(This is what spring looks like in Berkeley — wisteria blooming everywhere. This post, though, is not about wisteria, in case you are wondering. It is about the work/life balance and the way you have to shore it up all the time. But there is a wisteria metaphor in the post, because it seemed like a good idea to have a goal in writing it: to work in my favorite vine somewhere.)
It was a phone call I’ve been putting off returning for weeks and weeks, a call to a woman I don’t know, a woman with whom I have in common a single person: our lovely housekeeper and general childminder and morning helper, Lucy.
Lucy works for us at various times during the week. Every time she walks into our house I want to hug her. She’s hugely helpful and she is the reason I’ve been able to work, and have children, and write a novel, and be relatively sane through the year of having cancer. Lucy also works for the other family. Let’s call the woman in that family Tessa, shall we?
The message Tessa left was that she wanted to “close the loop” on “scheduling matters.” I hadn’t known the loop was open. In fact, I didn’t even know I was inside a loop. My heart sank. It was obvious what Tessa really wanted. She didn’t want to get clarity about something, and she didn’t want to “check in” as she said. She wanted my permission to rearrange the arrangement that’s been working so well for us.
My first thought, after deciding that I don’t like Tessa because she is not straight up, was that changes in my schedule are between me and Lucy, not me and Tessa. If Lucy wants to do something different, then she is perfectly capable of changing things with me. We’ve done it before. I am not scary.
After this weird loop-closing message, I asked Lucy if she wanted to change her schedule. She made a face, as if to say, that woman is making me nuts. She did not want to change anything she said. She is fine with her work and her timing.
Having learned that the person who does this work is happy with it, I ignored Tessa’s call (and the one she made a few days later) for twenty two days. What I found more difficult to ignore is that I know she has two young children, is on maternity leave and is going back to work pretty soon. She also has a husband, a guy I suspect doesn’t do much to help out around the house and who sees the work/life balance as her problem. He also yelled at Lucy once (she blurted this out one day when I asked her how she was), so I am not inclined to feel charitable where he is concerned. I know that this whole weird “closing the loop” call is Tessa’s way of trying to arrange things so she can work and parent. The trouble is that she’s trying to work out this balance by unbalancing my own teetering effort.
And that’s where empathy becomes perilous. For a very long time, I responded to the knowledge that someone is having trouble by becoming so invested in helping them get out of it that their trouble became my own. My own troubles and needs? They did not seem to exist anymore.
This is the sort of thing that made me a terrible litigator. When the client’s trouble became my trouble it was as though I was the one being accused of terrible wrongdoing. I would be defensive and upset every time I responded to the lawyer on the other side. Never mind that I was not the one who displayed the poor judgment that got the client to the place where they needed to hire my law firm to defend them. Their mistakes felt like my own. Their setbacks? Mine.
Gradually, and mostly because I stopped doing that kind of work, it dawned on me that someone else’s trouble was not my trouble. It was generally not my fault, and although I could feel sympathy for the person in trouble, I did not need to become them. I could say, you and your lawsuit live over here — in a place that is not mine. You got yourself into this mess, not me. There is a hand gesture that goes along with this thought. If you have trouble with this issue, you might want to try it:
Cup your hands together, and place the trouble you have been taking on inside the space in your hands. (Obviously, you must pretend, this being a symbolic exercise.) Now stretch your hands as far away from you as you can — across my desk is where I mostly do this. And then gently deposit it all at this far away place. Now sit back and repeat after me: This is not my trouble. This does not belong to me. It is not of my making, nor is it my fault. I can help, if I choose to, but only if I am clear that this is not my trouble.
Knowing where I end and others begin has been the single biggest challenge I have faced as an adult. That, and learning not to eat every last bite of the chocolate cake just because I can.
And so it is with Tessa (the trouble being her own, I mean — not the cake problem). Her work life balance troubles live in her house. Mine live in mine. And in this case, I will not unbalance my own house in order to make her life easier.
And that is what I told her on the telephone. I could feel her efforts to entangle me in her world – to ask me about how I had arranged things, to see if maybe I was not needing what I think I need, to ask if I could do without a little of what I’ve arranged so she could have some of it too. Wisteria is like this. It’s a vine — if you look closely at it you’ll see the wonderful way it’s been engineered, with little sharp hook-like twigs all along it, hooks that grab on and don’t let go. It’s beautiful though, and it drapes itself around the front of your house in the places you’ve decided you want it to be draped. If you don’t want it someplace, you cut it back. You are in charge of it, as you are in charge of most things in your life, because that is what it means to be an adult.
I know it sounds cold, but I did not give Tessa much more than an inch of frontage to hook onto. It has taken a long time to achieve some serenity and balance in my life. I will not give it up.
There is, of course, another subtext here, which is how it can even be the case that Tessa and I can decide something like this. I said, over and over, this is not really our decision to make, although I am happy to tell you that things are working beautifully for me. Lucy is the master of her work and her schedule. If she wishes to make a change, then she and I will discuss it. Not you and I. This is another topic for another day — how we should behave in the face of the fact that we cannot control what other people decide to do. And in writing about that, I will try to work in some reference to the Meyer lemon bush that is also ripe and beautiful this lovely spring day, and has been well worth waiting for through the long, cold wet winter.