She Can Still Be a Doctor – Sage Advice I Return to Often

When my daughter was born life turned upside down – literally. Delivery required far more medical intervention than I had expected and my vision of motherhood – rocking a contented baby, having hours just melt away while I watched her delicate little features in sweet slumber – couldn’t have been further from reality.

I’d pour a bowl of cereal at 8 AM and, if I was lucky, eat it by noon. The first few months were a haze of sleepless nights and days filled with tears (hers and mine) while we navigated infections, colic, and endless feeding challenges.

The biggest sticking point: I’d always planned to nurse my children. It was healthy, economical, convenient. It was also what a good mother would do. Not only did I want to do it, I was inundated by messaging that encouraged, championed, and elevated this aspect of mothering. I was also surrounded by mothers that could do it. Baby-hour at the library was basically a lesson in how to feed and nurture your little one naturally; you could find me wallowing in a corner covertly wielding a bottle.

I dealt with these things – as one does – by cycling through stages of denial, anger, depression, and pseudo acceptance (there wasn’t much bargaining to do; she was 2 months old after all). I researched techniques, bought supplements, and consulted experts, before officially conceding defeat.

Spoiler alert: she got older, things got easier. By 9 months she was pure joy – full of all the spunk and personality we cherish today; happy and chubby and practically perfect in every way. Though the crying was behind us, guilt lingered. And then a new friend entered my life and managed to shift my entire perspective with one sentence.

This friend and I were out for an evening walk. Somehow I had circled back to discussions of feeling less-than because of my inability to naturally deliver and feed my (now toddler) daughter. This friend paused for a minute and said, wisely: “You know, Elisabeth, she can still be a doctor.”

What she meant – and what I needed to hear – was that the future was unwritten. The unexpected complications of the past, which were completely out of my control, didn’t mean my daughter was doomed to a life of illness, missed opportunities, and continual disadvantages. No. If she wanted, she could still be a doctor. Or a stay-at-home mother. Or a physicist. Or an artist. Or anything else her determined self wants to pursue.

When my son was born several years later, I met with a lactation consultant, did all the right things, and gave it my all for a week. When the nurse told me, gently, it simply wasn’t working…I cried. It was sad and hard and disappointing. But, I also knew: he can still be a doctor. Or a pro-surfer. Or an electrician. Or a teacher, or a financial analyst, or a stay-at-home dad, or a playwright. The sky is the limit. It really is – after all, he could be an astronaut.

Don’t Quote Me: What Would This Look Like If It Were Easy?

Sometimes I think I’m my own worst enemy. I’m my own worst enemy. If there is a way to complicate a situation, I will find it.

For many of us, the majority of our time is focussed on maximizing – a situation, financial expenditures, time. Indeed, for some, life has become one giant experiment constantly being tinkered with as we’re coached to improve, iterate, and embrace the challenge. We channel our inner Sheryl Sandberg and “lean-in.” If life doesn’t feel overwhelming, surely we’re doing something wrong?

The “easy” way can seem like a trap.

For example, I’ll follow a mental path that goes a little something like this: “If I give feed the kids cereal for supper one night…then I’ll become someone who feeds my kids cereal for supper every night.” Intellectually I know that’s false. My kids eat cereal for supper a handful of times each year; far too infrequently, I’m sure they would claim. They do not spontaneously combust these evenings. They do not wake in the night complaining of hunger pains. Child services does not knock on my door and declare me an unfit mother. In short, the kids are just fine. Literally nothing bad happens.

Self-discipline and hard work are great, and I’m not advocating for laziness, but sometimes we just need to cut ourselves some slack. Several years ago I read Tim Ferris’ Tribe of Mentors. It’s a compilation of “wisdom” from a broad cross-section of creative, entrepreneurial and athletic types. The quote that stuck in my psyche:

What would this look like if it were easy?

