Even when things go well this term, it is difficult to feel like anything is accomplished or gained. Last week, by all measures, was extremely productive. I was gifted some extra writing, grading, and sleeping time. The students in all of my classes seemed to have discovered some newfound energy and enthusiasm for the weeks leading up to their midterm paper. And the activities that I had prepared for all four sections went over fairly well. (Who knew that grammar review could be so fun!?!) Still, by the end of the day on Thursday, I simply felt defeated, and I had two more teaching days to get through before I could recoup on Sunday. Sore and exhausted, I could not understand how a week that had been so productive could have felt like such an immense failure.*
What caught me most off-guard by my sudden collapse in energy and optimism was that the week had been going (and, indeed, would finish!) so well. Because of the weather throughout the week, I had a bit more time to plan and write than I normally would. (Basically, soccer practice was cancelled, so I had Wednesday evening free, and because everything was wet and muddy all week, I did not feel guilty about not getting the girls to the park after school on Monday and Thursday.) The extra time always gets filled, but this week, I wasn’t carving extra time out of potential sleep or workout hours. I worked ever closer to finishing the introduction to my dissertation, I received some extremely kind and helpful comments on the article that is still in a jumble, the pile of grading got a little bit lighter before growing heavier once more, and I felt like I was keeping pace with the tasks of daily life: grocery shopping, cooking, doing the laundry, tidying up, and spending time with the girls playing and making sure they are bathed, do their homework, get to their extracurriculars, and hit the sack on time. This is all par for the course on a normal week, but this week’s weather and my odd sleeping habits permitted me to feel a bit ahead of the game. I got to the gym three times, had two of the best runs that I have had in months, and got to bed before eleven almost every night (doubly important because I have to be up at 4 on Tues., Wed., Thurs.). If weeks in the semester feel like a zero-sum game between me and the pile of to-dos, I felt like I had broken even or come out slightly ahead.
But there is no denying how miserable I felt by the end of the night on Thursday. My schedule this term is exhausting. And I could not overcome the feeling that for every inch I felt I had gained in course prep, job materials, dissertation or article writing, tending to the kids or the house, or taking care of my own physical/mental well-being, I had fallen a few yards behind in something else. Thursday night, I did no writing, no grading, no planning. I cooked dinner and did some laundry but neglected to make the girls shower or do their bedtime reading. Once they had brushed their teeth and settled into bed, I opened a cheap paperback and tried to get lose my feelings of defeat, exhaustion, and discomfort in some fiction before retreating into my own sleep.
I want neither to disregard that feeling of mid-week defeat nor to empower it. It might be a sign that I pushed a bit too hard last week, but it may also signify that I simply need to be a bit more self-aware so as not to risk the kinds of crashes that I have had in the past when burning the candle at both ends. I am already starting to do better at tracking things in my calendar. And I am becoming better at taking the “wins” as they come. (Running without knee, shin, and back pain this week may have been the biggest. Not going to lie.) Of course, the biggest lesson of last week is perhaps once more the most obvious: the work-life balance is not, in fact, a zero-sum game. My weeks are not a competition against a clock, or my schedule, or my previous records of productivity. Each day unfolds through its own rhythm and takes on a shape of its own. And each can be distinct from another just as much as each can exert a kind of collective energy, arc, or force that it has accumulated over a series of days. But at the end of each day, arc, or cycle, the best thing I can do is to look at all that has been done and begin working on how to do it better in the morning.
Last week’s exhaustion was also important because my schedule is reaching a turning point. This week, my classes are doing peer review workshops for their midterm papers and beginning a film screening that will carry us to the midterm break. The semester is already nearly half-way over. The break will afford an important time to take stock, to get some rest, and to begin looking forward once more.
*I know that a lot of folks – especially academics – produce lists of the things they accomplish each week as a way to ward off precisely the feelings I describe here or to have quantitive evidence to combat the boogeyman of imposter syndrome. I will not be offering such lists because I do not keep them, have not found them useful in the same way(s). I will say that those of my friends who have adopted this approach have found much to commend in the practice, and if that seems a more efficacious method of combating imposter syndrome, fatigue, or depression, then it should be recommended widely. We need as many tools as we can have at our disposal to remind ourselves of the good we do so that when we are feeling defeated, we can take those feelings in stride.