I’m selling my house at the moment and I can assure you that its right up there with the rest of those things that they say are the most stressful things to do in life (alongside shopping for toilet rolls and pasta in a pandemic). The funny (not so funny) thing is that I haven’t even found a house to live in so my Apple watch keeps buzzing me and reminding me to breathe as I contemplate packing all my belongings, husband, two dogs and three cats and relocating to a caravan if I don’t find something soon.
Moving house is stressful but viewing properties has provided me with a sometimes sobering insight into lives lived and the sad realisation that the paths you choose in life often lead to solitary destinations.
One property I viewed was occupied by a delightful elderly couple who I feel were thrilled to have a bit of company. The lovely old chap was suited and booted, wearing his best leather brogues, for this auspicious occasion and we spent a pleasant hour looking around their home as he regaled us with snippets of history and interesting facts about his life. They were heading to a cottage that sat alongside their sons and whilst wistful about leaving a home they loved, it was a new chapter with their family where I suspect they would be well looked after for the rest of their days. As I looked around the property I found myself feeling emotional on seeing their photos of a life well lived through the decades, a balance of work events and family parties full of beaming smiles.
This wonderful gentleman reminded me so much of my own Dad (sadly departed) that I had a little cry when I left after wanting to give him a hug which may have seemed a bit inappropriate for a house viewer. It was a backwards glance into a life that I knew so well with my Dad retiring in his early fifties to focus on the things that he loved. I know that if he had ever sold his beloved house he would have worn his well polished brogues too.
A second viewing on a different property a week later left me rattled for very different reasons. This beautiful house in a picture perfect village was occupied by a solitary old man who opened the door in his pyjamas and best dressing gown. The house was chaotic, every surface covered in clutter and broken plates on the floor. He was clearly confused as to why we were there and there was no evidence of any family support. My heart broke for this poor old chap. Where were his friends and family in his hour of need? Had work been his priority over family? Probably not but surely there was someone out there that could step in and support him. I was making assumptions but I felt angry on his behalf. There was no sign of a family cottage to go to or any comfort in the last years of his life. Just chaos and confusion. How had it come to this?
After reporting my findings and suggesting that they seek to help this gentleman, I hung up on the estate agent and found myself wondering where my own path would lead to? Self care and reflection had hit me like a steam train in my early fifties after experiencing some serious burnout due to work overload and the sudden death of both my parents. My priorities changed overnight and I realised that work actually wasn’t that important. What matters is family. What matters is leading a life that is balanced. What’s important is avoiding the tunnel vision that comes alongside work overload. The sort of vision that leads to you look up later in life and realise that there is no one left. Everyone else is enjoying the life you said no to because work came first. The family parties, the sports days, barbeques, bath times and bedtimes. You kept saying no so the invitations stopped. Real life dried up and you found yourself on a barren landscape.
Getting that balance right is easier said than done though. I remind myself every day that I’ve probably had a lucky escape. After years of pulling myself up the career ladder I’m quite happy now to step down a few rungs and laugh at the fools still answering their emails at 11pm at night. If I’m working from an office then I’m like roadrunner out of the door at home time, desperate to get back to watch The Chase and a couple of episodes of Gilmore Girls. I’m lucky because I can afford to be a bit nonchalant about the whole thing and I appreciate that not everyone has that luxury but there are things that everyone can do to keep their sanity intact.
Making a plan is a critical part of getting the balance right and setting out your non negotiables is a big piece of this. Try mapping out the next couple of months making sure that all of the important family stuff is clearly posted. No one will remember if you left the office at 7pm but your kids will remember if you were the only parent not there at sports day. No one will recollect you dragging yourself into the office with flu but your friends will remember all the parties that you were too busy to attend.
Have set working hours and stick to them. As a rule I finish work at 6 pm and my laptop is closed for business (note this is when The Chase starts on plus one). Nothing is so important that it cant wait until 8 am the following morning and I refuse to be accessible to everyone twenty four hours a day. We survived in the past when all we had were letters and landlines and nothing has changed. Switch off, wind down and reclaim back your family time.
Making exercise a priority is another key aspect. I found myself cutting short my dog walk this morning as I had a lot of emails to send. My Labrador gave me a sorrowful look as I bundled her off to doggy day care and an hour later I immediately regretted my decision. The emails would have waited and we would all have benefited from the fresh air and exercise.
And finally remember you don’t have to do it all or be perfect. Being busy is a badge of honour these days and we all aspire to live in the perfect houses, have high flying careers, go on Instagrammable vacations and be culinary genius’s. Forget that I say. Nigella has a lot to answer for with her larder full of home made pickles. If all you have time for is a can of beans on a microwaved potato on an evening then who cares? If a soggy weekend in a tent in Wales makes you happy then go for it. If your house is a bit shabby around the edges it shows that its lived in. Work hard enough to pay your bills but treat your down time with the same enthusiasm. Work to live not live to work and focus on the people around you – not the messages that pop up on a work screen.
Don’t beat a path to a lonely ending. It’s never too late to press pause on a busy work life and get a bit of balance back. You might even end up finding the time to polish your own brogues and pickle some cucumbers and if that makes you happy then go for it!!