Tasks, Timelines and Traps

A few weeks ago, I started to freak out a little bit about my decision to go from a relatively high income to a . . . well, to no income, I guess. While I was wondering what the hell I did and how we would possibly survive, a very dear friend recommended a book about "unjobbing," viewing the "need" to work with a critical lens and making choices that suit you better, if need be. I loved it!

The Illusion Part I: Why Some People Work

One of the passages in the book really struck me. Basically, it suggested that much of the reason why we continue to work is so that we can afford to live the lifestyle we have chosen. It went on to question how much of that lifestyle was actually needed, and how much of that lifestyle was "required" because of work. For example, maybe you have a $400 monthly car payment for a car that you only drive to work. Maybe you spend hundreds of dollars a year on clothes for work, and perhaps you eat out a lot because you're too tired from working to cook a meal at home - and perhaps your health is deteriorating from eating out so much and work-related stress, leading to medical costs. And perhaps you "need" the car you have, and the house you have, so you can contain all of the material things you bought so your life of working would be easier or more tolerable.

I thought that was pretty eye opening. Every day, many of us move through our lives without questioning the "why" behind what we do. Some of us work without understanding the associated costs; some of us pursue activities and achievements rather than dreams; and some of us, sadly, even go to college, get married, or have children without really thinking about whether or not we should - or whether or not we even want to. I doubt that most people start out by saying "I just want to do what everyone else does, without thinking about it too much." But over time it can happen to even the most self-aware people. It starts out small; you go to college straight from high school like most of your friends, graduate and get a job and an apartment and a car, and then have to get a better job to be able to pay for the things you like to do and the purchases you have made. As the possessions come, and the promotions come, and the spouse and children come, the stakes get higher and higher until people reach a point where they feel like they have no real choices.

I hear this all the time from friends, coworkers and acquaintances when they find themselves free enough to allow a little introspection. Maybe their marriage falls apart, or they lose their job, or they just have a simple epiphany and wonder "what the hell am I doing with my life?" But when I talk to them and ask them what their dreams are or what their hearts tell them to do, they often come back with a reason or justification why they can't pursue their dream. A typical response might be:

"Well, I always wanted to be a writer, and I'm pretty good at it. But you know, we live in San Diego and we're underwater on our mortgage. I have two car payments, and with the HOA fees and everything else I just can't afford to do that right now. Plus, the kids are in school and I can't take them out in the middle of a school year."

Sounds reasonable, right?

Actually, it sounds like a bit of a rationalization to me.
You always have choices - some are hard, seemingly impossible perhaps - but the choices are there just the same. Need proof? Look at every parent who has left an abusive spouse, or at children who have moved back home to care for ailing parents. Through seemingly impossible odds, people like these have chosen the thing that was right for their hearts, instead of the thing that was easy. For whatever reason, so many other people feel like they have been trapped and cannot escape to pursue their dreams. But for many of them, this "trap" is one of their own making - they bought the cars, they took the jobs, they put their kids in school, and they bought the houses. They created a "reality" for themselves and their families that seems impossible to escape from.

The Illusion Part II: A Family in School

Living a life of achievement is challenging; there are things to buy, and schedules to manage, and tasks to be checked off, and a variety of other "needs" that require great discipline to ensure success as the family hustles from one thing to another. It's almost a regimen, an unbending structure that allows little individual freedom or downtime so that everything can be done as efficiently as possible, with the maximum convenience for the parents.

Kind of like school.

Earlier in this post, I mentioned several things that people have to do in order to work a traditional job. That got me thinking: how much of what a traditional family does is related solely to the fact that their kids are in schools?

Now, please keep in mind that although our family has decided to unschool, I do not consider myself anti-school by any means. School wouldn't work for us, and in truth there are millions of kids who it doesn't work for. But there are also millions of kids who do get some benefits from attending schools, particularly when you compare school with some of the alternatives available to many families. I riffed on my hopes for a better education system here last year.

Many other people have written about what the day in school is like for children, and about how little choice they have in how they spend their day. Personally, I find it very sad that most parents attempt to control many things that their children do - food, TV, friends - yet blindly trust that school will be a good experience for the child and in keeping with the parent's values. But regardless of whether you think school is the best choice for your child or not, you have to admit that families whose children attend school have to set up a variety of systems at home to ensure that things run smoothly.

