When you don’t know what to do, start with the obvious

Lately I’ve been talking to an old friend, and her family is walking through a path similar to the one we walked just a few years ago, when we made the transition from living overseas to life back in our home country.

It’s brought back memories of those difficult days, when we weren’t sure what to do. We were at a crossroads, and turning neither direction was wrong. Unlike a Choose Your Own Adventure book, choosing one path didn’t mean becoming queen of your own country, and going the other way didn’t mean certain death.

For us, the choice was between continuing our cross-cultural life, or returning to a life where things “made sense.” At its simplest, the first route guaranteed adventure and a global experience; the latter meant a predictable routine and being closer to family and friends.

See? Both good choices.

That season of transition was one of our most difficult, but I’m grateful for it, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything easier. The reason is because I treasure like gold the things I’ve learned from that experience.

Here’s what I told my friend to remember when she’s faced with a tough decision, when neither choice is wrong.

Do what you know to do

For us, it came down to opting for what we knew we were called to do, instead of what we might be called to do.

Let me explain. We realized that yes, our jobs overseas were important and life-changing, and the friends we worked with could say our presence there was valuable. But at the end of the day, someone else could do them. Nothing hinged on the balance of us living overseas.

But no one else could be my children’s mother. And no one else could be Kyle’s wife. Those were undeniably roles that I and I alone could play. If I didn’t do those things, there was no substitute. Nor would I want there to be.

So ultimately, we chose what was best for our family at that time over things that were good and noble, but were things that honestly, somebody else could do. I knew that when I looked back in 20 years, I wouldn’t wish I’d have chosen a job over doing what was best for my kids. That was a no brainer.

Do you feel stuck, not knowing what to do? Does your plate feel full to overflowing, but you aren’t sure what needs scraping off? Are you torn between too many people asking you to do too many good things?

First—breathe, and possibly get some sleep and eat a snack. It’s amazing the frustration we feel when we’re hangry (when you’re so hungry you’re angry) or tired.

Then, list out the things in your life you know are yours. Being your spouse’s spouse. Being your kids’ mom or dad. Check.

Decide what’s best for helping you do those tasks, and make time on your plate to do those things. Then, see what room you have left over. That’s the space you have for the other good options.

Sounds simplistic, and that’s because it is. When we’re in the thick of making tough choices, it’s often hard to see the obvious—at least it is for me. I’m surprised how often I return to this little truth, and it’s almost never over enormous decisions like, in which country should we live?

It’s about things like whether I should homeschool, or do something else. It’s when I consider a writing assignment. It’s even when I check my schedule to see if I have time this week to do coffee with a girlfriend. And the answer to each of these (and plenty more) is different, depending on the circumstances.

But the best answer always comes down to the basic reality of making sure they help me do the jobs I know I’m meant to do.

What’s on your plate right now that you’d love to scoop off? What choice are you facing? Does it help to remember that first, you’re meant to do those things that only you can do?

Tsh Oxenreider

Tsh is the founder of this blog and just finished traveling around the world with her husband and 3 kids. Her latest book is Notes From a Blue Bike, and believes a passport is one of the world's greatest textbooks.

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  1. Divinely inspired timing…thank you.

  2. That’s me right now. We are overseas and I’m in language away from my baby for a time. It’s a tough time in our family, but a necessary season… and only a season! I’ve been simplifying and not doing anything more outside the home, although there are tons of opportunities, because my ministry is first to my husband and baby. Thanks for this post Tsh!

    • I’m in the same situation. Living overseas, 3 kiddos (including a 1 month old), and trying to make my sleepy brain study a difficult language on top of keeping a home and friends and everything else. You’re right. It is a season and will pass.

      This post is aptly timed as I’m feeling overwhelmed by everything I could do but need to focus on all that I should do. I need to bless others by letting them help instead of trying to do it all! Only I can feed this baby right now 🙂

  3. Some very good food for thought!
    I’ve over-committed to some things lately, and I really like your idea of re-thinking things in terms of what only *I* can do. Helps me figure out what to graciously bow out of, and what to stick with!

