It’s hard to find a balance in a family. Where does one person’s wants or needs end and another’s begin? How much should we, as parents, revolve our lives around our children’s desires and when should we pursue our own passions? There are no easy answers, for sure.
My friend, Melissa Banigan, who blogs at Break out of Bushwick, came face-to-face with that balance when her dream of traveling long term with her daughter was challenged by circumstances she had never considered. Here’s her story:
I’ve heard a lot of people say that having children holds people back from following their dreams. That creativity is replaced with responsibility, projects are put on hold and travel is indefinitely taken off the ‘map’.
Call me crazy, but my viewpoint is different.
From day 1, my daughter has motivated me to become a better person, to push the proverbial envelope of life. Immediately after giving birth to my sweet girl, I went back to college. In my eyes, having a degree wasn’t only going to arm me with more opportunities, it would someday be something my daughter could partially take credit for (after all, she was there for a lot of it!), inspiring her to also be goal-oriented and risk-taking.
When my girl was not even two, I transferred from a small liberal arts college in the Midwest to an Ivy League in New York. The next years weren’t easy – in fact, they sometimes were so overwhelmingly lonely and difficult that I had bouts of insomnia and panic attacks. But I made it work. I HAD to make it work.
And you know what? Looking back, I remember those first few years in New York as some of the best and most exciting times of my life. Despite the loneliness of late-night single parenting and bill-crunching (I don’t get child support, which made life… interesting), my daughter and I met unbelievably creative and talented people and found unexpected mentors, all of whom drove me to work even harder.
I feel as though I’ve had many different lives in New York. I worked a miserable job in finance just to pay the bills and shouldered a demanding gig in education. I created a ridiculously unprofitable design company (not my ultimate passion), finished my first novel, had a couple of art shows and delved into community work. My daughter was there with me…
Except when she wasn’t.
See, as a single mom, my various jobs kept me away from my daughter for enormous stretches of the day. There were often days when I had to leave before she woke, and returned home right before she went to bed. I became (understandably!) depressed.
The decision to change
A year and a half ago, I decided to change our lives. It started with repositioning my goals to work for my family, which was a huge shift from trying to just worm them into our insane schedules. These are the goals I came up with:
- Be with my daughter as much as possible.
- Work from home and develop my own location-independent business.
- Spend long hours crafting my fiction writing.
For the first time in years, my daughter and I were truly happy. We started homeschooling, which for us became a splendid combination of attending a neighborhood co-op school, taking a science class at the Natural History Museum and following our interests. I say “our” because my daughter’s education isn’t solely child-led. We take into account both of our passions. This is crucial. For example, my girl loves chemistry, so we devour books about the elements, conduct science experiments and fit in as many labs as possible.
I, on the other hand, as both a writer and art historian (this is what I went to school for), love exploring history by studying visual arts. It is expected in my home that my daughter will match my enthusiasm towards her projects as we work on the things that I find most interesting. The result? We’re both learning unexpected, amazing things each and every day. And the best part is that we’re doing it together.
I’ve followed through on the rest of my goals, too. I developed a writing, editing and business development company, and, while I still work long hours, my schedule belongs to me, which means I can wrap my work around my life (instead of the other way around!).
Sounds simple, right, coming up with just a few goals? Wrong.
It took me serious soul-searching to figure out the few things that would make my family happy. Following my dreams meant leaving the supposed safety net of the norm. I realized right away that I needed to be held accountable for following through on my choices, so I started writing a little blog called Break Out of Bushwick, which chronicles, among other things, my small family’s adventures in travel-planning, homeschooling and public education. I’m so glad to have done this, as I’ve built such a great support system of like-minded, motivating people. (Note to everyone on the planet: FORM COMMUNITIES!).
The plan in action
This past summer, after our year of planning, my daughter and I set out for a two-month trip to Europe, with the idea that we’d return to New York and stay long enough to get rid of our belongings and get back on the road. Initially, the idea was to travel for at least a year, probably two, possibly longer.
So that this would be sustainable, the clients I took for my work would allow me to work from anywhere in the world. I was getting things in order, downsizing, scouting locations for where we might want to live. I was ready – more than ready – to leave New York.
Life, however, is full of surprises.
Last spring, my daughter applied for a music program in Manhattan, and, once finding out that she had received a four-year cello scholarship, was once again firmly attached to New York. We found out about her acceptance just days before we left for our trip.
I have to admit, I was completely thrown for a loop. In my mind, there was no question we’d stay in Brooklyn, yet I was so attached to the idea of leaving. See, the danger in setting strident goals is in not wanting to adjust them! Clearly, I had attachment issues.
To top all of this off, my daughter told me that she wanted to start her own business in skin care. The idea completely threw me for a loop. After all, what the heck did my daughter know about running a business? Did I really have it in me to devote a lot of my time in helping her realize this dream?
Were we seriously going to exchange our travel dreams for a more stationary life?
Wait a minute, I wrote: “OUR travel dreams…” It seemed that only one member of my small family was still holding onto the dream of long-term travel. Oops!
The new plan
Relationships – at least the successful ones – especially ones that involve a child, must take into account the fact that family priorities are ever-shifting. To help my daughter follow her dreams, I needed to adjust (but not ax) mine.
While on our two-month travels to Europe this summer, I came up with a new list of goals. You’ll note that two out of five of the goals are identical to those in my last list:
- Be with my daughter as much as possible.
- Spend long hours crafting my fiction writing.
- Help my daughter develop a financially sustainable skincare business while still working on my writing/editing/business management gig.
- Travel all summer, every summer.
- Ensure that I am always supportive of my kid’s cello practice sessions, no matter how grating those sessions sound, and attend every single one of her concerts.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m no saint. I get grumpy, I swear like a sailor and I have days during which I wonder what the f*&king hell I’m doing. I have moments when I take things out on my kid. And then I have those wretched moments when I grovel for her forgiveness with my tail between my legs.
I occasionally daydream about living on a beach in Thailand. But then I shake these off these feelings and remember that Thailand will probably still be there in six or seven years. Who knows, I might not even want to be in Southeast Asia at that point in my life!
Living in the now – RIGHT NOW – is pretty darn fun.
Sticking to my family-minded goals, and modifying them as needed, helps me make the most out of both of our lives.
Every day is exciting. The best part is that, even with long-term travel off the table, I personally chose each and every single one of the goals I set.
I interpret the course of my life. I take responsibility for my own happiness. I am adaptable and have a proven track-record at being the sort of modifying mama my kid deserves… I also go, as they say, with the flow (hey, a little “zen” never hurt anyone, even for a planner like myself).
A life more settled
After our amazing, mind-opening summer in Europe, we returned to New York. Instead of a brief hiatus before leaving again to winter in Thailand, we settled back into Brooklyn life and got to work on OUR skincare business, Paloma & Co. LLC. We’ve developed three amazing lines of products, have an online store, and will even be selling our lines in a couple brick and mortar retail stores starting early November.
My daughter is learning about pH, acids, bases, the human body, business, how to pitch ideas, successfully communicate her visions, convert measurements, money management, and how to meet timelines. While she works on all of that, I, apparently, am learning a lot about how to take the bull by the horns and constantly reinvent myself as an even better mom. I’ll be happy to discuss this all with you further from my little corner of Brooklyn or while sipping a Pisco Sour in Peru, where we plan to spend Summer, 2013 (unless life throws us another loop!).
Live boldly, live broadly and OWN YOUR OWN CHANGE. This is the mantra I try to tell myself each and every day.