Tim Ferris

While the quote had more to do with existential questions of purpose, trajectory and, for Tim Ferris, a self-declared mid-life crisis, I think there is reason to apply this principle to smaller aspects of daily life. I can ask myself – would it make my life easier if I:

  • Put on a movie when I’m rushing to meet a work deadline and the kids are climbing the walls (mine literally do this, in the hallway, and find it quite a lark to touch the ceiling)?
  • Had everyone use the same shampoo and toothpaste to make shopping, organization and general hygiene more convenient?
  • Put the clothes in the dryer instead of hanging them on the line to dry?
  • Served supper on paper plates, made the dinner party a potluck, or ordered in take-out for Thanksgiving dinner?
  • Said no to that evening meeting that could be handled via e-mail in the morning?
  • Bought everyone on my Christmas list the same gift (instead of brainstorming and shopping for hours to find a different “perfect” gift for everyone)?

Or what if I: hired someone to deep-clean my house before company arrived for the holidays, started working from home every Friday, upgraded my computer to a 3-monitor setup, or made a single recipe for my lunches all week. Easier doesn’t mean lazy; a 3-monitor setup will make me more productive and efficient. I like the word “easy” because it feels more whimsical – and less clinical – than some terminology often associated with productivity.

An important step toward finding an easier way: identifying the problem – whether that’s a mid-life crisis, a long commute, or the frustration of having six different shampoo bottles in the shower.

When I wanted to start a website, I was overwhelmed with options. Platforms, aesthetics, hosting, fonts.

Question: What would this look like if it were easy? Answer: Having someone I already know and trust take the lead on the project.

Minutes later I had a software developer I’ve been working with for almost a decade agree to get things off the ground for me. No research, no struggling to do things all by myself.

Life is overwhelming. Sometimes it’s important to embrace the challenge, push ourselves to excel, and expect more from ourselves. A willingness to embrace those qualities is how my husband and I co-founded two businesses and why I received research scholarships and completed a Master’s degree. It’s why I take the time to cook most meals from scratch and why I don’t feed my kids cereal for supper every night. But, sometimes we can avoid unnecessary worry and stress by asking: What would this look like if it were easy? The answers might be surprising.

But don’t quote me.

Productivity Hack: Find Your Reset Button(s)

If you’re stagnating with work, trying to (productively) fill a short window of time before you leave the house, or just want to feel refreshed, it’s helpful to have a go-to task (or tasks in my case) that serve as a purposeful reset.

I’ve settled on a trio of related activities: using the washroom, brushing my teeth, and refilling my water bottle. It feels productive and healthy; plus, brushing my teeth with mint toothpaste is refreshing and gives a little boost to my mood and energy levels. 

If that reset doesn’t hit the mark, what about:

  • lighting a candle
  • walking around the block
  • doing a few minutes of deep breathing exercises
  • watering/pruning your potted plants
  • making a cup of coffee or herbal tea
  • doing a minute each of a: wall sit, plank, and child’s pose
  • reading a few pages from a book of poetry
  • texting a friend
  • writing in a journal
  • sweeping the floor or wiping down bathroom counters

I’ll run through this reset before I head out the door to do errands, between meetings, when I’ve hit a mid-afternoon slump, or when it’s time to meet the kids at the bus stop. In addition to giving me a break from responsibilities and clearly marking transition points in the day, once I’ve taken care of these basic maintenance/self-care tasks, I’m less likely to need to interrupt future work or leisure activities. I won’t frantically have to look for a washroom at the grocery store or wonder if I have spinach in my teeth during that pitch to investors.

And drinking more water, well, that’s rarely a bad thing.

Here’s A Thought: Give Yourself the Gift of Time

Ask people what they want more of and you’re likely to get one of two answers: time or money. These two resources, often inextricably linked, are among what we value most in life. Time, in particular, always seems in short supply.

  • “I’d love to join my friends on that weekend getaway, but I haven’t got enough time.”
  • “I sure wish I’d had the time to keep up with guitar lessons. “
  • “I want to start exercising regularly…but I don’t have space in my schedule.”
  • “Taking that night class would expedite my promotion, but there aren’t enough hours in the day.”

True enough, time is finite. From the minute our feet hit the floor in the morning, it seems we’re in a desperate race with the clock hands. We eat in our cars during the morning commute to save time. We order groceries online to avoid inefficient lines. We make a week’s worth of lunchboxes on Sunday afternoon to expedite our mornings. There is no shortage of hacks, tweaks, and tricks to squeeze “more” into less time.

