In an alternate universe

The sun is usually still out and about when I start thinking about the nightly challenge of convincing our kids that we are, in fact, a diurnal species.

“Your body and brain need rest to grow,” I say, my words drowned out by the sound of small Squishmallows* whistling past my ears—an attempt to engage me in a never-ending pre-bedtime game of dodgeball (but with Squishmallows). If I reflexively catch one hurtling towards my face, the kids shriek, “Mom’s playing!!!” and sprint away to fortify themselves with more pillow shields.

When I retreat and start to draw the curtains closed, I take one more wistful look at the serenity outside: the walking paths behind our house; the dry, golden grasses on the bluffs; the buzzy cliff swallows still out hunting their evening insect snacks.

This is the moment it often occurs to me: In an alternate universe, I’d be putting my shoes on to go out for a stroll right now.

And then I feel slightly guilty. For the written record, it’s not that I suddenly wish I were child-free. I love my crepuscular children who, like the migrating swallows, are most active at dawn and dusk.

It’s just that I still wonder sometimes. Not about an “unlived life” that will forever burden my children à la Jung—not quite that. Not even about all the apparent parallels, now that I think about it, between my children and our seasonal cliff swallows (constantly eating, making noises, building things, leaving messes, always in motion, the crepuscular thing…).

“Do you ever have these in-an-alternate-universe thoughts?” I recently asked my husband, who may or may not be accustomed by now to being suddenly cornered near the microwave and asked a vague, sweeping question. “I mean, do you ever think about what you would be doing sometimes if you weren’t parenting?”

He gave a half-laugh and said he stopped thinking about that a long time ago.

A part of me is tempted to dismiss my own alternate-reality projections as escapist fantasizing—after I extract the relevant, recurring bits (more autonomy, more spontaneity, more nature, check). But I think the truth is closer to this: every time I sigh and steel myself to go back into the line of Squishmallow fire, I am in a strange way recommitting to the life I am living right now. Even if I am at times raging against it, this life is the life I choose.

In the same way, when I find myself aggressively sheep-dogging the kids around their school-day morning steps (which will not budge from their dogged adherence to Parkinson’s law, and therefore always expand to fill all the available time, and the buffer time besides), sometimes I remember that in an alternate, not-so-distant universe, I would be feeling anxious about the time no matter what. I would already have scanned my work emails (and perhaps even responded to a few) and my work calendar in order to start mentally managing the day. Like a battery-draining GPS that exclusively maps the inhospitable terrain between Parenthood and Work, I would be calculating and re-calculating the ETA to my corporate laptop, and the act of opening its lid** and seeing the screen light up would provide a strange, fleeting relief from the feeling of having hurried senselessly to be “on-line.”

In a kind of internal time lapse, I recollect all of that from an alternate life. Then I sigh (in relief) and recommit to this life where I am grateful again and again to not feel all of that.

Only now do I see my wondering as a kind of habitual prompt that recommits me to the present and revives my trust in an equation that defies solving. I know I have given things up to be here, and that I continue to give. I know I gain things here. There is no calculating that one side outweighs or even offsets the other. There is no reconciling of accounts. There is simply choosing, valuing, and believing for oneself.

I love it when clients share their alternate-universe wondering with me, most often in the guise of “daydreaming,” “I can’t help but think about…,” “Sometimes I just want to…,” or “I wonder if I could…”

If you do something similar, perhaps consider the following:

  • First of all, what are the recurrent thoughts?
  • When you have the thoughts, what are your next thoughts? E.g., How do you usually respond?
  • What do you notice or know about when these thoughts come up? E.g., Is it when you’re bored, vexed, overwhelmed, content?
  • What purpose(s) might these thoughts be serving?
  • What do you think these thoughts are trying to tell you?

* For anyone who is unfamiliar with them, Squishmallows are a popular brand of plush toy which come in many convenient sizes from too-big-for-your-Costco-shopping-cart-and-therefore-your-home to just-the-right-size-for-your-kids-to-throw-at-you.

** I never met anyone at Deloitte who thought they could actually afford the time it took to voluntarily restart their laptops (not least because of the hassle of closing 37 files and tabs relevant to work-in-progress), let alone power them off for some extended period of time. Everyone (including me) simply kept them on for weeks at a time until their performance (that of laptops and/or humans) grew so unstable or the software update pop-ups grew so insistent that they had no choice.

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