Years ago, I sat in my quiet apartment, spoon-feeding Gerber sweet potatoes to my first baby and wishing desperately for a more exciting life. Traveling to Italy, participating in productivity seminars, getting a Masters in Communication from USC–even having some reason to run a carpool sounded much more enticing than the constant work of running our little household and responding to the needs of a very active (and, I must add, darling) baby girl.

Mine is one of the most common stories ever told: I was thrilled to have a baby–then surprised by how hard it was to be a mother. I was committed to doing the best I could, and I loved my family, but in the back of my head, I really wanted something “more.” To sum it up, I wanted to reach every single one of my lifetime goals at the same time.

If I could go back in time, I would tell myself about a lesson I learned recently at our local Denny’s restaurant. I know–who would expect the children’s coloring page to have a profound effect on my life?  Well, it did, and I’d like to share it with you (because maybe these ideas will lesson the angst you’re feeling about life right now).

This picture below shows two Space Sprockets.

Photo by April Perry

You pop out the colorful templates on the right, and you place them over the blank sprockets on the left.  The readied sprocket looks like this:

Photo by April Perry

You simply pick one of the stars on the perimeter and line it up with the North Star on the blank sprocket.  Then you color in the parts of the template that match the color of the star.  Below, you’ll see how the red star is lined up with the North Star. This is when you would hold the sprocket steady and color in those red designs below. Pretty simple, right? Here’s how it looks:

Photo by April Perry

Once all the red spots have been filled, you rotate the sprocket to the next star (in this case, green), and you proceed to color the green areas of the template.  Then by the end, it looks like this:

Photo by April Perry

Isn’t this a nice looking meteor?

Where on earth am I going with this?

Our lives are metaphorically divided up into a series of colored-star periods. Depending on our unique situations and the speed of our growth, the number of stars varies, but each of us can look back and identify many “times and seasons” of our lives. It’s tempting to want to have/do/be everything all at once, but if we do, our Space Sprocket will end up looking like a haphazard scribble. Does this look anything like a meteor to you?

Photo by April Perry

Instead, each of us gets to identify our “North Star” (a very Stephen Covey-ish principle that I love) and figure out what, exactly, we need to be doing within that season of our lives. This isn’t rocket science (no pun intended); it simply requires that we step back, take a deep breath, and ask ourselves, “What do I need and want to do that can only be done now?” I feel very fortunate to have “kind of” figured that out while I was still spooning out sweet potatoes.  Here’s what I did:

  • I sat down one day and wrote, “Before I can be ready for more, what do I need to learn to do well?” I then made a list of about 20 habits and skills I could develop in harmony with my current responsibilities and family situation. And I started working on them.
  • I used my quiet time to read, think, create “Family Idea Binders,” interview mothers I admired, and seriously plan for the future (knowing that there would certainly come a time when we would have two cars, and when my children would go off to school, and when I wouldn’t be wiping up a mess every 45 seconds. I am now there).
  • I cherished my baby (and the babies I’ve had since then). We have hours and hours of home movies where I captured their sweet expressions, their giggles, their favorite toys, and their delight at experiencing life for the first time. I hugged them, kissed them, and danced with them. Now, my oldest is turning 12 and my youngest is turning 4. Though it pains me to think that 14 years from now I could be an empty-nester, because I’ve done my best to color in the “assigned parts” of my Space Sprocket, I know we’re all ready to move on.

The end result (which I haven’t yet reached, but which I can see taking shape) is that we’ll create lives that are beautiful. We’ll have lived lives that made sense–that had some order to them. We’ll be able to look back and see how we were progressing–even if it felt like our work could have been replaced by an automatic sweet potato-disher-outer.

This type of thinking, in my opinion, is essential to mothers. I hear countless women lamenting the fact that their work as “unappreciated, mundane, and invisible.” Of course these mothers won’t feel a sense of progress at the end of the day if they see it that way, but what if we looked at our family work a little more closely? What if we stopped trying to color in all the wrong places and focused instead on the meaning of the work we need to be doing right now?

Italy isn’t going anywhere, but my children won’t always beg for bedtime back tickles. Productivity seminars happen just about every day somewhere in the world, but dinnertime kitchen dancing with my children is probably closer to its end than I know. I’m going to have years to work on a computer and get more education, but I won’t always be able to play “House” with my girls.  These are the things I need to cherish now.

I still get impatient with my life. I want to see my Vision Board come to fruition, I want to check all the tasks off my “Someday” list, and I want the not-so-fun parts of motherhood to end, but when I start getting all worked up, I think of my Space Sprockets. I ask myself what needs to happen right now, and even though I don’t have an Answer Key in front of me, I feel confident that the focused energy I’m devoting to my family right now is central to the beautiful life picture I’m going to create.

QUESTION: What, in your life, can only be done right now?

CHALLENGE: Identify 10 habits and skills that would benefit your whole family if you were to focus on them right now.  Then make those habits and skills a central part of your life.

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