As a person without a traditional job, I feel a bit lost. I don’t have an employer who expects me to be somewhere at a certain time, to accomplish specific tasks daily and weekly. I have no supervisor to give me feedback or train me, no co-workers a cubicle away to help guide my activities. When I had a job, my time was full of directions and instructions that resulted in a beginning, middle, and end for each day. Monday through Friday I would leave with an experience all framed up in a picture called “my time at work”, until I had hundreds of them stacked up in the storage of my memory, each one barely distinguishable from the other, and none of them a work of art. But they were neatly packaged and organized, which gave some sort of comfort, if not personal value.
Fast forward through a year of purposeful chaos, life being turned upside down & back again, and now I live in a new town, in a new house, with no fixed daily routine, no need to wake up at a certain time, and no physical connections to friends, family or co-religionists to suggest how to and when to spend my time. I am completely free to stay in my pajamas all day or eat a blueberry muffin for lunch at 11:35am because I suddenly remembered there was one left in the freezer. I can let the dirty clothes pile up until I have no clean pants – and suffer no negative consequences. I can watch TV all day on a whim. If I have a headache or leg muscle pain or depression heaviness, I don’t have to force myself to do anything – no social interaction or task accomplishment is expected of me, so I can sleep or read a book all day if I want.
I suppose having the time to rest and heal is a good thing, but it often feels more like I’m stagnating.
And then, when I feel well and energetic, I tend to flit around from whim to whim without goals or direction. I feel like I might float away on any little breeze and have no way to get back to my center.
Thinking of this situation, I am reminded of when I cared for a young child about 10 years ago. I will call this child Little.
Little was (and is) the daughter of a dear friend. I started watching her at my house a few days a week when she was a baby, and as she got older, I began caring for her every weekday. It became clear to me that Little needed structure, as all children do. Her mind would flit from desire to desire, and trying to fulfill every single one was exhausting and ultimately impossible.
Here’s a general example of how a day with Little could go:
Little says she wants to paint. So while she plays with Legos, I prep for painting. I cover the table with plastic garbage bags, taping down the corners. I set out paints, water, paper, brushes and paint smocks. But Little has changed her mind. Now she wants to go outside. So we get our shoes and coats on and go out. When I suggest we go in for lunch, she doesn’t want to, so when we finally go inside, she’s very hungry and tired. I now have to undo all the paint preparation so we can eat at the table. But no! Little wants to paint now! So I have to be firm about it being lunch time – I’ve waited too long to feed her, she really needs a nap, and here comes the tantrum meltdown. We finally eat some lunch, but her bed is covered in plastic blocks which she doesn’t help put away, and bathroom time and book time go roughly, with actual sleeping a long and hard time coming.
Indulging her whims has sidestepped her needs, and I’m left with hours worth of damage control.
That’s just an example – not an exact detail of a day. But it reminds me of my current situation, in which I am both the toddler and the caregiver. My inner toddler is running from shiny thing to shiny thing, while my inner adult is sideswiped by the enthusiasm, loving this energetic spirit, but not helping it in the long run by indulging it, letting it call all the shots.
In the case of Little, I learned that I needed to have a plan for every day. Hour 1: welcome, chat, play, eat breakfast. Hour 2: Inside project. Hour 3: Have a snack. Leave the house to play in a playground or store. Hour 4: Lunch. Hour 5: Nap. Hour 6: Wake up, eat a snack, play. Hour 7: Indoor project or game or play outside. Hour 8: Clean up and get picked up by Mom or Dad.
One thing I just realized is that no matter what time it was – meal/snack time, project time, even nap time and pickup time – it was all playtime. That’s how toddlers learn. Lunch time was a time to play with food. Little would painstakingly assemble her sandwich, getting bread from the bag, spreading mayonnaise, adding slices of lunch meat, cheese, tomato, pickle, lettuce. She would carefully , slowly cut her sandwich in half with a butterknife. Then she would pull her sandwich apart and eat it from the inside out.
Playtime was also playtime, of course, but so was cleanup time, complete with cleanup time song and high 5’s when done.
Even pickup time was playtime. Almost every day, when we would hear Mom’s car arrive in the driveway, Little would “hide” (a telltale blanket squirming and giggling on the couch), and when Mom came through the door I would have to give her the bad news.
“I’m so sorry, M,” I would say, “But I can’t find Little.”
Of course, M would be very upset at this. “That’s terrible news!” she would say. “I’m so sad. I need to sit down.” And then she would sit on the giggly couch blanket which would suddenly fly off to reveal a child underneath. “I’m here!” Then M and I would celebrate Little’s return. Variations of that scenario happened almost every pickup time for months and maybe a whole year.
So here I am, both toddler and adult, tasked with constructing days that are productive, playful, and meaningful. I’m excited that I have so much time to do things I didn’t do much when I worked. I can write, read, watch Master Classes online, make sketches of garden ideas, spray paint metal washers for a wind chime, experiment with baking gluten-free bread, go online to buy furniture for our new house, check out Facebook, play online games. Whee! Fun!
But I also have to remember that I am an adult, with responsibilities to myself, my family, and my community. I have to clean up the messes I make, wash dishes and clothing, organize working spaces, pay bills, make meals, shop for food and other necessities.
Maybe I need to treat myself like a toddler for awhile, while this job-free, newly awakened side of me matures. I need to lovingly give myself structure, but remember to keep a spirit of play. I’ll work on my writing, gardening, and crafting. And when I’m ready, I’ll throw my hiding-blanket aside and say, “I’m here!”