“You can have it all. You just can’t have it all at once.” -Oprah
My mom died unexpectedly a little over a year ago, on August 10, 2015.
Keeping a promise to my mom, as soon as we heard the news, my sister and I flew down and relocated my then 90-year-old father who is blind and suffers from Alzheimer’s from Florida to New York to live near my family. And so began one of the most challenging years of my life so far. A year that involved adding even more balls in the air to my constant juggling act involving my family, work and volunteer lives.
At the time of my mom’s death, I was about three quarters of the way through my term as President of the SLA NY chapter, working full time as a team leader in the Business Research Center at JP Morgan, and my husband and I had one son about to start 8th grade and one son about to start 11th grade in the fall (my oldest son was already in college).
At first I was in shock and overwhelmed. Luckily my sister was able to stay in New York for a few weeks, and together we came up with a plan of action that would be best for my dad, me, and my family. After the initial shock of my mom’s death faded, I focused on a quote from Oprah that has always resonated with me, “You can have it all. You just can’t have it all at once.”
That quote has guided my professional career growth and informed the balance between my professional, volunteer and personal lives. When my children were young, my priority was to be their primary caregiver; I worked part time, sacrificing the possibility of career advancement during that time. Faced with this unexpected situation, this quote resonated with me yet again. My first priority was towards my dad, my sons and my husband, but I was challenged to balance that priority alongside work and volunteer responsibilities. I took some time to reflect on my overall prioritization of family, work, and my commitment to the SLA NY chapter (in that order) as well as to think through my priorities within each of these areas. I sought out the advice of my family and friends who had been faced with similar situations.
For economic reasons, my job was my second priority after my family, but I knew that realistically it would be a while before I could devote the same amount of time to it as I had previously. I spoke to my manager and co-workers who would feel the most impact from me working fewer hours and explained to them that I would not be able to fulfill all my job responsibilities while I was getting my dad set up with his new life in New York.
Turning my focus to my volunteer activity, presidency of the SLA NY chapter, I remembered how honored I was to be asked to run for chapter president. When I had agreed to be SLA NY chapter president I committed to putting chapter needs above some of my family time with the support of my husband. This life changing event turned all that on its head.
At first I wondered if I should resign from being chapter president. However, I received a tremendous outpouring of support from the SLA NY Board as well as from our active chapter members asking how they could assist. After looking at the SLA NY fall calendar, I decided that I could keep up with my commitment as chapter President through the end of the year while still balancing the competing needs of my family, SLA NY and my job. However, I knew I would not have the same time to devote to the chapter as before.
There are two specific ways I was able to manage all these competing priorities by keeping the Oprah quote in mind every day, “You can have it all. You just can’t have it all at once.”
First, I let go of perfection and worked on setting the bar high only for the handful of things I deemed most important in my personal, professional and volunteer life. Initially, my most important job was understanding all my dad’s health issues, finding new doctors and a kind and responsible caregiver for him as well as a place for him to live. On the job, I had to prioritize between urgent and important – focusing on completing the most important tasks each day and week and knowing that I would get to the rest when needed. Once I set my priorities, I made peace with the fact that I would be far from perfect, as one can only excel (or even be good) at a limited number of things at one time.
Second, by focusing my energy on a few specific goals, I was forced to actively ask for help and accept any and all offers from my family, friends, colleagues, SLA board and volunteers. I learned to let others take the lead whenever they were willing and able to take on the role. For example, I knew I couldn’t attend SLA NY chapter events for a while as I needed to spend time with my dad and children every evening after work, so I made sure that other chapter leaders were attending. Although this sounds simple, initially it was hard for me to ask others for help. Moreover, I learned to find ways to turn general offers of help into specific tasks that needed to get done. People want to help and are often happy to do so but need a discrete task to take on. I kept with me a list of specific tasks I needed help with for my dad, on the job, and with regards to SLA NY. I actively found others to spearhead roles that I couldn’t take on any longer but thought that others might enjoy.
By focusing on what was most important to me in the short term, I was able to feel good about getting my dad and my family settled into our new lives while still being able to stay in a satisfying job and finish a momentous year as SLA NY chapter president. Now that a year has gone by, I accept that I am in a new chapter of my life and find inspiration in my dad’s upbeat motto to “keep on rolling” despite the challenges he faces on a daily basis. I hope to take some time again shortly to reflect upon my personal, professional and volunteer priorities and focus on new goals for the upcoming year.
Edited by Colleen McClowry