jen groeber: mama art

4 kids in 3 years: reflections on motherhood, art and life.

Just Five Things

I Novel button

I Novel (NaNoWriMo)

Lately I’ve been remembering the words of a woman I used to work with. She’d been diagnosed with one of those illnesses that takes away your ability to do what you are good at little by little and all at once. I had come to that school to fill in for someone who had taken a sabbatical year, and at the end of that year I was looking for a way to stay on.

Her job wasn’t like any of the jobs I’d done at schools, but they were looking for someone who was a good writer and who likes to help people. And so they dug out an old desk and moved me into the corner of her office. I would listen to what she did and then ideally would learn to do it too. No one had said it directly, but we all knew that  I was preparing for the day when she might change in precipitous ways, and I would step in and become her.

We worked together in this odd way for a few years, almost literally cheek to cheek. She was sharp-witted and spoke directly, and I always felt there was an extra weight of wisdom to what she said because of the place she was in her life and the experiences she’d amassed.

I’ve always been known for trying to get a little too much done each day, putting too much on my plate in the metaphorical sense. My mother will still say to you, “That’s Jennie! Burning the candle at two ends!” This falling short from my absurd goals always leaves me frustrated, like I’m never quite enough.  It has been the number one criticism, although also a backhanded compliment in its way, from every person I’ve worked under in my years teaching and working in schools.

“Jen,” this woman said to me, “you can only ever really do five things well at any time. You can only ever be good at five things. ”

I hated the advice. It went against everything that I do and the way I value myself as a contributor on every level.

A few years later, I helped bring Rachel Simon, author of Riding the Bus with My Sister to our school to speak. In truth, by the time she came onto our campus I realized that her book rubbed me the wrong way. She told the tale of riding public transit buses with her sister, who had pronounced intellectual disabilities. Her story came off as snide to me, mincing. But the thing that annoyed me the most (besides her continued insistence that she looked like Andie MacDowell) was that she said that most siblings of people with severe disabilities are over-achievers, that we’re less likely to have children ourselves, that we never feel like we’re enough. (Damn her, and her tiny bit of truthiness.)

When this colleague and friend told me I could only do five things well, I struggled to hear what she was saying. I enumerated on my fingers the things I wanted to do. Be a good wife, be an artist, start a family, be a good teacher, make jewelry to sell, run a marathon, spend time with friends, be a good daughter, and so on.

“But I’m doing all these things,” I told her.

“But you’re not doing them well,” she replied. She was always a straight shooter, that one.

The idea that there is a finite amount that we can do well, that was a revelation that stayed with me. I had always seen myself as a sort of spring, with an infinite supply of water. If only I scooped the water fast enough, tried hard enough, I could fill every single cup forever. I could be the spring for all the drought-stricken wells in my family. It was maybe even my duty.

But there she was, pointing out that I was a pitcher with only enough water to fully fill five glasses. Be a great mom, be there for my husband, make art, stay fit, write a book, done.

This is a long way of saying that I’ve signed up for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) which begins next month. I have a small group of writers who I will see once a week who have also signed up. I hope that looking at their young inspired faces will keep me feeling just uncomfortable enough that I will write a lot of something every day.

I tell you this because I’m hoping that two or three or ten of you will then ask me at the end of November how my writing is going. I want to be beholden to you, too. But I also tell you this because it means I might not blog so well next month. Also I might not get any housework done so if you’re in my mudroom, just look away. I may even gain a few pounds in unsavory places. I won’t be able to keep watching a nightly episode of Ray Donovan in order to catch up to the current season. Yes, I may fall behind in all sorts of utterly unforgivable ways.

birthday cake

One of the awesome things I got done this weekend
October 2015

The woman who gave me that advice so many years ago moved with her husband to California, someplace beautiful and warm she’d always wanted to be. A couple years later I left to become a stay-at-home mom with my newborn preemie twins and toddler son. We don’t communicate directly, but I like to picture her gunning her way through yoga poses, finding balance by the ocean, no matter how her strength ebbs. I like to imagine her sitting with her husband, being a grandmother, being mindful, breathing deeply. (Five things.)

Maybe what my friend and colleague was saying was that less is more, or that perhaps we need to be more forgiving of ourselves when we are stretched in too many different directions. We need not be everything to every person, you know? We don’t always have to be excellent. Not me. Not you.

27 comments on “Just Five Things

  1. bumbismom
    October 27, 2015

    Good luck on the novel!

    • jgroeber
      November 19, 2015

      Thank you! It’s happening slowly but surely. Is there any other way?

      Good luck in your November endeavors, too!

  2. Stacy di Anna
    October 27, 2015

    From where I’m sitting you are doing countless things well, and inspiring others to do the same! Sending you extra vibes for a month of productive writing! Can’t wait to hear about your progress.

    • jgroeber
      November 19, 2015

      Oh, thank you. My mudroom has suffered. Also, the waistline (damn you, Halloween candy!) But I keep reminding myself that it’s all okay.

  3. Jennifer Berney
    October 28, 2015

    Oh wow–FIVE things? I thought I only had to be really good at one and then just decent at two others.

    • jgroeber
      November 19, 2015

      Truth? it may have been three. It was so long ago I forget. I initially wrote the whole post as “five… or three things” but it got a bit unwieldy. Stick to three. If you can be great at just three, that’s still pretty genius in my book. 😉

  4. Travelholicyou
    October 28, 2015

    Hope, I find out those five things for myself. 🙂
    Good luck for your novel.

    • jgroeber
      November 19, 2015

      And I think we can keep changing those things. So choose five (or three!) things today, and then change them up tomorrow.

