Thrive at Home

Thrive at Home August 31, 2014

I am a striver.  I know that I was born with a lot of advantages, and I worked hard to make the most that I could of the opportunities I had.  I took that same outlook into married life and parenting.  In almost 14 years of marriage, we have been constantly working to move forward, sometimes, as with a new baby or a big move, putting ourselves into “survival mode” for a while in order to get there.  My life has a rhythm to it: strive, survive, recover, systemize, coast briefly, burnout, repeat.  We have been thoughtful about what we aim for, thanks to grounding in the sacraments and the good examples of our parents, and so there is not much that I would change about the choices which we have made over the years, but as my children get older and ask adult questions, I think a lot about whether this pattern of striving and burn out has been good for them.  In the first part, I am concerned about the example that I give, because they can take on too much of the same pattern at a very young age.  Second, I am concerned about the emotional stress of living with someone who is frequently surviving or burn out.  Most of all, I am worried that they do not often see the complete joy and freedom with which I have embraced motherhood, openness to life, and homeschooling.

There is joy, and this has been freely chosen, carefully chosen, and worked for, and it is also a gift.  This life has not been thrust upon me, and I am not in any way a victim of my circumstances.  I have an amazing marriage to a man I have loved from almost the moment we met, 7 terrific, interesting, sometimes challenging children, meals on the table and a good roof over my head.

That roof needs to be replaced shortly, it is past warranty, and when we do that should we install solar panels?  Who do you even call for that?  And how much does it stink that once again my major household improvement budget is going to have to go towards something that we won’t be able to see at all?

See, there I go again.

Back to contentment.  As I have said, I want to be more content for the sake of my children.  Even more importantly, though, I have realized that I want to be more content for my own sake.  Life is short, stages and moments even shorter, and things can change very quickly.   Burn out is dangerous, and it takes much longer than I realized to recover emotionally from the combination of anxiety and depression that goes along.

In my adult married life, I can think of two very specific times when I have been content and relaxed for an extended period of time which allowed my spirit to really recover.  These were during an August when I left everything to spend a month alone at an old house in the Adirondacks with my four very young children and two years ago when I spent most of the winter in the Catskill Mountains.  Last weekend I was back at that house in the Adirondacks, and I was again so happy there, and the time seemed too short.  It was there that I had an important revelation, visiting my ancestors in the little cemetery behind the church down the road.  I am never going to move to a truly rural location and check out of my life.  In fact, even if I did move, my life and its worries, obligations and need for improvement would move with me!  I would not be on vacation, I would not eat s’mores by the fire every night, and I would not find the moss growing on the roof quite so romantic if I lived there.

This insight came about in large part because this summer I have been reading Thrive, The Third Metric for Success by Arianna Huffington.  Thrive is aimed mostly at executives and it explores Ms. Huffington’s own burn out, with serious health repercussions, her recovery and what she has learned about herself from the process.  Huffington makes the point that personal well being, physical and psycho-emotional, should be an important marker of success, right up there with money and influence, even topping them.  She gives research to back up the things which she believes can help people to Thrive and she also shows examples of companies which have embraced practices which help employees to Thrive.

Thrive has taught me so much, but the biggest thing has been that Huffington is not asking anyone to stop striving, or stop working at a 21st century pace.  Instead, she is talking about incorporating common sense, sometimes very old fashioned principles of self care into already busy lives, in order to be more productive, more effective and healthier.

Thrive intermingles discussion of meditative prayer and Christian monastic wisdom with discussion of Yoga and mindfulness in a way that will make some readers uncomfortable.  While Huffington’s understanding of the soul is probably different from mine, I felt that it was great to read a book which did incorporate an understanding of a soul, that we are mind, body and spirit, and we must care for all three together.  To do this without leaving the world is a project that is very close to my heart.  It is right in line with St. Josemaria’s teachings on sanctity in daily life.  Few of us are called to totally leave the world and have a monastic life, but all of us are called to be saints.

How can I bring the peace of this landscape home to my real life? #thrive

Like all great self help books, Thrive doesn’t really tell you anything that you didn’t already know deep down in your heart, but it gives you a slightly different package, a new perspective, and hopefully the firm resolution to put some new practices into place.  So, it is not surprising to me that while I was reading about walking in Thrive, my mentor Elizabeth Foss was taking up walking.  Of course Elizabeth has written about walking before, and she knows that things go better if she walks every day, but this spring she needed some friends (and a new toy) to nudge her back to the habit.  For me, Arianna Huffington became like the old friend who knows best, who can see your life and gently tell you what you need to hear.  She quotes lots of experts, and I found myself highlighting almost every quotation in the book.  Like this one:

“Often, the very first things we give up are those that nourish us the most but seem ‘optional,’ ” write Mark Williams and Danny Penman in Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World. “The result is that we are increasingly left with only work or other stressors that often deplete our resources, and nothing to replenish or nourish us—and exhaustion is the result.”

I know, right?  If I knew how to make a meme, that would be my first one.  But if I think too hard about how I don’t know how to make a meme, I will begin to dwell on my own inadequacy and feel guilty about how many more hits this blog would get if I would only take the time to be more tech savvy, and spinning around in that for a while, I would waste the time which I actually do have to do the things which nourish me!

