As a poet, I think of white space as letting the shape of words on a page give cadence to a poem.
As a mom, I think of white space as the blank smoothness of my calendar. Quiet time with a book. Snuggling with the kids. Being available for the varying needs of a busy household.
Seven years ago, when my oldest son, Collin, was in 5th grade, we had a talk about what we wanted life to look like. I remember that we were sitting in rush hour traffic, trying to get to downtown Oakland for one of my son’s activities. The night before we had rushed between baseball and clarinet lessons and spent a good amount of time in traffic then stayed up late doing homework. We were both exhausted and close to tears. It seemed like every day brought more stress, more things we had to do, more places we had to go.
I had already slowed down my more-than-hectic lifestyle after starting law school—law school and single parenting simply didn’t allow for extracurricular activities. But Collin still had things he wanted to do, so we did them. But while Collin enjoyed the activities, he didn’t enjoy the lifestyle we had. So that night, sitting in rush hour traffic in a little stretch of freeway that consistently ranks in the top five list of worst traffic in the US, he and I decided to make a drastic change: Collin would quit all activities but baseball, which was where his heart really was.
Our lives significantly improved after that. Collin missed some of the things he had done before, but he was able to focus more on schoolwork, baseball, and just hanging out and playing. He seldom got bored, and he was certainly happier and less stressed.
A similar situation presented itself 4 years ago when I was pregnant with my daughter, Rachel. I needed to decide if I wanted to rush around like crazy to get us all out the door in the morning, go to work, then come home exhausted and rush around again trying to get everyone fed and in bed.
After talking it over with my husband, we both agreed we didn’t want to live that way. I had done the soccer/baseball/music/gymnastics/work/school/community activities thing for 10 years, and although parts of it were fun, exciting, and fulfilling, I knew that wasn’t how I wanted life to be. I wanted white space on my calendar, time for reflection and peace, reading books and playing Scrabble. So, we decided I would leave my fulltime job behind.
I have ample white space on my calendar now, and some days (although it’s rare), I even have time to sit down in the middle of the day to read. Usually, though, even with all the white space I work so hard to create, we are often overwhelmed. This is the byproduct of living in a six-person household. There are 6 schedules to balance and work around, a husband who works nights, and at least 4 different dinner times for 6 different people. And I wonder, if I hadn’t made the choice to slow life down, where would we be now? What would life look like?
Today I spent a lot of time running back and forth, and in general had the type of day I tried so hard to put in the past. It wasn’t running the kids around, but was instead going back and forth between the pharmacy and the dentist’s office so my mom could have an emergency root canal.
I got stuck in traffic. I got cut off by rude drivers. I had to grab fast food for lunch then felt like a heart attack in waiting. My radio station wasn’t coming in, and during his 2.5 hours trapped in a car seat, the baby cried so hard that he vomited. Eight years ago, this would have felt normal. Easy, even. But after enjoying a more white-space lifestyle for so long, it felt…. horrid.
I checked in with my oldest son by phone around 6:30pm to see what time he would be home. I told him, “Tonight is the third night in a row I’m NOT making the roast. I didn’t get home until 6pm tonight so I can’t cook dinner.” And then the absurdity of that statement hit me: I didn’t get home until 6pm so I can’t cook dinner???
I laughed at myself and felt a number of things: grateful I’m able to have a slower pace of life (although it doesn’t always feel like it!), embarrassed at my inability to live at the pace I used to, shame for the same reason. The last two emotions are, of course, ridiculous. Most moms want to slow down. Whole libraries of how-to books are written on the topic. That said, there are also people who would be miserable if life weren’t chock full of activity. My sister is one of those people, I think, as is a friend of mine who I won’t name. Their calendars are overflowing and they love it that way. Then there are others, like another friend of mine I also won’t mention by name, who, to her dismay, lives a breakneck-speed life only because it isn’t feasible for her to do otherwise. Neither type of person is better or worse than the other. Each option is equally worthwhile. But both types don’t work for every person, nor do they work for every family.
To me our house often feels like a play…. the stage props (I’m including myself as a “prop”) stay the same, while the characters rotate around them. One kid comes in, one kid goes out. One kid sleeps, the other wakes up. One kid is sick, another one needs a ride. So in large part, for me it isn’t so much about what I want as it is about what my family needs. And what they need is a parent who can not just clear her calendar to make room for them, but instead have a clear calendar to be there for them.
Author’s note: Thanks to Michele Sbrana for helping me realize some mom out there may be interested in hearing about how to find more white space.