Last week I wrote about buffer: too often I try to cram too many things into too narrow a timeframe which leaves me feeling rushed and anxious.

But what about when I do have a buffer.

In reality, there are many days when my timeline is flexible. What about when, with the help of time management strategies, or by simply eliminating unnecessary tasks, I’ve managed to carve out that elusive white space? This flex-time is only an asset – and worth the time expenditure to secure it – if I end up using it.

Perhaps it’s because I’m so used to that undercurrent of time-related anxiety that I end up checking the clock (and trying to maximize every second), even when there’s no need.

It seems I’d do well to ask: Is there a reason I’m rushing?

And, if not: Can I give myself the gift of time?

Summer marks the start of sandal season which means one thing: nail polish. Last year’s options were looking pretty stale, and I was on the hunt for a perfect (well, good enough) pale pink. Crouched in the pharmacy aisle I was overwhelmed by options, oddly reminiscent of my experience in the toothpaste aisle. With dozens of pinks to choose from, many of them pale, I could feel the anxiety building. I could also sense myself heeding the chiding voice of my inner clock: “You’re spending too much time on this, Elisabeth.” Eventually, I walked away feeling I’d wasted more than enough time debating the merits of Rose Petal vs Pink Cloud (did I want peach undertones or white?).

But I had nowhere I needed to go. I had more than enough time, so I circled back around the aisle and looked at more options. While I didn’t end up buying anything,* it ended up being a fun – unrushed – 15 minutes.

Maybe you can read that second bedtime story after all. Perhaps there is enough time to linger in that phone conversation with your Grandma. Or, just maybe, you’ll spend your extra time considering every hue of pink nail polish in the pharmacy display. If you can – and do – you’ve just given yourself the gift of time.

*I went back the next day and came home with Pink Pursuit; one family member, who shall remain nameless, take one look and told me it looked like I painted my nails with WhiteOut. Hmmm. A bit too pale, perhaps?

Casual Friday + Love of the Week

  • In-person schooling resumed this week in Nova Scotia. The announcement came on my birthday – best gift ever. Online learning was doable but not ideal for our family, so it was a huge relief to see the kids able to safely return to their teachers and friends to finish out the school year.
  • Last week I mentioned feeling like I needed to take a break from new books. It is a combination of information overwhelm plus the (admittedly first-world) stress of managing library due dates and prioritizing what book to read next – all while in the midst of a COVID lockdown. A few days ago I stumbled upon a set of digital Morning Pages I wrote in June 2019. I opened a day at random (I know Julia Cameron discourages re-reading, but I think I get a pass since it’s been 2 years; I also do them digitally so I’m basically a full-blown heretic anyway), and read the following: “I’ve tried to cut back on book-reading. Practically, it hasn’t meant much, but I’ve not ordered in any books for myself this week (even though lots have arrived), and I’m just going to let things come in as they do and not constantly be trying to read/learn. I feel like I can attack things full-tilt in the fall again if I want to. For now, as odd and sad as it sounds, I want to watch more mindless TV.” I’m sensing an annual pattern? Bleak Canadian midwinter = give me all the books. Short, glorious Canadian summer = give me all the Vitamin D. Once the current stack is complete (currently loving The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman – how have I not read this before?), it will be back to old favourites from my bookshelf for the summer.
  • We are officially a Rubix cube family. While it warms a Mama’s heart to see her crew deep so deep in game-centric thought (see picture above; he sat on the couch for ages, mumbling moves to himself), it is making bedtimes and breakfast more of a gong show. I had two kids at the kitchen table tackling Rubix cubes this morning while their father worked on one nearby; I had to remind them to eat and we barely made it out the door in time, but I guess as obsessions go, it could be much worse. Funny aside: one day Levi was working on a cube with some friends and came racing inside to announce he had solved it in its entirety! Turns out our mischievous little scallywag had just pulled the blocks off and rearranged them manually. It was good for a laugh; he can, consistently, get 2-3 sides completed sans “cheating”.

