Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Goddamn Mayonnaise Jar

You know that little gimmicky demonstration where a person takes a mayonnaise jar and puts in some golf ball or rocks that are supposed to represent the big things in life, like your family and friends and health? And then they add pebbles to represent your job and house and car, and then sand, which is all the "little things," and finally they pour in some coffee to point out that you need to fill your time with the big things first, but that you'll always have time for a cup of coffee with a friend? You know the one, right?

I hate that thing.

I like to think that I have my priorities straight. First, above anything else, is my family: my sons Bean and Teeny and my husband. Next is my career; not so much the fact of being a physician but the dedication I feel to my patients given the privilege that it is to care for them. And I know that it's also important to take care of myself, both because I deserve it and because it allows me to do my very best at caring for others. And below that, though still important, are the things I need to take care of to keep our lives running: paying the bills, working on my research for my fellowship, doing the laundry. 

But I also like to think that I'm an excellent time manager and multitasker. I have lists. I have reminders. I can take home call while folding laundry and feeding my little men, provided they cooperate by using their inside voices. In our house, my husband and I have a saying for being super-duper-productive: Getting Shit Done, or GSD. And I, hands down, am the master of it. 

Except that lately I've been having that feeling in the pit of my stomach, the one that tells me there's not exactly a crisis looming, but there is something - or multiple things - that need some adjustments. And it's going to keep nagging at me until I stop and pay attention.

I'm doing a good job at work. I feel connected to my husband and we're honest with each other when things need work. My boys are thriving. Sure, there are moments of frustration, like when I see firsthand why threenagers get such a bad rap, or when Teeny decides that, despite being nearly a year old, he really would prefer to nurse multiple times overnight. And it's not like everything else is going off the rails - the bills get paid, the house gets cleaned (sort of... and with help), and we get together with friends and even have the occasional, not-frequent-enough-but-still-happening date night.

But maintaining things at this current, pretty-good level requires that nothing comes up. No hiccups in our home renovation (because, oh yeah, we're doing that, too). No accidentally backing into a recycling bin because I'm extra exhausted from all of the overnight nursing and then needing to get the car repaired. No last-minute plans with friends who suddenly are in town or have the evening free or some combination thereof. Because, yay!, but also, ugh.

For much of my life, certainly as long as I have been managing my own time, I have tried to cram and wedge as many things into my life as possible. In high school, I convinced my music teacher to let me leave rehearsals a bit early and my track coach to let me show up at practice a bit late so that I could play in the pit orchestra for the school musical and continue to compete with the track team despite their conflicting schedules. I did it for three years in a row, right through my graduation. And I could never really figure out why I always felt pulled in multiple directions without ever feeling fulfilled or like I was achieving my potential in any of the things I did.

Because here's the thing: the common denominator among every single particle in that jar, or the thing that each particle stands for, is that it has the potential to expand. And no matter what, the expansion of even one of these things means that the rest get pushed and squeezed into ever smaller bits of space until it seems they might never recover or the entire jar just might explode. You finish a long day in the ICU and look down to realize that your right lower leg is swollen and sore, and you know in your heart of hearts that even though it means asking the nanny to stay late and missing your baby's bedtime, you - especially in your postpartum state - need to go rule out a DVT. You buy your first house and as you begin to make the small tweaks you had planned, you discover what a fixer-upper it truly is and how many months of work lie ahead before it is truly inhabitable. You get called into work to cover for a colleague who has lost a loved one or is experiencing a crisis of their own.

And in the same way, the beautiful parts can expand, too. Your normally wiggly little boys decide that on this Sunday morning they are content to lounge in bed with Mom and Dad, tickling, giggling, and nuzzling. Your dad joins you in the other room, ostensibly to help you wrap gifts for your son's birthday, and the two of you have the most honest, heartfelt talk that you've ever shared about your mom's mounting health problems. Your nearly-one-year-old son falls fast asleep in your arms and you just sit in his dark room rocking him, gazing at the curve of his cheeks and the wispy tendrils that curl at the nape of his neck.

A meeting is postponed and you happen to have your laptop and no impending deadlines, so you sit and you think and you write.

This is where the mayonnaise jar falls short. The golf balls and pebbles and grains of sand don't change size, so you can keep adding and adding as long as there is space in the jar. But real life is far more dynamic.

Probably because I work in hospice care and do my best to ease people through the end of life, I spend a lot of time considering what I'd want to do at the end. Recently during my drive home, my mind wandered to the question of what, if I died today, I would regret not having done more of. And immediately answers sprang to mind: Yoga. Reading. Cuddling my boys. Late-night talks with my husband. But these are the things I do so little of lately. The things that always get pushed to the bottom, into the crevices, when everything else expands. And no amount of savvy scheduling or multi-tasking is going to stop that from happening.

I need to make room for these things. Make room for them to expand on the wonderful occasions when they do, and make room to buffer and protect them when the other parts start growing. I've tried for years - decades, if I'm honest - to stuff my jar with as many things as I could jam and pour in, then white-knuckled it to keep it all from exploding out each time any one of them began to expand. And something will always expand.

What all of this boils down to is a bunch of cliches. To be more present. To learn to say no to some things to allow room for others. To prioritize the things that are most important. None of which is earth-shattering. But thinking of my life as the mayonnaise jar into which I have tried to stuff every last particle and drop of hey it would be nice to and well maybe I can make that work has given me a framework that makes it easier for me to begin to change. So I have shaken a few of those less important pebbles out. And, for now at least, I'm keeping the cap on my jar.


  1. Ooooh I really like this post. The title grabbed me. I feel what you're saying. I think we all need to stop and reflect about that- If we died today, what would we regret. I highly doubt anyone would regret not working more. But these kids, as everyone seems to tell me all the time, will only be little once...

    1. Thank you! I posted a link to this on another mom-doctor-writer group I am part of and got some flak for the title. I honestly didn't even think about it - it's just exactly how I feel! Glad it had a different effect on you.

  2. Thoughtful and thought-provoking post. Never even heard of that jar analogy before, but mine is definitely getting very full. Bigger jar? Keep it open to let some little things fall out?

  3. Fabulous title, fabulous post. If you don't make room for you, there is no room for anything. Believe it or not, I miss those middle of the night nursings. It's there, and it's too damn much, and then it goes away, and you miss the hell out of it. Try to cherish. We only live once.

  4. You have to decide whether you're going to be the person who lives their life on the brink of chaos every day, always flooring the accelerator, or the person who chooses things more deliberately, savoring things more as you move through life, but maybe doing less overall. I like being the second kind of person more, and constantly "flooring it" makes me exhausted, but some people really seem to thrive on being the first kind of person. I think both approaches have merit!


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