Wednesday, March 28, 2012

4 Shifts to Living a More Balanced Life

I am sitting on the train, commuting to my NYC office. I just finished reading a dissertation proposal. During Monday's commute, I read a full dissertation in preparation for the student's defense. The train is my third office, one that didn't get any use last week. Neither did my NYC office. I worked full days each day, but I stayed in my home office, taking time each day to reflect on some of the changes I am in the process of making. I also took time for a walk, to eat throughout the day, and to nap in order to let my body fully recover from the pneumonia.

The four major changes I am making will hopefully lead me to a more balanced life that keeps me healthy and happy in all the roles I play.

For years my husband has been chastising me for my eating habits. I rarely eat breakfast because I am not hungry in the morning, I regularly forget to eat lunch, and on my teaching days, I often do not have time to eat dinner. Compounding my poor eating schedule was my belief that healthy eating meant staying away from junk food, balancing calorie and fat intake with physical activity, and making "healthy choices" like turkey burger over beef and fruit/veggies for snacks.

I now realize my body needs more nutrition, and I need to know what that means. I've been working with a nutritionist for the last few weeks to understand better the choices I need to make in grocery selection and meal preparation to nourish my system. Already I have made changes that will affect me and the entire family, and I am committed to shifting my concept of healthy eating.

Sleep and Physical Well Being
I have always been a productive morning person. In high school I would wake in the pre-dawn hours to study for tests. When I taught high school, I would rise at 5AM, heading to school for an hour and a half of quiet planning and grading before my students entered the room. In my current position, I have been maximizing my commuting days by catching one of the direct trains to NYC, which required me to be out of the house between 5:45 and 6:15, and sometimes meant I worked a 16 hour day.

Though I was only doing the early morning twice per week, I realized that those days disrupted the sleep my body needs, and I wasn't building time into my schedule to properly rest. The physical toll became obvious when the pneumonia hit. A second change I am making is to commit to taking a later train on my commute days. Though this complicates my trip with a transfer, the extra hours of sleep are important. Shorter days in the city will also allow me to exercise more consistently, as I won't be exhausted the day after each commute.

Rethinking "I'm supposed to"
As a little girl, I earned the reputation of "good girl," and throughout my adolescence, I consistently did what was expected. I followed the rules and resisted peer pressure in order to do what I was supposed to do. I've followed that same pattern in my professional life.

Last week I didn't do what I was supposed to do, which was to be in my campus office. I had no meetings on my calendar, and I decided I could be more productive at home. I used the four hours of commuting each day to write, respond to students, and dig through my email. By the end of the week, I felt that I had caught up to the mounting pile in my inbox. It was difficult, however, to give myself permission to work solely from home. Likewise, on the homefront I made a difficult decision to withdraw from a community service project that I had committed to, and I also dropped out of a choir commitment. In the past I would have stayed the course because I had made the commitment. Backing out was difficult but necessary in order to clear my calendar wherever possible. As I move forward, I am going to make an effort to find more of these moments where I can choose not to do the "supposed to" and instead to make a decision that better maintains my needed balance.

Silencing the Worker Bee
The last area where I have begun to make changes is the hardest for me. I genuinely enjoy being busy, and I have a personal belief that if I commit to something, I should give it my best effort. Unfortunately, we have lost 7 full time faculty members in my department since I started my job. Though assignments have been reshuffled and administrative support provided, most of the faculty lines have not been filled. There are less people to take faculty administative responsibilities, less dissertation mentors and committee members, and less worker bees in general.  Simultaneously, many of us are involved in redeveloping programs. Changes in educational policy and the shifting landscape of education in the 21st century require revision, reflection, and redevelopment.  My colleagues and I are all overworked.

After the brick hit, and  I evaluated my work commitments and my roles as contributing faculty member, non-tenured researcher, and twinmom, I realized that I could not continue to give more than 100% effort in every area.  I will have to make choices at work to focus my efforts, meeting the needs of my students and our programs without stretching myself too thin.  I cannot always be a worker bee.  Sometimes I have to say "no."  Hopefully, this shift in focus will allow me to put energy into my research and writing and my family and still give my body the rest and nutrition it needs.

These shifts are my commitment to myself to try to lead a more balanced life - one that includes my family, my work, and myself.  I guess the most important realization I've had in this last month is that if I don't take care of myself, I can't possibly balance work and home.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Brick on my Head

Several years ago I attended an event sponsored by Oprah.  The day was focused on women's health and well being, and it culminated with a speech by Oprah that continues to resonate with me.  In her address to the audience, she suggested that the universe whispers to us, guiding us on our path, and if we ignore the whispers, we may eventually be hit on the head with a brick that forces us to evaluate our lives and possibly to change paths.

Consumed by my work and my life as a twinmom, I have been ignoring the whispers, and last week, the brick struck. It's a long story to tell so that the raw emotion comes through; I've written that version in a journal for my daughter to read someday. It's a story for her because it's a story for all women who need to learn to listen to their bodies and attend to proper medical care, both preventative and reactionary.

To summarize that long story, which spans three weeks of my life, I spent a full week wondering and another full week worrying that I might have ovarian cancer. The middle week I spent in bed consumed by pneumonia. The pneumonia became the easy problem as I listened to my doctor tell me they had found something on my ovary, something that needed to be evaluated further. My heart sank. My stomach twisted. My mind went to all the things that would need to change in my life if cancer was the diagnosis. "Having it all" battled with "having a life" as the seemingly "not possible" became a possibility.

I found out about the cyst on a Friday morning. I went for an MRI on Tuesday, still coughing from the pneumonia and hoping that I could mind-control my lungs for the 45 minute tests. For those who haven't had an MRI, the technician has one rule: don't move. Movement makes the images unreadable. I made it through the tests, and then I began waiting for the phone call.

For three days I waited, my stomach in knots, my phone my enemy. Due to several unfortunate coincidences, I was not able to track down the results until Friday morning, when I received good news that ruled out ovarian cancer. I'm still investigating the cause of pain that sent me to the doctor in the first place, but my family and I are breathing easier.

It was a rough week for me, but also for my husband, who was solid support for me, and for my mom, who came to help with the nanny transition (did I mention I had a new nanny starting this very week?) and making all house-related stress disappear, and for my dad and brother, who must have felt very much on the outside but very much invested in the outcome. I'm tearing up now as I think about their own fear and grief, which they never once let me see.

This brick that hit me, the possibility of being really sick, of having to give up some of the things that make me tick, caused me to evaluate all the stresses in my life. Being "pneumonia-quality" sick at the same time inspired me to make some changes. My body is telling me something, and I need to listen.

I try to impress upon my doctoral students that a researcher's greatest resource is herself, her time and energy. Researchers must constantly assess the level of this resource, balancing the needs of the study with the needs of the individual. I am currently doing this life audit, and I'll be rebalancing twinlife on the tenure track. Most of all, I want to start listening to the whispers and avoid the pain of a brick in the future.