The Checklist Life

I used to be fiercely ambitious in pursuing the big items on my checklist. Get college degree: check. Get job: check. Get boyfriend: check. Get married: check. Everything was going to be so perfect. Like so many of us, I had these lofty ideals about becoming the person that I aspire to be: the woman with a ragingly successful career; a domestic goddess with beautiful, intelligent children, and a happy marriage. In reality, pursuing my aspiration made me feel inadequate. In this blog, I want to share my journey to find my authentic self. By chronicling my successes and failures, I hope to offer camaraderie to like-minded people (I want to find you!).

The checklist life starts early. As a teenager, I struggled alongside my peers to conform and fit in. I suffered tragic perms, ridiculous clothing, and various attempts at being popular. I was on my way to pursue the right life. I sincerely believed that once I got through the end of my checklist, then I would be happy. It turns out that getting to the bottom of that checklist alone is difficult to achieve. If you do manage to check these items off your list, living like this is like collecting hollow prizes at each milestone. I remember feeling rather empty after I had settled in as a newlywed. I had arrived! Now what?

My journey to redefine success beyond money and power began when I quit my job on a trading desk. The job had many perks, but the stress level from making (and losing) money made me sick. I started getting migraines that were so severe that I frequently vomited from the pain. I relied on lidocaine injections into my trigger points to get relief. That life was unsustainable. Despite this clear setback and huge disappointment in my career, I was undeterred in pursuing the next item on my list. Life was about more than a job, I thought. It must be about creating a happy family.

To be the perfect mother was a major item on my checklist. Naturally, I approached motherhood the way that I had approached all previous checklist items. I read just about every good parenting book that I could get my hands on. I thought I would transform into that person described in the books through will power and sheer determination. Alas, it was not to be. After many agonizing years, I realized that my main accomplishment was a giant act of self-aggression. I beat myself up for every failure that I perceived on either my part or the part of my children. If my child threw up after a meal, I thought he did it on purpose because he did not like the food I cooked. If he did not go to bed on time, I thought it was because I missed the window in which he naturally could fall asleep with ease. The next day I had better be on my toes and do everything according to schedule! And so my list grew. I took copious notes on what time he woke up, what time he ate, and how much was consumed. If anything went off schedule, I blamed myself.

I read self-help books. I tried to change myself to become a better person. Nothing worked. I was always so worried that I was not doing enough because, of course, my shortcomings were all spelled out there on my list. I believed that life would be fabulous after I got to the end of the list; but the list never ended. I was chasing an illusion.

A friend of mine once told me, "insight doesn't change behavior," which is to say just because I know how I am supposed to behave, doesn't mean that I can do it. It was a severe disappointment. For decades I tried to be other than who I was. I believed that my true self was not likable. After all, I could not even get my baby to sleep on schedule. And he threw up inexplicably.

It took me a long time to discover that finding fault with me was not the solution. Yes, I am the person who failed to live by my own, self-imposed baby schedule, but I was also the person who shared magical bedtime stories with my sons. When we are spellbound by a story, I feel so connected to them. It is then that my love for my children transcends the monotony and fatigue of the every day routine.

My children taught me something unexpected. By learning to be kind to them, I also learned to be kinder to myself. I have not found my balance yet, so I go from being very exacting to being slovenly. But when I manage to offer myself kindness, then I am more relaxed, I smile more, and I can appreciate the little things. There are some gloriously fleeting moments in which I feel light: my life is exactly as it should be.

In the spirit of the checklist life, I now include a third metric reminder on my to-do list on a regular basis. Being kind to myself always helps me incorporate wonder, wisdom, and magic in my life. I like to substitute negative self-talk with positive self-talk. I know that when we look in the mirror in the morning, we criticize what we see. "I need to lose weight!" is a popular mantra. Instead, smile at yourself and say, "I have a wicked sense of humor that my best of friends appreciate. We laugh all the time!"

Be thankful for the good thing that is already inside. Nurture the soul. Throw away that old tape of self-criticism. Put in a new recording with words that describe the best of you. It is more than enough.

Mila Atmos is a columnist whose work has been featured by The Huffington Post, Quartz, and Medium.

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