Friday, October 31, 2008

Living to work? Or working to live?

A quick weekend roadtrip made me think about distance, whether it's relative, and whether my relatives think I'm distant.

My parents came to the US from other countries, so my living a mere 300 or so miles away doesn't seem like much, most of the time -- except for when I've just spent a little time with them, and I'm getting ready to drive back to my place.

I’ve just come back from a too-quick trip to my parents’ house, where we celebrated a slew of birthdays — my youngest niece turned 1, my daughter turned 4, and my son is about to turn 2. There was plenty of cake, though all of the kids mostly feasted on icing and then worked the resulting sugar high off by going ballistic in the bounce house, and the grownups cast their diets to the wind and indulged.

We were also indulging in something else, something that only people with far-flung families can truly understand: A chance to reconnect with the people closest to us.

Distance, I think, may be relative. The 300 or so miles between my home and my parents’ isn’t much to me, though I know plenty of people who can’t imagine living less than a 15-minute drive from their mom and dad’s places. My own parents left their homes as very young adults — my dad came to the US from Haiti at the tender age of 17 to go to college, and my mom came here from India as a 22-year-old gunning for a second master’s degree (The child prodigy gene skipped me and went to my brothers and my children, I’m quite certain) so my living a few states away isn’t that big a deal.

Did I say the distance between my place and my parents’ isn’t much to me? What I meant to say is that it doesn’t seem like a great distance — I don’t have to change flights in Europe and again in Mumbai in order for my kids to spend a little time with Grammie and Papa, like my mom did when I was a child. A five-hour drive doesn’t seem far at all until, you know, I start trying to finagle time off from work and arrange a place for the dog and hold the mail and settle things with my kids’ teachers and call their karate coach and pack all the bags and then load everyone in the car.

I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t make that relatively short trip as often as I probably should.

But this weekend, while visiting with my uncle (who is more like an older brother to me), getting reacquainted with my nieces, watching bad TV late at night with my mom, and talking politics with my Dad, I felt like I was missing out by having been away for so long. Or, more to the point, that my reluctance to juggle work and life even more in order to bridge that distance more often meant that, maybe, my kids were missing out on a closer relationship with their grandparents, their uncle and aunt, their cousins.

While I was loading up the car so we could head back home, my toddler stuffed his impossibly tiny hands into the sides of his overalls, trying to imitate my dad (who had his hands in his pockets), and gravely walked the perimeter of the property with his grandfather. From where I stood on the driveway, it looked like someone had cloned my dad. Another “life is short” moment.

The weekend was full of moments like that: My youngest brother — who, ironically, lives relatively near me but whom I end up seeing more often several states away when we’re both at my parents’ house — delighting the kids by leaving each of them notes from “a secret admirer” on the front door, ringing the bell and then hiding; my 4-year-old daughter, who looks exactly as I did at that age, jumping on my mom’s bed exactly the way I used to (and getting caught, exactly the way I used to); my brother feeding my daughter candy corn at breakfast while my father blocked my view of the kitchen table.

Forget all of the other truisms you’ve heard; this is what family is for: Reminding you of who you were before you became who you currently are. Reminding you about what’s important in life. Reminding you that you need to work to live, not live to work.

And even though 300 miles can seem like several plane trips away when you’re juggling work and life, suddenly, it’s definitely worth the trip.

It made me think a bit about which way my scales are tipped right now, when it comes to work-life balance. How about you? Are you living to work, or working to live? Share your thoughts at The 36-Hour Day.

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