Friday, October 21, 2011

The Unofficial Performance Review

Have you ever read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig? It's my dad's favorite book, so I read it one summer; I think I was 19. There's a section near the beginning of the book where the narrator -a former college instructor- talks about an experiment he did, eliminating grades for his writing students. The good students get better, pushing themselves harder than they've had to in the past, when the stakes were clear. The bad students get nervous and panicky, suddenly interested in what the criteria are for passing the course. Suddenly they begin to pump out work: more and of better quality than ever before.

I don't know if I'm a good or bad student in this comparison, but it's a little disconcerting that the goal posts have not just moved: they're nonexistent in my new life. And I'm running the gamut from panic to pushing myself harder in response.

I was always a good student: from kindergarten through graduate school. The criteria were clearly spelled out, and I did what I had to do to fulfill them. When I went to work, I did the same. If I had questions, I asked my boss, or did some research to find out what were considered best practices in the field. There were always rubrics and protocols, checklists to guide me. The challenges were usually intellectual.

Now the challenges are largely emotional, the terrain has shifted, and I'm out here on my own, with little guidance, and nobody observing, measuring, giving feedback, grading my performance.

I get nervous and panicky some days, like Pirsig's poor students, wondering what the minimum requirements are to consider this venture a success. Other days I go above and beyond what I imagine myself capable of, like the better students when the parameter defining the upper limit was suddenly lifted.

In the past week, I've finally gotten some concrete feedback, and it felt good.

One of the boys I babysit is dropped off by his grandmother once a week, later in the morning because he gets early intervention therapy at her house beforehand. She said as soon as she pulled into our driveway he began to pump his fists, kick both feet, and squeal with joy! This little boy has never been outside of the care of his family before, and he greets me each morning with a huge grin. It made me feel good to know I'm providing his first taste of life outside his family home, and that he likes it out here in the big, bad world.

The other boy has been in child care twice a week since he was born, with the same caregiver, before coming to me a little less than two months ago. His dad drops him off because he has such a tough time separating from mom, and he always cried and cried if she did the drop-off. But his father had a conference this week, and mom had to do it. She arrived, obviously nervous, with her son in her arms, and dropped down to one knee to set him on the floor. Suddenly my son opened his bedroom door and peeked out to see his buddy arriving. The little boy's face lit up, he yelled: Bye Mama!, kissed her quickly, and ran toward my boy, ready to play. She said in the year and a half he'd spent with his other sitter, he had never been so happy to leave her side. It made my day.

This is a challenging transition for me. Not the identity piece, which I expected, and which hasn't really turned out to matter a whit to me. I know who I am, and a professional title -or lack of one- doesn't change that. But the balance that I so carefully and deliberately set out to create for my life has been flipped topsy-turvy, and that is taking some time to get used to. I find myself more exhausted and emotionally depleted than I have ever been before. I find I need to dig deeper to find reserves of patience, compassion, and willingness to wait, to try again, to return to the same problems until they are solved to my satisfaction. I have to learn to take care of myself in ways I didn't have to before. I'm somewhat surprised to find out how hard on myself I can be.

But I'm doing right by these babies, if squeals of joy, pumping fists and feet, great big grins, and feet racing into our house and our hearts are any indication. And it's not like I'll be getting a performance review this year -or a raise!- so, hey: I'll take 'em! I will most definitely take them.

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