  4. I just recently made decisions in this same vein. I was working full time but losing the grip on everything at home. I have been home full time again 2 weeks and loving it.


  5. interesting point of view, but it somewhat disregards the need to provide for that same family and kids, especially when the mom is the sole breadwinner.

    • I would disagree. It’s a tool to help make difficult decisions, not a template. So it’s quite possible that for the best of the kids and family you should do what may feel counter-intuitive for anyone else from outside.

      Family needs food, cloths and some comfort of living to thrive. So if no one and nothing can replace you from providing these than rather clearly working is an element crucial and important in your life’s puzzle that should be celebrated. Which also means that being “the family breadwinner” is up there with “being spouse’s spouse and “kid’s mom”

      But more importantly I’d say that knowing that it’s truly crucial makes your time allocations feel more intentional and less forced by the evil world. ;]

      At leasts that’s how I see it.

    • Katy, I’m my family’s primary breadwinner as well. In this post, I’m not specifically talking about always choosing family over your job in the traditional sense. I’m talking about the idea of thinking clearly what you alone can do versus what you can do but don’t necessarily have to (because someone else can). This approach to decision-making can even be made AT work.

      The story I tell about our family is simply an example of when I learned this simple but powerful truth. It certainly doesn’t translate to every body, at every time, into “quit work because family comes first.” In fact, that’s not even what we did here. One of the secondary reasons we moved back to the U.S. was so we could concentrate more on this blog network, which was rapidly becoming our main source of income.

      Hope that helps explain things a little. 🙂

  6. Great words! We live overseas, and I see people struggling with this a lot. I think lots of families stay over here despite their family falling apart because they feel guilty. Or they feel like a failure. Because living overseas and doing Christian work can sometimes be put on a pedestal, we think we are failing or giving up if we need to move back to the States. I also think sometimes people are looking for writing in the sky. I loved your wisdom: Eat a snack, make a list, pray. Ultimately, if you are loving the Lord and running from sin, I have a hard time believing He will be dissatisfied with what you do as a job. We get wound so tightly in trying to find the micro-center of God’s will when I think He has lots of options for us that would all please Him.

  7. This is an excellent post and one I really needed to read at this point in my life – considering whether to carry on with my only-very-slightly profitable little business!

  8. The principles you’ve described in decision making are so important. I used the same sort of thoughts when sifting through each season with my family, as I’m a physician and married to a physician. I’ve made some choices that to others mights seem radical, or even a “waste” of my training as a healer, such as stepping away from medicine completely for a period of time, and now I only practice on a volunteer basis in Christian free clinics, which keeps my schedule very controlled. I have asked myself many times “What can only I do?” And only I can be my kids’ mom and husbands’ wife.

  9. I constantly try to clear my plate, but seem to get sucked into commitments on the fly. This is great advice, just step back a bit and see what is necessary, and then slowly let other things back in.

  10. Called to do vs Could do…that is such a challenge. I’ve definitely been through seasons when I felt like I had to do all the things I could do, or fill in all the gaps myself. I think that pull, for me, came out of selfishness, a desire to feel needed and indispensable. In my life my callings feel quieter, but mean much more.

  11. Such a good reminder. We are in the midst of a possibility of a huge changing coming in the next year and it seems overwhelming. Sometimes I just tell myself “do the next best thing.”

    But like you said, my family always comes first.

  12. “the best answer always comes down to the basic reality of making sure they help me do the jobs I know I’m meant to do.”