Life is not a permanent vacation, and I don’t want to waste my life being too busy and distracted to be a complete person.  I want to be as present to my children, to my prayer, to my husband, to my own thoughts, as I am when I am away in the mountains.  I want to have a reserve of calm so that I can keep my head when those around me are losing theirs, which is pretty much always when you live with teenagers and toddlers.  I want to Thrive.  I want my children to Thrive.  After all, I have already given up any shot at power or money as markers of my success.  When one’s life’s work is the life of the home, well being, wisdom, wonder and giving are already the only metric for success.

I tend to make my New Year’s Resolutions around Labor Day, and set the tone for my year of homeschooling and parenting.  This year, Thrive will be the lens through which I view my life.  I hope to write much more about this in the weeks to come, and I hope that you will join me on a journey to Thrive.

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  • The Benedictine Monks take a vow of stability. For me, that is what is missing in times of trail or survival — stability. I need stability to thrive. I “survive” survival mode by knowing it is temporary, by seeing the light at the end of the dark tunnel. And I know that when I feel unhappy, burned out, etc., it is because I am missing something in my own personal stability cocktail. Too little God? Too much work or too little work? Not enough sleep? Not enough exercise? Too little personal time? Not enough time for friendships? Too little leisure time? All things I ask myself when something feels off. Obviously in times of intense trial God is asking us to just rely on him and survive. But this seems a special and temporary call. As you nicely point out, thriving is something different from surviving. Thriving is not something we do on a vacation (although some need a vacation to find it). Thriving is something we do in our day to day normal lives, and if we can’t thrive there, we are going to feel very empty.

    For me, the key to thriving is using my striving instinct to strive for one thing — stability. Striving for anything else leaves me empty, burned out, and depressed. To find peace I have to seek it. Sadly, this is much easier said than done.

  • Mary Alice

    Kellie, I think that is a really great point about stability. The idea would be to have some sense of internal stability even when things around you may be unstable, because I find myself really disturbed by the constant transitions of parenting. I also really like those questions. For me, I begin with really basic things — how’s my sleep, how’s my nutrition, how’s my prayer? If those things are in place, I can weather an awful lot without falling apart totally, and when I do fall apart I am often relieved that it can be fixed by solving a problem in one of those areas. I am working on having a stable “self care” routine, and to have some things prioritized so that they stay in place even as schedules and seasons change. I hope that you will continue to join in the comments as I post more about where this is taking me, because I think that it can play out so differently for each one of us, what we need to thrive is slightly different and then how we make time for it is different too. For sure, though, I want to get off of the emotional roller coaster and keep things more stable in my interior life.

  • The crazy part of this conversation is that what we all need to thrive is different, AND even if we figure out what is working for us now, it can change. Evaluating and reevaluating what is working can be exhausting, especially as the demands on our time change with such regularity as our children transition and mature. For me though, the key is having a basic cocktail in mind, and then putting all my striving into tweaking it to find the right balance for that time in my life, and then not expecting that mixture to work in 6 months! BTW, in my own case, sometimes thriving means eliminating certain drags on my time or energy (too many volunteer commitments, a moms night out that isn’t uplifting anymore, an exercise group that has become more of a burden, etc.). Not being afraid to just make a change is key. As a practical small thing, over the summer I cut out almost all phone time for me because I was out of the house so much with my kids I just didn’t need the mom socialization time. Now that I am back in the swing of school, I am realizing I feel a little lonely and miss my mom friends from the pool. Talking to a friend on the phone and making regular moms nights out are key to my school year sanity.

  • Katrina

    This is a great post, thanks for sharing, Mary Alice. I love your point that the recovery time from a “burnout” phase is often much longer than expected. This is great motivation for me to avoid those burnout times if at all possible, rather than assuming that I can push myself and my family and then make up for it later. I’m especially going to try to remember this as we prepare to bring home a new baby in just a couple of weeks – this can be prime “burnout” time, or it could be a great opportunity for just enjoying life with a new baby and saying no to outside commitments for a little while. With lots of unavoidable stressors already in the mix – carpool, the start of a new school year, lack of sleep – there is no reason to add anything else.

  • Queen B

    I am grateful for this encouragement as we start school this week, and I, too, am a re-evaluator in this season, struggling between striving and burnout. Thanks for the review of Thrive, MA.

  • Juris Mater

    As usual, there is so, SO much wisdom here, MaryAlice. It is exactly what I needed to read, and I have been digesting it all since reading your post this weekend. Thank you! Time to go make some resolutions : )

  • Mary Alice

    It’s a great point that it can change. I recently found out that I have serious arthritis in my knees, and I am can’t run anymore if I want to continue to ski so much. In a way, this is a relief, because I never loved running the way some of you do, but it is also hard to motivate to go for a walk and call it a real workout. Also, now that my children are older and more talkative, all of my social time is used up on them, and I find that I crave quiet alone time, while when I had a houseful of toddlers I was desperate for friendly meet-ups at the park just so that I could talk to someone!

  • Catie H

    This post and the comments have been a great reminder as we begin another busy school year. I’m taking away that sometimes thriving costs money, time, and social connections (saying “no”), but it’s definitely worth it for ourselves and those who depend on us.

    Thank you 🙂