On Planning When Things Are Not In Your Control
Since I was a child, I have loved planning. I used to write out plans for the day and even pretend to be a school teacher and write out lesson plans in whatever notebook I had been most recently gifted (or I’d swiped from my parents’ stash). As I grew, I transitioned from fictional planning to planning out my homework in my school planner. I’d meticulously track my homework in a color-coded pattern–purple for Spanish, green for Econ, orange for History.
After my son was born, as I was desperately trying to figure out how to keep track of all of his appointments, medications, and therapies, I was introduced to an online community of other planner-holics. Except they took it to a whole new level, leaving my color-coded lists in the dust. It was the first time I was introduced to washi tape and planner stickers. I turned into the heart-eyes emoji. I had found my people!
So needless to say, I’m on Team Planner. Not just cute, crafty planning, but also Team Planner for planning things out when life gets complicated.
Unfortunately, in the world of mental health and self-help, saying that you like to a plan or want a plan can feel like something you don’t want to admit to.
The implication has become: “If you plan, it must mean you have control issues that you need to deal with”.
I don’t think planning is inherently a bad thing.
I really don’t. I think planning can be a fantastic tool for helping with decision-making, removing the mental load of keeping a running list in your head, and it’s a really wonderful creative outlet, especially if you let yourself fall down the washi tape/calligraphy rabbit hole.
I think planning can also be really smart. When you’re on a complicated family-building journey, you have a lot of difficult decisions to make, sometimes on a tight timeline. Almost all of these decisions have sizable consequences that can alter the course of your family-building journey. It’s a heavy, intense process, and planning out contingency plans can help you navigate the tricky, uncertain terrain.
Where planning goes awry
Planning is no longer helpful is when it acts as a way to remain in your head and out of your body.
When it acts as a way to maintain an activated threat state instead of helping you stay out of a threat state.
When it helps you avoid the sensations of uncertainty with a false sense of control instead of facilitating your journey through uncertainty while controlling what you can.
Planning when you don’t know what’s coming
The first two months my son was in the NICU, we couldn’t plan more than one day at a time. In the early weeks, we were operating minute by minute. Iit wasn’t a matter of when he would come home but if he would come home. Trying to plan for his discharge when he was still critically ill would have been a way to avoid the horribly uncomfortable sensations of uncertainty that we had to become very familiar with.
In contrast, planning did serve me well when I would plan out the timeframe that was in my control. I planned out my hospital outfits around laundry days, weather, how cold or warm I knew the NICU would be. I planned out conversations I’d have with the neonatologist when I got there, the questions I’d ask the nurses when I’d call in the morning after shift change. I planned out what songs I would sing to him that day or what books I wanted to read, and what I would eat throughout the week so I could keep my struggling milk supply up.
All of that planning, though, happened amidst tears, despite frequent expressions of anger and resentment at no one in particular for putting my son through this. This planning happened against a backdrop of noticing how my body was reacting to meeting my son who was born too soon and was fighting for his life.
You can do both. Make plans, make lists, try to find some semblance of control and stay connected to your body so you can move through threat states.
If you’re a planner, keep at it.
I do believe planning can act as a powerful coping strategy. I think it can be a great tool to help us move through threat states so we don’t become stuck in them
But I think that’s possible only if we also allow ourselves to have the somatic experience that’s tied with what’s going on in our present reality. And it’s usually this second part that most people miss, turning planning into an avoidance strategy. They turn planning into a threat-cycle maintenance experience instead of a threat-cycle completion experience. The latter is what you want to aim for.
I know it’s hard when you’re in the NICU, a place you had never planned on being with your baby. I know how much having a plan and sticking to the plan can feel like you have a bit of control in your uncontrollable situation. I genuinely don’t believe planning is inherently a bad thing.
Plan away (with or without washi tape), but do it while taking care of your somatic health, too. You and your baby will benefit immensely from it. I wish you and your baby a speedy homecoming.