    Very nice article stressing very important points.
    I think another item worth adding is to make sure that you are in an environment where you can be at your best so that you have something to offer to those you love, to fill those jobs that only you can do. I tried very hard to be a good father and think I succeeded but could have done better had I been in the right career. I was never at my best because I was at such odds with my job. I wasn’t fully present and fell short in some areas as a father. I feel that I could do a much better job now that I have changed careers.
    Oh well, hindsight is 20/20. I did the best I knew how at the time.
    Thanks for the nice post.

    Dan Garner

  13. Robin from Frugal Family Times says:

    This post is timely for me. I’ve been asked, in a very flattering way, to take on some new tasks at work (more pediatric nutrition counseling). It is important good work, but would require more hours at the office. Something would have to give, probably home amd mom stuff, things that are also important good work. The difference: only I can do the mom stuff at home, someone else can do the counseling at work. I have such a few short years to mother my kiddos, I don’t want miss more of it than needed.

  14. I really appreciate the reminder to go back to what is most important. The one thing I don’t understand is how that helped you make your decision about whether or not to move. Because I’m pondering a similar question myself, I’d love to better understand how knowing that you are called to be the wife and mother helped you decide that returning to the States was the right decision.

    • For us, it had to do with specific stuff at the time. Our son needed speech therapy, and they didn’t have that in our host country (at least in English). We weren’t sure why he wasn’t speaking yet at 2 1/2, so we needed to do some longer-run testing as well. That, plus some other logistics, meant we needed to prioritize our family’s needs at that time.

      If Reed didn’t have those needs, the answer to that question might have been different—it might have been best doing what we alone could do by staying there.

      Hope this helps.

      • Super helpful! Thanks so much for responding. Am struggling with there not being a real reason to move other than not being very happy where we are (though I have so much to be thankful for!).

        Need to write all these things down to think through.

  15. This is very timely. Thank you.

  16. I have a lot of decisions to make in my life in the very near future so this is a very timely post for me. Thank you Tsh 🙂

  17. this sounds so simple, and i think i need simple for the schedule overload i have right now. i think i am going to try this listing out what is mine thing and then seeing what is left over. i have felt pulled in every direction A LOT lately.

  18. Thoughtful, and helpful. Are you familiar with the discernment processes that St. Ignatius taught? Daily Examen, and the discernment of the spirits? If not, I bet you would do a wonderful job translating them for the “simple mom” context.

  19. Before I had my daughter, I thought I had to do everything and, on many days, I still do. But I’m slowly coming to the realization that all I NEED to do is be her mother and the best life-partner to my fiance as I can. The other things must come second. It’s a hard balance for me to find but I’m encouraged to keep sorting things out. And, this post could’t have come at a better time to motivate me to keep sorting. Thanks!

  20. Good stuff, Tsh.

  21. Stupendously good timing for this post in my life, as seems to be typical with your posts!!

  22. Thanks for the reminder. Sometimes I forget that my job is “being mom” and I need to weigh decisions against what will help me do that better.

  23. We too are at a transition point in our lives. We came back from the mission field having resigned from there and are curious to see how and where God will lead us. We are trying to focus on the here and now, and wait on Him who knows there where and when and what and why. Hard stuff but good stuff.

  24. We too are at a transition point in our lives. We came back from the mission field having resigned from there and are curious to see how and where God will lead us. We are trying to focus on the here and now, and wait on Him who knows the where and when and what and why. Hard stuff but good stuff.

  25. Right now after moving, my plate feels empty. But I want to be intentional about not filling it up with activities that someone else could do. Excellent points.

  26. Sometimes it feels like the things that “only I can do” aren’t always the things I’m really dying to do. I recently had the opportunity to go with a husband on a business trip which would have meant four days and four nights away from my children. I would have my days to myself and then my husband and I could spend the evenings together. But our son is only seven months old and so he still needs me. (Yes, I’m sure in an actual emergency he would manage, but my mother, who would be watching the children while we were away was uncomfortable with the idea of us being four states away–what is he refused a bottle? What if the frozen breast milk supply ran out? etc) So yes, I’m the “only one” who can care and feed him at this age. But sometimes I wish someone else could do it for a while. I know this may seem like a shallow example, but saying no to four days and four nights away from my kids (as well as four nights of a full night’s sleep, 12 meals I don’t have to cook or clean up) felt like sending away a life boat to continue treading water in the ocean. So instead I’ll be spending four days and four nights caring for two small children alone. Don’t mind me, I’m feeling a bit negative today. Thank you for the great post though Tsh. I try to remember that I really am the best one to raise my kids, even on days when I wish I could pay someone else to do it for me.