Love of the week. Nate Bargatze specials. Comedy preferences vary so much and I guess his brand of humour could fall flat with some viewers?! But in my family, his routines are pure comedic gold. My husband and I quote some memorable line from one of his specials almost daily. Not only is he relatable, but his clean (you can watch these with the kids), deadpan standup persona is just…hilarious. I’d recommend watching the specials in order: his first (<30-minute) routine in The Standups series followed by his two specials: The Tennesee Kid and The Greatest Average American, the latter of which was released during COVID.

Why You Might Consider Taking a Wallet Inventory

Although it’s been well over a decade, I remember it like it was yesterday – the building panic we felt when my now-husband misplaced his wallet. The missing cash almost seemed immaterial; it was more horrifying to consider the hours that would be required to cancel, renew and otherwise deal with the logistics of replacing a handful of lost plastic. After searching high and low (literally), it surfaced in a crevice of my niece’s car seat after almost 24 hours of frantic hunting.

It’s never fun to anticipate the loss of a wallet (or any personal effects for that matter; it’s rare for the loss of one’s luggage to end up as a vacation highlight), so we tend to ignore the distinct possibility it will, someday, happen to us.

Why not spend 10 minutes each year creating a quick inventory? Top priorities – the numbers for:

  • Credit and bank cards (and the phone number(s) you need to call to cancel them) + expiration dates
  • Frequent flyer accounts, library and loyalty cards
  • Health insurance information, social insurance numbers, drivers license details + expiration dates
  • Don’t forget to include any information you might be storing for your children – immunization records, birth certificates (although these shouldn’t be in your wallet to begin with!), medical cards

If you’re feeling extra ambitious (which of course you will after being so proactive in sorting through your physical wallet), you can take this exercise one step further and make sure you have a record of important login details for anything you access digitally. Keep a record of user names AND passwords for items like:

  • Insurance accounts (medical, house, auto)
  • Banking and credit cards
  • Loyalty programs (Costco, Target) and e-commerce accounts (Amazon, eBay, Etsy)
  • Online gaming profiles and apps (Headspace, MyFitness Pal, Candy Crush Saga)
  • Entertainment and news (Netflix, Disney+, The Economist)
  • Operating system accounts; Apple/Microsoft ID’s
  • University, work or personal e-mail accounts
  • Professional services (DropBox, Slack, OneDrive)
  • Government website information (taxes, employment insurance)
  • Obscure websites you access rarely (the online print shop you use for annual photobooks, the payment portal for your son’s summer soccer league).

Other important information to consider having on hand:

  • Serial numbers for digital devices (tablets, laptops, smartphones)
  • Passport, social insurance, and birth certificate numbers

Not only will having this information easily accessible reduce the time required to access online resources, it also makes it easier to quell issues related to identify theft, password breaches, and other digital equivalents to losing a wallet.

Finally – deciding where to store this information. Keeping records of this information digitally can seem risky, though there are lots of options, from Google’s Password Manager to a variety paid apps. I’d also suggest printing off a hardcopy and keeping it in a fireproof safe or locked filing cabinet for easy reference, updating it annually or as any major changes occur (switch in insurance providers, new credit cards).

Overall, the time investment should be relatively small. Maybe you’ll have to go through the password retrieval process on a handful of accounts, but if you batch the task (maybe combine it with an evening of Parks and Rec re-runs?) it really won’t be that bad.

Don’t Quote Me: Eventually, You Can Learn to Avoid the Hole

The first movie my now-husband and I ever watched together was Groundhog Day. In the film, Bill Murray’s character – crotchety weatherman Phil Conners – ends up trapped in a frustrating time loop. He wakes up each day to find himself reliving the previous day. Over and over and over.

At first he’s frantic, then furious (he tries increasingly drastic steps to prematurely end the day), before ending up resigned (stuffing himself with cake and guzzling coffee straight from the pot) to his fate. But, eventually, he redeems the situation by using his unique advantage to exchange cynicism and anger for compassion and love.

