I am where I need to be, doing what I need to do.
I am where I choose to be, doing what I choose to do.
I am where I’m meant to be, doing what I’m meant to do.
I was working on The Sane Family’s Guide to Scheduling (coming soon) when I started wrestling, in a final paragraph, with what it was I said to myself at moments that could easily be overwhelming—in short, when I’m refusing to feel busy. It’s something along those lines.
I reach for the same feeling, and the same loose phrase, whenever things get to be too much, whether that’s because there’s an actual problem, or because I’m driving a child to the orthodontist when part of me feels like I really should be at my desk.
I’ve never put precise words to it, though. Am I where I choose to be? Where I need to be? Where I want to be? Where I’m meant to be? I think yes, to all of those things. But to share it with readers—to write it—I needed to nail it down. Which one was it?
I hesitated over “want” and “choose” because although I use those words very broadly—I’d always rather call even a lousy choice a choice—given my circumstances they feel privileged. I can choose to drive to the orthodontist most days. I can decide if I want to clear up my garden for fall, or pay someone else to do it. I have good options.
Meant to be? That’s tricky. That gets at what the speaker thinks is happening in the universe. I may think that wherever whatever forces at work around us have placed me, by want or need or choice, at any given moment is where I am meant to be; but my reader may have strong feelings about the nature of those forces. Plus, I did choose or want or need. I believe in free will. I may be a predictable bundle of genetically and environmentally influenced molecules, but as far as I’m concerned, I think, therefore I am. If I say to myself “this is where I’m meant to be” it’s in part because I believe that I, myself, had a hand in making things turn out that way. But “meant to be” is passive, and doesn’t convey my own agency—so not that one.
Which leaves need. Need is what I went with in the end, as the most universal sense of what drives us as parents. I refuse to be busy, I wrote, in part by reminding myself that at any given moment, I am where I need to be, doing what I need to do.
But when I say it to myself, I think the phrase I really use is the one with “choose:” I am where I choose to be, doing what I choose to do. Why? Because of a cat. A cat, and Laura Vanderkam, author of “I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time” and “168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think.”
Around 2011, when I read Laura’s first book on time (168 Hours), I was feeling the crunch. I had 4 pretty young kids, one at a very challenging place in life, I was blogging 3-4 times a week for Slate, freelancing and finishing a book (which I ultimately chose not to publish, but that’s another story). I hadn’t learned the lessons of sane family scheduling, so every child had enough activities lined up to provide full employment for a chauffeur and secretary, if only the lottery tickets had fallen our way. I felt busy. I wasn’t happy about it.
“You have time to do everything you really want to do,” wrote Laura, firmly, and I wanted to argue. Some days I didn’t even feel like I had time to make it to the bathroom.
But I wanted a kitten. I wanted a particular kitten, and I’d found the kitten, and arranged to purchase the kitten, and now I just needed to go get the kitten. The kitten was two and a half hours away. A five hour total drive.
I went to get the kitten.
Which meant I had to acknowledge the truth of what Laura had written. The kitten (a family Christmas gift) was important to me. Important enough for me to choose to spend five hours in the car—which made it hard to deny that I had five hours. Five weekend hours, with kids along for the ride, but five hours just the same. If I had five hours for a kitten, who was to say what else I might have five hours for, if I chose to spend them that way?
I am where I choose to be, doing what I choose to be doing. It’s true. It’s always true. Sometimes it sucks that it’s true, but it’s true just the same. Standing in the kitchen, weathering the abuse of my mercurial tween? I could walk out the door. In the dentist’s chair, listening to the drill? They’re my teeth, it’s my choice. My consequences, too, but that’s the way of the world. I know I’m lucky to have good choices (even at the dentist, because not everyone can choose that chair). That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t own them.
Where we choose to be. Where we want to be. Where we need to be. Where we’re meant to be. Is there a difference? Which one speaks to you?