      (And thanks for the NaNoWriMo support. Every little bit counts.)

  5. Jesska
    October 28, 2015

    Here’s to a month of writing and letting the mudroom be muddy! 🙂 Also (hopefully) to tea and chocolate and an argument-and-illness-free-family…

    • jgroeber
      January 2, 2016

      How am I just seeing this now?! This does not bode well for the condition of the back of the bottom shelf of my refrigerator. Sigh. But I did the 50,000 words, so at least there’s that? Thank you for commenting, even in the face of my terrible blogging habits.

      • Jesska
        January 9, 2016

        SHHHH!! Don’t mention the fridge! I am on holiday for 2 weeks, and I don’t want to know anything about fridges, especially bottom shelves…. 🙂

  6. Matt
    October 28, 2015

    Just maybe, with the appropriate amount of focus, effort and organization, we can squeeze in an extra one or two things?

    Father, full-time job, entrepreneurial start-up, writing, fitness.

    Need room for: dating, spiritual balance, reading (self-development), home maintenance, adventure.


    10 is probably pushing it.

    Good thing my house isn’t tidy, I’m not adventuring, my gargantuan book stack has been neglected, my spiritual life is mehhhh, and I rarely date.

    Where do you stand on using NaNoWriMo for non-fiction?

    Because, just maybe, it’s time to get that thing finished.

    • jgroeber
      November 19, 2015

      I’m just saying, don’t kick yourself when environmentalist, computer programmer, marathoner and deep sea diver fall off the map.

      And I think NaNoWriMo rocks. I need outside pressure so bad it’s tragic. It’s why I blog. And it’s gotten me 30,000 words closer to a novel. Next year maybe I’ll try non-fiction. I’ll keep you posted how the fiction goes. good luck! I’ll read what you’re writing (and so will a ton of other readers, I know.)

  7. beth teliho
    October 28, 2015

    Five things feels like a lot of pressure. I think I’m maybe good at two, and then I’m getting by on the other three, and then about four more things I basically suck at.

    NANO! Awesome, good luck. I’m doing it as well, and I guarantee it’s the ONLY thing I’ll be doing well in November.

    • jgroeber
      January 2, 2016

      Ha! Will there be an Order of Eight then? (Fingers crossed!) It looks like our families all survived our subpar parenting during the month of November. Perhaps we should disappear into our writing caves more often?

  8. Dawn Quyle Landau
    October 28, 2015

    Another wonderfully sage piece of writing, my friend. So inspiring. I may just move to MA after all! I miss fried clams too. 😉 Your points are so dead on, as was your friend’s advice. The trick: really taking that advice. I have struggled with it… forever. I’m just happy that one of the things you do so well, is write, ’cause I love reading your work! This may be your strangest comment, but oh how I wish you were my mother! xoxo (ps- did you make that cake?? Add that to your list too!)

    • jgroeber
      November 21, 2015

      What’s stranger still is that “Are You My Mother” is the book my daughter has been lugging around and making me read every night for the past two weeks. What’s the word? Serendipity? Kismet? And I still think back to inspiring words shared in old Adirondack chairs watching kids destroy a blow up swimming pool. They inspire me.

  9. katepeliot
    October 28, 2015

    I love this post! Someone once told me, you can’t have it all….at once. I love that because I feel like you can do it all, but just not at the same time! So maybe your five things now will morph into five different ones in a few years. Well, maybe hang on to the ‘be a good mom’ one. 😉


    • jgroeber
      November 21, 2015

      Oh, I hope so. I need some of these life goals to morph for sure. Although yes, some, like being a good mom and friend and wife and daughter, those time sucks will always remain. And maybe that’s not so bad. 😉

      (You are the best for finding the time to read and comment by the way, when you know you I’ll likely just blather it all to you in person anyway.)

  10. Anna Spanos
    October 28, 2015

    This is so the post I needed right now. I’ve spent the past week beating myself up for not having enough energy, for sleeping too much, for not writing the way I should be writing, for not parenting the way I should be parenting (also for not working enough overtime or spending enough hours studying for the GRE). Right. And I’m pregnant to boot.
    I love the five things rule, I may need to borrow it for a while, maybe even use up one of those spots for being a good pregnant lady while I put up my feet and watch baseball. Good luck on the novel!

    • jgroeber
      November 21, 2015

      Ah, too much, too much. You know what I say to that? Enough is enough. You and your gorgeously growing belly and even the attempt to work such an awesome job and be a great mother and a good wife is so very much enough. Consider this your congratulations and round of applause every time you sit and watch some well-deserved baseball, bonus points if you have a little girl wiggling around at our feet.

  11. Amy Reese
    October 30, 2015

    There’s a lot of truthiness to your post too, Jen! I kind of believe in the rule of five as I’ve gotten older. It makes more sense. Less is more. Make everything you do count and such. Best of luck on NaNo, I did it once! It’s a good thing to do. Just write, write away and no editing.

    • jgroeber
      November 21, 2015

      And Jenn Berney above (have you been to Goodnight Already? Gorgeous story-telling) suggests we only need three, which may or may not have been the original prescription. So when five fails, let’s congratulate ourselves on three.)

      And I don’t think I can write and not edit. So we’ll see how those 50,000 words go. I’m feeling good about it, if only that damn turkey, cranberry and stuffing (and five days straight of my kids plus my mother at home- what the heck?!) doesn’t get in the way. Ha! Wish me luck, and happy gobble, gobble yourself.

  12. shuntaym
    December 2, 2015

    Great post. Very inspirational.

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This entry was posted on October 27, 2015 by in Surviving Motherhood, Uncategorized and tagged , , , .

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