes me question my sanity. There are days when it bothers me that I will never feel truly like a part of my workplace, that I will never make “real” connections at school simply because I don’t have time to socialize much beyond my teaching hours. There are days when I question my decision to be in this weird in-between place, where I’m neither a stay-at-home parent nor an ambitious career woman.

Here’s what I’ve realized, though. This self-doubt I feel is what unites us all. We spend so much time and energy trying to balance the three biggies of adulthood — marriage, parenthood, and career. Regardless of how it seems on the surface, I don’t know a single person that doesn’t contend with negative, gnarly emotions as they navigate this road. Becoming a parent only seems to multiply the guilt and doubt exponentially — for both mothers and fathers. That’s just part of the territory of being responsible for lives other than our own. No matter the choices we make for our personal and professional lives, we all have days when everything seems wrong. But for every one of those days, there are the other days. The ones filled with sunshine and accomplishment. The precious experiences with family, friends and colleagues, when every decision and sacrifice you’ve made seems exactly worth it. The belly-laugh days, when having fun and being present in the moment don’t seem like work. So, for my part, I’m doing my best to hold on to what’s golden. I’m trying to remember that our choices dwell not in the hours of chaos, but in the beautiful, fleeting moments of yes.

I don’t have it all anymore. And that feels just right for now.

Alex Labriola