The Charm of Routine

“Not that she didn’t enjoy the holidays: but she always felt—and it was, perhaps, the measure of her peculiar happiness—a little relieved when they were over. Her normal life pleased her so well that she was half afraid to step out of its frame in case one day she should find herself unable to get back."
- Jan Struther, Mrs. Miniver
Monday morning madness. I arrive at work later than usual, because I have some meetings that will continue into the early hours of the evening. I begin to type furiously even before I am comfortably settled in my chair. Hours pass. I answer questions. Write emails. Before I know it, I am on my third cup of coffee and fourth meeting of the day. I have worked through lunch, which I like to do, but the meal has been disappointing. Tasteless beef with stiff brown rice, under-seasoned vegetables, and limp pasta in an unappetizing yellow sauce. Coffee is better. Much better. I am back at work after two days off followed by the weekend. Four days of nothing but Eid celebrations. The holidays have been good to me. Now I am back at my desk, with my "crap-to-do" pad filling up. I check off one item and add three more in its place. I take my empty coffee cup to the Keurig. I pop in a K-cup - Newman's Own Special Blend - my favorite. As the coffee brews I lean on the counter with my elbows resting on the cool metal surface, my head in my hands, and I breathe in the steam. But back to work now. Chop, chop. And would you believe it? I love every minute of it. 

I resent Monday mornings, not because I have to go back to work, but because up until the midday epiphany I always get at the beginning of the work-week ("I love doing this."), I have the false feeling of not wanting to be there. It is nothing but a spillover effect from the weekend, but it's real on Monday mornings. The break in routine, the interruption of my weekday breakfast of badly poached eggs and creamy-sweet coffee while I check my email by two lazy mornings of getting pinched and slapped by a cute baby until I clamber out of bed to make her pancakes, disorients me. Every Monday, I have to relearn the motions. A teaspoon of water in the egg-poacher, 35 seconds for each egg in the microwave, Newman's Own, cream, Splenda, with a side of emails.

Let me tell you a short and interesting story. When I had Jahan, I devoured parenting books. I did not even have a background in vicarious learning when it came to raising babies. I went to the birthing class with my husband to gain some wisdom, but we walked out halfway through, because on the slide titled "How Dads Can Support Moms During Labor," one of the bullet points read, "Say encouraging things like 'I am so proud of you,' and 'I love you for doing this.'" For some odd reason, my husband thought that was absolutely hilarious and dissolved into badly concealed laughter. We left the class. On my first night home with Jahan, I almost took her to the ER because she wouldn't stop crying. I felt completely useless as a mother. "This is a big mistake," I thought. "I am not fit to raise this baby." Thankfully, Usman's cousin who was visiting us from Reno, took her from me, wrapped her up really tight in a blanket and swayed her in his arms until she went to sleep. She just needed to be swaddled. Simple. "OK," I thought. "If there is a logical set of steps I can follow, then this is doable." Baby 411 became my bible. I had Harvey Karp on my Kindle, Baby 411 on my nightstand, and they all said the same thing. Routine, routine, routine. You need to give your baby a dependable schedule, so she knows what to expect, so she can learn what's coming next. I marveled at this. How can a baby recognize routines, patterns? But, she did. By 6 weeks, her sleep cycle had corrected itself. By 4 months, she was sleeping through the night. And by 6 months, she was fully sleep-trained, falling asleep on her own, following a perfect schedule. 

Even babies, or perhaps especially babies, are creatures of habit. I don't think this instinct of following a routine, having a pattern or a predictable "normal life" ever goes away. This is why it's hard to form a habit, but harder to break one. This is why despite the Monday morning crisis, I always bounce back. This is also why it was strange not to be cooking on Wednesday nights for the blog after doing it for so many weeks and why for a long while after I discontinued my daily walks at work due to schedule constraints, I felt wretched. This week's Monday morning got me thinking about the importance of routine a lot. I exercised such control over my baby's routine in the first year of her life that we all simply take her good habits for granted now. They are cultivated - practically since birth. And if I do buy into this belief of routine having a lot of significance in daily life, then why do I short-change myself? Why don't I exercise the same control over my routine and guard it with the same vigilance? 

