Why I have a 'work self' and a 'home self'
When I was recently transitioning jobs, I received a lot of thoughtful notes from staffers. At the dinner table one night, I read a few of them out loud to my family, like this one: "I couldn't have asked for a better first boss, who's equally as smart as she is kind, encouraging, and patient."
"Patient?" my 11-year-old scoffed. "They think you're patient?"
"I guess so," I said. "I like answering their questions about editing their stories."
My three daughters looked at each other. My husband double downed on his chicken burrito bowl.
"But you're never patient with us!" blurted my 9-year-old.
I thanked my youngest child for her succinct perspective, and then I put the rest of the cards away. But my daughter's comment nagged at me. Was I not capable of being the same person at home as I was at work? The conclusion I've come to is: nope. I have a "home self" and a "public self," and they are very different, and that's a good thing.
My different selves are like the good yoga pants you have for leaving the house, versus the old, tatty pair you keep for throwing on the moment you get home and don't have to leave again for the rest of the night. Both serve unique purposes: My good pair gives me the confidence to grocery shop in public; my old pair allows me to sauté chicken cutlets for dinner without worrying about oil splatters. My "public self" is polished. She's put together and patient because she has to be. It's what society — and in this particular case, my coworkers — need and expect of me. But it is a performance. At home, all bets are off. I get to be myself around the people who know me best, and sometimes that means my fuse runs a bit short.
One specific reason I'm more patient at work than I am at home is because my coworkers don't leave messes out for me to clean up. For example, my kids are ages 9, 11, and 13, so muddy cleats are a thing, and they're really annoying. So are wet towels on the floor, milk left out overnight, and homework and markers all over the table. If you have babies or little ones, the messes you're left to deal with might include sticky burp cloths in the bed, or Lego bricks murdering your feet.
Sure, coworkers may bring you other messes, but I maintain it's easier to be calm and patient solving a "presentation mess" or an "org chart mess" when you aren't accidentally sitting in slime.
The thing is, I'm not sure it would be good for my children if I were a blessed saint of patience at home. As my kids get older, I feel it's a parental badge of honor for me to keep reminding them of what they need to do, instead of doing it for them. And I know my own mom, a former teacher, certainly felt that way. I can still remember being a little kid when we'd run into her old high school students and the fawning that would commence: "Oh, you must love having Mrs. Berry as your mom. She is the best teacher ever. She tells the best stories." Stories? I wondered. What stories? Doesn't she boss all of you around like she does my sisters and me?
Reminders of my mom's beloved public facade continued into when I was in high school and a student from her school asked me out. I quickly got the sense that it was mostly to see "Mrs. Berry at home," which is intel I could have provided without going for burgers: "My mom's balancing her checkbook right now and all of her Wal-Mart receipts are out on the counter and organized by date, and if you so much as breathe on those receipts … " In other words, we weren't sitting around on a Saturday night captivated by her legendary storytelling. My mom's home self was, out of necessity, different from her work self. She wasn't a wholly new person in the classroom compared to at home, but she had to deploy an array of coping skills in order to be successful in these very different environments. I would argue the ability to do this is one mark of maturity and self-preservation.
Not long after my kids declared that I was never patient at home, my husband and I attended their parent-teacher conferences.
"Your daughter's a pleasure to have in class — enthusiastic and loves learning," said my 5th grader's teacher. "When she's working with other students on group projects, she's very patient."
Patient? I thought.
It flashed through my mind that our spunky middle child doesn't show much patience to her sisters at home. But when we got back from the conferences, I stuck to the script of heaping on the praise, and I did not ask my 5th grader why she is more patient at school than she is at home, because I already knew the answer: She is developing her "home self" and her "public self."
The reason any of us can put the best versions of ourselves out into the world is that we can let it all hang out with the people who know and love us best. "Fake it until you make it" is a great motto for hustling in your career, but not when you're wearing your old yoga pants and cooking chicken cutlets. If I were my chipper, patient, office self at home, I'd be exhausted, and I think my kids would be worn out by me, too. But an impatient mom? My kids know how to love a mom like that.