Back in my 20s, when I was still trying to figure out how to do it all—the perfect mommy/good wife/successful career woman/happy homemaker thing—I happened to be seated next to a kindly older gentleman at a dinner party. In the course of small talk, he mentioned that he came from a family with 11 children. At the time, I had one toddler and was hanging on by my fingernails.
"How, how, how," I practically cried, "did your mother do it?"
The man's eyes crinkled up; he'd heard the question before.
"Well, my dear, those were simpler days," he said gently. "After my mother finished the breakfast dishes, she started making lunch."
"Oh, come on!" I wanted to scream, "Give me the magic formula!"
As if he'd heard my thoughts, the man added, "Don't worry. Everything will sort itself out eventually."
How old-fashioned he seemed. How wise he turned out to be.
Which is not to say I've cracked the do-it-all problem at the ripe old age of 46. There is no foolproof way to manage something as untidy as life, and I still have days when I feel as if I am juggling eggs on a roller coaster. But I have—over a decade of tinkering and practice—devised a method, for lack of a better word, to help me balance my multiple life roles and navigate the daily dilemmas of an overstuffed existence.
I call it 10-10-10.
Here's how it works. Every time I find myself in a situation where there appears to be no solution that will make everyone happy, I ask myself three questions:
What are the consequences of my decision in 10 minutes?
In 10 months?
And in 10 years?
The answers usually tell me what I need to know not only to make the most reasoned move but to explain my choice to the family members, friends, or coworkers who will feel its impact.
I've used 10-10-10 to make some of the most meaningful decisions in my life—my divorce, for one. But the effectiveness of 10-10-10 crept up on me when I started using it on a much smaller scale.
The first time was a typical weekday. Dropping the kids off at school on the way to work, I promised that I would definitely, absolutely see them at dinner so we could do homework together and watch our favorite TV show. I also promised our babysitter the evening off.
At 5 P.M., of course, a crisis erupted at the office. During this period, I was hoping for a promotion, so walking out the door with my boss's hands wrapped around my ankle seemed particularly ill-advised. I called home to test the waters. The babysitter nearly burst into tears when I mentioned staying late. Two of the kids were fighting, and one was sulking for an unknown reason. (The other was still at swimming practice, thank God.) My daughter grabbed the phone and put in her two cents: "You love work more than us."
My gut was all over the place—go, stay, go—and that's when 10-10-10 was officially born. I slowed my thought process down and systematically began to pick it apart. "What exactly," I asked myself, "were the immediate repercussions of staying at work versus rushing home?"
If I stayed, my boss would jot it down in her little book of good deeds, and my children and babysitter would turn purple. If I rushed home, my boss would get someone else to help her, and my triumphant arrival at the front door would be greeted with the usual grunts and sighs, and probably a demand for the latest video game or some exciting new shampoo.
In 10 months? Assuming I didn't make staying late a daily feature of our lives (which I knew I wouldn't), the kids would be fine. As for the babysitter, she would be back at school, and I would be but a distant memory. At work, though, if I left, my boss might start to question my commitment and my availability, not the impression I was eager to encourage.