Yesterday, an uninterrupted day of work made me see my career in a new way. I’ve been on sabbatical this past semester and recently returned to my duties as department chair for the summer. The first few weeks were hectic and then I left for a travel study, which made everything harder. Then the kids were still in school. And they needed rides. And there were end-of-year concerts. And they needed more rides. And then going away parties and sleepover. More rides. I’ve been exhausted for a year and it’s starting to unravel me.

Until yesterday. I had a peaceful, kid-free morning (teens + summer = sleeping, of course). I ate a full breakfast. I loved on the dog, pulled some weeds by the mailbox, and leisurely got ready for work. I had a productive day with a video conference and minimal interruptions. I got so much done that I was floored at the end of the day. I came home later than usual because I was staying late to finish up a project. I didn’t have to leave early to pick up kids from school, grocery shop, pick up prescriptions, hit the gym (I’d already worked out the day before), take a kid to the dentist, pick up the dog from the groomer, meet the exterminator, meet the HVAC repair, get a haircut, talk to the neighbor about letting out the dog, etc. The day was calm and no one needed me. Then it hit me, the thing I’ve never said aloud and hate to admit:

You can’t have it all. 

This is the antithesis of everything the modern career-minded mom is promised in the latest round of self-help books, parenting podcasts, and by Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg. We’re told to Lean In to our career instead of stepping out or down. Be more productive by working when the kids go to bed or before they get up. We check email on weekends, otherwise Monday is a nightmare. We are expected to keep up with the latest trends in our industries, be present both mentally and physically for our kids, and bear the emotional labor of managing the household. We often play the role of The Only One in our male partner’s lives, which is exhausting and isolating. We make dentist and doctor’s appointments at work for our family because when else will we do it? We are taught to look professional and polished– lose that baby weight, even if your youngest is a teenager now. Maintain your career aspirations, professional certifications and consider upgrading your skills from time to time. Make sure you go on vacations with your family and carve out time for date nights. Fix those gray roots and get a pedicure. So, I’m just going to say it again, but with a qualifier:

You can’t have it all and it’s fine. 

I guess what I mean is this awkwardly worded statement: you can’t have it all, all of the time, but you can have most of it most of the time. Or rather, do you need to have it all, all of the time? Rather than trying to Lean In and achieve some mythical work-life-balance what if we Embraced Seasons instead? What if we saw our life on a continuum and appreciated the season we were in now and adjusted accordingly and accepted that this is a season, not a life sentence? Instead, we constantly try to squeeze more and more into our day, our life, our routine. And we wonder why we’re stretched, guilty, wrung out and exhausted.

As my kids get older, I recognize the need to be in their presence more. To be available. To be around, but not in their business. With two kids out of the house and two still at home, I see the importance of spending physical time together even though they can be at home alone now. Soon, the older one will be driving and I will be freed from school pick up and drop off for both of them. It feels like sweet freedom, but it’s a season that is ending–mom and dad in the pick up/drop off lane. Mom doing her one embarrassing dance move with her arms as she inches forward and kid–realizing the dance is happening–is mortified but secretly laughing. No more shuttling to and from band practice or pep band. We’ll drive separately to concerts because she has to be there early for sound check. She’ll want to hang with her friends and attend all of their grad parties next year. Little sis will tag along.

You shouldn’t want it all and it’s fine.

Yes, I love my career and my family. But, if I try to give 100% to both at the same time, I lose. I have to accept that my three main jobs are (1) my health, (2) my family and (3) my career. Right now, my family has taken precedence on Wednesday and Thursday evenings. I refuse to attend functions when my daughters are home on those evenings and that has helped maintain a boundary in my schedule. My colleagues and my boss know this and I hold to it. While on sabbatical, I started prioritizing my health and began lifting weights with a trainer. I continue to avoid sugar and have drastically reduced my soda consumption. Because, without my health I have nothing. Giving 100% to each of the three jobs would create chaos and constant guilt. I have accepted that I probably should add one more day of weight lifting per week, but two days a week is fine for now. I have accepted that my teenagers can learn to meal plan and cook and clean up during the summer and they probably won’t perish. I have started relying more on my husband to transport kids and asking him to be more involved in financial matters. I have stopped answering texts at work from kids because it’s too distracting. If I reply, it’s with a short “I’m working”. I will not feel guilty for attending a two-week summer institute that will propel my career forward, but cause me to lose some summer days with my kids. In return, I will be completely present when, at the end of the institute, I will meet my daughters in DC for a museum birthday trip.

I guess what I’m saying is that you can’t have it all, be present for all of it, and feel zero guilt. Maybe at 44, I’ve just stopped giving a shit what others are doing and am figuring out what works for me and me alone.