Saturday, February 26, 2011

Lifting elephants

It's Saturday morning, and Big Guy is slated for a home visit. Andrew just kissed me goodbye. The manuscript for his annual book is due, and he's in what we call his busy period. He's working long, long hours.

I have work to do, too: an online article about a local children's theater, and a monthly newsletter. But when Big Guy is home he must be supervised at all times. I can't leave him alone with the other kids while I work in the next room. I can't run down to do a load of laundry, or pop out to pick up milk. Some portion of my brain has to be allocated to paying attention to his moods, his actions, his whereabouts. All the time.

That's a lot to ask of a mom... and a lot to impose on a 14-year old boy. Just thinking about it feels like picking up an elephant. And yet the work itself is nowhere near the size of an elephant. The main task is getting all the can't-leave-the-house stuff done before Big Guy arrives. That's bunny stuff. Not impossible.

I think this is true a lot of the time. Our emotions are the size of an elephant, while the work is the size of a rabbit. Which means that often we can do what we need to do, as long as we divide our to-do list in two.

To-do list #1 (the Bunny List) consists of practicalities. In any given crisis, the practicalities are usually pretty simple: we have to make phone calls, set up appointments, craft an email, find the right kind of doctor or therapist, or clean up copious amounts of vomit. What has to get done can be reduced to a checklist.

To-do list #2 (the Elephant List) consists of coping with feelings. This is the hard stuff: the worries and fears and stress and insecurity and anxiety and inner objections. The elephants take time and energy to manage. But it's completely possible to say to your elephant, "I know you need my attention, and in order to do that well I'm going to tie you up safely over here for a moment while I go make this phone call. Then I'll be right back." And you go and do something on your bunny list... and that's one thing that's done on list #1.

Alternatively, you can say to the rabbit, "This elephant of mine is out of control right now. But tomorrow at 10 a.m. I'm going to make myself a cup of tea and place that phone call for you. It'll only take five minutes."

The key thing is not to confuse handling a rabbit with training an elephant. And to remember that we don't need to lift elephants. We only lead them in the right direction, prevent them from doing damage, and keep them from stepping on the bunnies.


  1. Wow. You have hit the problem right on the head. This happens to me all the time (can I repeat that? All The Time!) I let the bunny list languish while I fuss and fidget about that doggone elephant! And then at the last minute I run around and finish the bunny list when I could have gotten it out of the way a lot sooner, had I not been paralyzed by the thought of the elephant! I should print this off and post it above my bathroom mirror. Thanks so much!!!!

  2. This is a great post. My problem: the bunny list is so long I never can get through it all. And yes, that's after crossing off all the stuff that actually doesn't have to get done (it's been years since I've folded a pair of underwear, for one trivial example), and after delegating as much as possible.