The city waking up during one of my walks
The answer is simple. I would rather make my routine malleable to fit everything I need to do in my day than adversely impact someone else. And that is simply not fair. I find happiness in predictability, in eggs and coffee on weekday mornings. I used to find it in my early morning walks with the cloud thickets in the sky, dew palpable on my fingertips, the city awake, yawning, gearing up for the day. I find it in my audiobooks on the way to work and on the way back. I find it in the game I play with my baby every day at 4:30 when I get home from work - "Mommy's gonnaaaa  geeetttt youuuu," and her squeals of delight dissolving into laughter as she throws herself on the bed resigning herself to the tickle monster. I find it in writing this. Here. As I used to twice a week at one point. My normal life does indeed please me well. Maybe it's time to make it charming again. Maybe it's time to prioritize and cross off and add to it until I have the comfort of predictability, until I am like the woman in the quote above - "Her normal life pleased her so well that she was half afraid to step out of its frame in case one day she should find herself unable to get back."

Photos by Rebecca McCue

Mundanities Matter - An Apologetic Rant

"Anything one does every day is important and imposing and anywhere one lives is interesting and beautiful."
-Gertrude Stein

A safe haven - my office.
Let me say this again. I am a full-time clinical researcher, poetry editor of a bi-annual literary magazine, occasional writer, decent home cook, and most importantly, mother of a 21-month-old well-adjusted toddler. My entire existence doesn't just benefit from making routine critically important; it depends upon it. I know I am not the only woman in the world who is juggling a career and motherhood. I know others do it their way. I know their way may be better than my way. However, my way works for me and my little girl. It ensures my sanity and celebrates the things that are important to me, which mainly revolve around me being a homebody. My best day is one spent at home with my baby, some baking and cooking, and a little bit of writing. Perfection. It may be boring for some people, but for me, it is blissful. 
Mama Cook, Baby Cook.

There was a time when my ideal day involved libraries and bookstores and restaurants and walks, but I am fundamentally changed now. I understand that I fall short of many of my loved ones' expectations. Twice now, my 15-year-old brother who is visiting me after 5 years has expressed how disappointed he is that I have not spent "quality time" with him outside (or, arguably, even inside) the house. My mother is managing her own shopping, too, not asking me to accompany her, leaving me within my invisible, intangible, but very clearly defined circle of comfort. My sisters-in-law, by turns, offer support for my decision to remain a hermit and encourage me to come out of my shell. My stubbornness astounds even me at times. I put myself in all of their shoes - my choices must be disconcerting and maybe even disappointing for them. I am not the person they remember - I am distant, regimented, governed by the turns of the clock, by ritual, by habit, and sadly, not by relationships and feelings save those that involve my daughter, because there simply isn't any room inside me.

A recipe or a poem? Could be either.
All of my mental energy is taken up by two forking realities with one convergent point that is hidden somewhere inside me, knotted and wrinkled, convoluted conflicts: professional success and motherhood. If I were to graph my mental state daily, it would not appear in the form of two parallel lines running smoothly, one depicting me as a mother, the other as a professional. Instead, the graph will be non-linear, jagged in some places, smoothly curving in others, one curve swirling lazily into the other at some points, the two intertwining in places, clashing, converging and diverging again, one forming crests sometimes while the other dips low, depresses into the negative quadrant... But they do run in a semblance of harmony at times, too, usually everything remains constant for long periods of time, until they start falling and rising again, a low rumble registered by the Richter scale before The Big One hits,  inevitably when I am least prepared for it. For me, there is no such thing as "work-life balance." There is work. And there is motherhood. And that is my life - not balancing, but swaying, see-saw like, sometimes staying steady in mid-air, but the collapse always comes in the end, it's simply a matter of time. 

A therapeutic practice - cooking at home.
I am perpetually afraid of this collapse. Maybe, my loved ones will gain a little understanding of my constant need to control things and the state of high anxiety that pervades my every waking moment after reading this. I am afraid of losing reigns of the carefully constructed and precariously suspended components of my life. Because when that quake comes, and it does come more often than I would like it to, usually without provocation and for perfectly organic reasons, I am the only one who picks up the pieces of my sanity that are salvageable from the abundant carnage. And this is why I hold on to apparently mundane and insignificant details of my life with a death-grip. This is why I sleep before 11PM, why I guard my baby's bedtime vigilantly, why I don't make plans over the weekend, why I disappear into my words as I furiously type, one eye on the clock, the other on the sentence I am composing, why I don't answer you when you call my name a few times - I am not really there, I am trying to plan the next day, thinking what to cook, when to be home, writing my blog, editing poetry, balancing my meetings and tasks, and about a million other tiny details that are absolutely essential to do. So, consider this a public apology to everyone who is disappointed in me. You are going to have to put up with my eccentricities for a few more years unfortunately, until I achieve a zen state by mastering this elusive work-life balance, or until Jahan goes off to college. Hang in there, friends, family, loved ones. I still love you - just not as much as I love my sanity.

Photos by Rebecca McCue