  • Alarms need to be set, perhaps contrary to a child's natural circadian rhythms.
  • Breakfast needs to be consumed upon waking, perhaps contrary to a child's natural hunger cycles.
  • The choices for the morning meal are likely restricted to ensure that something "nutritious" is given so the child can sit still all day and learn, perhaps contrary to the child's natural preferences and behaviors.
  • Clothing is laid out without the child's choice, or if choices are given they are likely to be disapproved, placing the parent in a position of control and impinging a basic freedom.
  • Teeth are brushed, ears are cleaned, hair is combed, whether the child wants it or not, so the child will look presentable at school.
  • Books and lunches, again perhaps of the parent's choosing, are packed in a backpack that the child must carry to the local bus stop.
  • The child boards a bus with children who may not like the way she dresses, looks, behaves, talks, or combs her hair.

So the mornings are spent violating many of the child's fundamental choices, such as sleep, food, appearance, and input into their own lives - choices that we as adults take for granted for ourselves - so they can get to a place on time which they may not want to go to in the first place. That's sad. But the evenings are worse.

  • There's "After School Enrichment Programs", designed to keep the children occupied until a parent can come and pick them up.
  • There's homework, which helps a child memorize and regurgitate information and processes so the child can achieve good grades in subjects that may bore them to tears.
  • Then an evening family meal - likely, again, devoid of choice - which occurs at a specific time and place so that the entire family can get some "quality time" together and "talk about their day."
  • Some TV, a bath or shower, a bit of personal time perhaps, and then a strict time for "Lights out!" and "Go to sleep!"
Is this really what it's like? I mean, aren't I exaggerating this a bit?

No, I'm not. The truth is, when you send your kids to school this is what it looks like even in families that get along well. In many families, it is far, far worse. I have worked with these kids before, I've seen it in action. Sometimes parents run their families like this in a misguided attempt to keep a complex system running smoothly. Sometimes they do it because they don't know any better. And sometimes, they do it because they like to be controlling and abusive, sadly.

What Are We Doing?

But sometimes, maybe even most of the time, families do this even when they do know better. They love their children, they want to be engaged, they want their children to learn and grow, and they want to celebrate life with their child. They believe in their children, they want what is best for them, and they care about their futures.

And they spend their time wishing, hoping, and dreaming there was another way to raise their children. They may hate their jobs, dislike their children's schools. They may be resentful of how their lives got off track, and how difficult it is to connect with their child under all of the rigor and discipline that is required to keep pace with their lives. And they feel trapped. They say things like:

  • My child needs to go to school so they can learn and be successful.
  • They need to be ready for school each day, to look neat and be prepared academically, so they can have a better chance of succeeding.
  • I need to ensure they are ready by making sure they get enough sleep, eat, and play.
  • I need to work so I can pay my bills and set a good example for my child.

They have spent years building this life, working with this paradigm, and trying to keep it organized and smooth. But in the process, they have lost the ability to connect with what is important to them, even though they know in their hearts what is right. Like the Red Queen, they keep running faster and farther just to keep up with the pace - the pace that they set for themselves. And the run so fast that they cannot stop long enough to breathe and ask a simple question: What are we doing?

So . . . .what are you doing?

Are you frequently questioning the way you live your life so you can ensure that you're living in accordance with your own values? Are you living the life you know to be true, the life you want to live, and the life that enables you to connect authentically with your children and partner? Or are you burying yourself under tasks and timelines and traps, disconnected from your heart - and the hearts of your family?

It is never too late, you're never in too deep, and you always - always - have a choice.


  1. YES! There is always a choice but sadly most people don't think that.

  2. Thanks for the insightful post- out of curiosity, what was the book that inspired it? Parts of what you said reminded me of the wonderful book Radical Homemakers, which I read recently. From what you've written, it seems like you would really like it.

  3. brilliant, as always! I'm passing this one on to many, thank you, you seem to say so eloquently what I can't but feel so deeply.

  4. "But over time it can happen to even the most self-aware people"

    I hear on this! An I by no means have ever been the 'most' self-aware - but always was one of those square pegs people kept trying to squish into a round hole and on and off for years I'd try to do the same thing as the fight to 'fit-in' was all I'd been taught and all I knew.

    Somedays I wonder and imagine what my life would have been had I had a mom like me encouraging me to be my own little magical self and to heck with the world that wanted me to pretend to 'fit-in' - and that just makes me all the more committed to loving my kids in whatever shapes they come in!

  5. Great again.
    It isn't until you start unschooling that you understand how much of life schooling penetrates. Did you know that on of the reasons africans are having less children is because of schooling.
    We're looking into the unjobbing thing too, because we're not at all happy with the way life is, but for now, we have yet to find a suitable alternative (we broke free of the hard core materialism quite a while ago)
    For now, we're still kind of paralyzed though.