“This fall, our youngest starts first grade, so all three kids will be in elementary school. I’m starting to think about Life After Children, or maybe just Life After Summer Vacation. It’s as chaotic as ever, but somehow the kids need me less. They’re more off on their own, my husband and I go to work each day, and we are all so busy. There is so much to do! I’m totally taken up with mom/worker/wife. When things are quiet for a minute I sometimes ask myself ‘Is this it? Is this the point?'”

It sounds like you are feeling the stresses of multiple commitments. All tug at you, so that you can never take care of any single one as much as you would like.

You seem to be serving many masters! Is it fair to ask, When do you serve yourself? When and how do being a mom or worker or wife serve you?

You speak of yourself in an interesting way: as a role (“mom/worker/wife”), defined by what you do, not what you are. From schlepping kids to doing laundry, getting to work and doing your job to keeping a relationship alive with your husband, it sounds like your attention and energy is taken up by external tasks.

And as it turns out, much of what you do is to serve the needs of others.

Thus it’s a double whammy: thinking of yourself as a do-er as well as the nature of your doing may draw you away from the core of your own being, your own interests and goals. It can be hard to experience having a life of your own.

That’s how most of us think of ourselves, not just moms or workers or wives, but it needn’t be that way.

We tend to do so that we can be: I’ll work so I can relax. Unfortunately, doingdoingdoing, the endless task orientation, can take over our lives and somehow become an end in itself. We become mainly an “accomplisher” of tasks, rather than an “enjoyer” of living.

It’s easy to see in those “other people” zipping along 101, with their tired, pinched faces and looks of concern. Maybe they’re driving a nice car, but they aren’t having much fun. Are they looking at us and seeing the same thing?

To be sure there is honor in doing, especially the self-sacrificing doing you have dedicated yourself toward. And one can experience being in the act of doing, like the mindfulness of monks as they break bread or work in their garden. Yet the demands of doing can be overwhelming, especially in Marin: the need for income and effort is intense, the typical life feels (and is) fragmented, and there is a high standard of competence and success that most try to meet.

So what can we do? Oops, wrong question: So what can we be?

  • Understand the seductions of “doing.” They are like the water in which the fish swims, who doesn’t know she is wet. Be vigilant and clear-eyed. Your own habits and the appreciation of others will draw you unwittingly into details and tasks again and again.
  • Ask others to do more for themselves. This can be hard if our self-worth is based in large part on what we do for others. Remind yourself that when you are looking back, toward the end of your lifespan, the measure of your life will be much more who you have been, for yourself and others, than what you have done. Try risking being more of a benign and loving presence, a humorous and supportive observer, and let others do more of the problem-solving and task-accomplishment. Notice your worth to others as who you are rather than as what you do.
  • Experiment with not-knowing. Our doing is based on our expectations and beliefs: what we think we know. Not-knowing is not stupidity. It is the scientist’s attitude of skepticism and reserved judgment. It is also the child’s attitude of wonder at a star or snail. See what your day is like when you try to assume nothing about it, and consider everything freshly, from the ground up. Maybe you don’t really know how your kids or husband or boss will react if you _______ (fill in the blank)! Getting a little distance betwen ourselves and what we “know” can be a tremendous relief.
  • Cultivate not-doing. Find a time each day, even a small one, when you sit quietly and simply be. Be aware of your thoughts and feelings without getting sucked into them. Let them come and go while you settle deeper and deeper into a deep, calm and simple awareness. With every breath release limited, task-oriented notions of yourself. Enjoy the sense of yourself as a fluid presence, a Be-ing, grounded in honesty, happiness and good will toward self and others. Try to carry this feeling with you throughout the day.

This could be a good time of change for you. You are in the middle of a small and great transition. The small one is the end of summer, and the large one is (Oh no!) mid-life. I will write more about transitions in another column. Here I will simply say that all transitions involve the breakdown of familiar structures and the creation of new ones. In that process there is much creative energy and opportunity for you have more of a life of your own.

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This is an article adapted from the book Mother Nurture (2002) by Rick Hanson, Ph.D., Jan Hanson, M.S. and Ricki Pollycove, M.D.