WHITNEY: Maintaining your four-burner stove

I’m writing to you on a long, tiring, mostly unproductive day that is ending at the bottom of a cup of tea I’m hoping will cure my sore throat.

My only success today was getting my hair cut, a two-hour slice of time that I carefully carved out for myself two months in advance but it came only with the sacrifice of breakfast with my husband and daughter (and actually, the sacrifice of any breakfast at all, save the cup of coffee I drank in the swivel chair).

At the end of this day, I’m laying on the couch with my laptop on my stomach because my back hurts from folding laundry and cooking dinner and lifting a 25-lb. child, and I’m contemplating the words of better writers than me, namely David Sedaris.

I can’t say I originally heard the analogy I’m about to present from his New Yorker essay, “Laugh, Kookaburra,” where Sedaris himself brought it to light. I heard it elsewhere and only later learned it was from this essay, which I later tracked down and read. If you have a chance, do the same.

In this essay, Sedaris writes of a trip to Australia, during which a very successful friend asked him to picture his life as a four-burner stovetop.

“’One burner represents your family, one is your friends, the third is your health, and the fourth is your work.’” The gist, she said, was that in order to be successful you have to cut off one of your burners,” Sedaris writes. “And in order to be really successful you have to cut off two.”

I’m aiming for a middle ground between “really successful” and, I guess, “successful enough,” so there are times when I’m juggling pots on three burners and times when I’m focusing on two. Sometimes they’re all simmering happily, other times they’re all boiling over.

Now more than ever, family remains a focus for me, whether by default or because over the years I’ve learned who really has my back. I choose work as my second burner to keep constantly lit. I love what I do, I like earning a paycheck, and hopefully both of these things make me a more valuable family member so I’m also stoking the flames of that top-priority family burner.

I try to maintain my friendships, but I’d be lying if I said that aspect of my life hasn’t suffered in the past couple years, even before Olivia entered our lives and hampered the spontaneity that once allowed us to road trip to Chicago or Detroit on a whim. But I’m ambitious. I want to keep this burner lit because without some kind of adult conversation with people whose lives are so different than mine, I might go insane, which certainly won’t help me at work or at home. Sometimes this burner is lit, sometimes it’s not. It’s the best I can do.

As for my health, meh. Apparently I’m willing to let it slide. I’m a full-grown adult without a doctor or a dentist, and I’m trying to cure an illness with tea and sleep deprivation. But listen — I ate a kale salad for dinner and during the weekend I got a workout pushing a stroller through the snow during an awareness walk. I’m making the bare minimum effort towards keeping my body from falling apart. It seems to be enough for now.

I snuck out of the house early this morning for a haircut though, not realizing this would mean getting backed up at work and not making it home for lunch before my husband and child left home for the afternoon. I also didn’t figure that Olivia, too, would be exhausted at the end of the day and would want to go to bed early. I didn’t anticipate spending a total of an hour and 20 minutes with her in an entire 24-hour period.

I turned the (mental) health burner up this morning and turned the others way down or off for a moment. It’s a balancing act, I suppose, some kind of life kitchen culinary expertise we acquire in time. I certainly haven’t mastered the art of maintaining my burners, but I’m trying to be more mindful, to anticipate which pots are boiling over and which need a little bit more warmth.

What does your stovetop look like?

Whitney is the associate editor of the Pioneer, and she oversees the Parenting page. If you have something you’d like to see on this page each Friday, email her at whitney@pioneergroup.com or call (231) 592-8386.