    • As a mom of three kids ages 4 and under, I can totally relate to this. My youngest is three months and your analogy of treading water in an ocean is spot on. I also have days where I wish I could pay someone else to take care of my kids for me. And although I know that I am the best mom for my kids, we can’t forget that we need breaks, too. Maybe you could arrange for a short getaway weekend when your husband gets back from traveling. Maybe your mom would feel more comfortable if you were only gone 2 nights and you could stay closer, so that you’re not four states away. I know it is not the same, but it would be something.

      • Hang in there ladies! As a mom of 4 who are now aged 7-15, I DO remember the many years of an infant and/or toddler(s) in the house. The physical demands on mom are high, there’s no denying it. I remember many nights at home by myself with the children while my husband was away for work related business. One day at a time! At this stage I find it a joy (and so do my boys) to help a mom with little ones so she can have some time to herself or with her husband. Hopefully there’s someone nearby who can do the same for you.

  27. I really appreciated this post, my little family of 3 seem to be in this point in our lives. At a point where we can basically decide if we should move away or oversees to do youth ministry full time, or stay and do it locally so our baby can grow up near grandparents. It’s a tough position because I continually go back and forth, This was a good reminder of the “basics”.

  28. Thanks for this perspective, Tsh! I am dealing with a lot of decision making right now and this really spoke to me today. For the first time since I was 16 I am not working at a job outside of my home (not by choice). Now I am trying to make big decisions that impact the most important roles I play (mother & wife) and how we as a family will get through some of our big goals (debt free living and home improvements). I am feeling pulled to try to work for myself, but am at a loss for where and how to begin or if I can create enough income to justify working for myself. I am also feeling pulled to work outside of the home at a job I enjoy, but worry that it will take too much time and energy away from my other roles. Both good choices, but both have drawbacks.

  29. TSH!
    Your posts are so so great!! I love checking them out (As I subscribe), always encouraged by you and what you blog about!
    I love your new Simple Mom badge with the live inentionally and sneakers… looks great:)

    God Bless lovely,

  30. Love this! We’re a military family, trying to decide whether it’s time to move on… and finding it sooo hard to be objective when my husband has been gone for half a year and I’m here with three small kiddos by myself…but at the end of the day, as amazing as he is at his job, only HE can be my husband and their father. That sort of puts a stamp on things and adds a perspective that is difficult to counter. Thanks for this.

  31. I’m not sure I like this method, I’m the girlfriend you need to have coffee with this week 🙂

  32. Elizabeth Kane says:

    This post is a good reminder to why having a family purpose statement works when making decisions like this (from big to small). Remembering what’s important, what’s worth my time and energy. I want to look back and say I lived my life intentionally. As I make my own career change and location move, I’m using that statement I’ve created to build a life that makes sense for me. 🙂

  33. How timely for me, too!

  34. I couldn’t agree more. We have walked a similar path as well (though only contemplating and attempting state to state moves. ) Still in all the craziness you can only do those obvious things. great advice …especially the snack. Thanks.

  35. This is an fantastic post and one i really needed to read at this point in my life – considering whether to carry on with my only very slightly profitable little business!

  36. Love this.. It also stresses the importance of thinking things through with a calm and cool mind.. I tend to rush into things headlong and am now learning and valuing the importance of pausing before acting.. And yes, I agree, hangry minds never make good decisions:-)

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