One of the most hilarious scenes is his interaction with Ned Ryerson (played by Stephen Tobolowsky). Phil wants to avoid Ned at all costs and ends up walking into a puddle filled with slush, which doesn’t help his already bad mood. But by the end of the movie not only does he interact with Ned cheerfully – remember, he encounters Ned day after day after day – he learns to avoid the puddle. (Watching the scene helps put it in context, starting around the 1.50 mark).

Several years ago I read Portia Nelson’s Autobiography in Five Chapters for the first time. We’ve all experienced the frustration of a seemingly endless loop of bad habits or self-perpetuating mistakes. But we’ve likely also found ourselves redeeming them; learning from them and learning to avoid them.

As a “quote” it’s a pretty long one, but worth every word.

Chapter I

I walk down the street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk

I fall in.

I am lost…

I am hopeless.

It isn’t my fault.

It takes forever to find a way out.

Chapter II

I walk down the same street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I pretend I don’t see it.

I fall in again.

I can’t believe I’m in the same place.

But it isn’t my fault.

It still takes a long time to get out.

Chapter III

I walk down the same street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I see it is there.

I still fall in…it’s a habit

My eyes are open; I know where I am;

It is my fault.

I get out immediately.

Chapter IV

I walk down the same street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I walk around it.

Chapter V

I walk down another street.

Autobiography in Five Chapters – Portia Nelson

In life, there will always be holes – and there will always be other streets. But don’t quote me.

A Decision Hack: Copy Someone Else

I’m a maximizer. This means I tend to overcomplicate, overthink (and over-regret) decisions. A friend once told me “Good enough is good enough.” They are clearly a satisficer.

If there is a way to go from good to great, sign me up.

Ask me to pick out a pair of new running shoes and I might just break out in hives. That’s why I wear my sneakers until they’re threadbare and falling apart at the seams – literally. There are so many brands to consider (and forget simply re-buying old favourites; anytime I find a brand and style combo I love, the company changes the make and feel of said product).

Price point? Colour palate? Should I buy them online or in-store? What if I buy them and after a month they start giving me blisters – I won’t be able to return them and just think of all that money wasted! Wait – my sister just texted to ask if I’ve considered heel-to-toe drop. Never heard of it. Guess that sends me back to the drawing board.

And don’t get me started on paint colours.

A few years ago we needed to get our basement repainted. I had debated, looked at swatches, visited numerous paint stores (over a series of months), scoured the internet, finally settled on a colour, found a contractor and ordered the paint. When the first wall was finished and dry, the painter called me downstairs to see it. “What do you think?” he asked.

All I could muster in response: “It’s purple.” The pale gray colour I had lovingly agonized over for hours, was actually purple in disguise.

Decisions can be tough, especially if we already have Type-A, perfectionist qualities. But often we’re reinventing the proverbial wheel.

  • Does your running partner rave about their shoes? Why not try them the next time you’re in the market for a pair. (Note to self: heed my own advice).
  • Going to visit a new city and overwhelmed; ask friends and family for their top recommendations for dining, accommodations and destinations. Chances are you’ll get the highlight reel without having to slog through a full-length feature. My family does this every time we travel, and love to return the favour.
  • Have a friend who can’t stop raving about the company where he’s interning for the summer; might be worth storing those details away for the next time you’re on the job hunt.
  • Want to upgrade your stereo equipment. Ask that audiophile-friend what they have, where they got it, and if they’d buy it again.
  • Going to a restaurant and overwhelmed by the choices. If you’re meeting someone who eats there all the time, ask for their recommendation. Flying solo? Ask the waiter – it should be palatable at least.
  • Debating which elective English course to take at university. Poll your upper-year friends to get their take.

Most of the time people love to share their insights – good and bad. From complaints about a company’s customer service, to the wonders of their new mattress, or what restaurant knocked their socks off.

Sometimes research is fun. Sometimes research is necessary. And sometimes you can rely on other people’s research to reduce your own decision fatigue. Most of the time what someone else has decided will work well enough for you too – or at least be good enough.

Life is short and there are no end of decisions to be made; let’s not make more of them than we have to.

And if you’re ever in the market for gray walls with purple undertones, have I got a great paint colour for you.