Some bees built a nest under my house last summer, which was just fine by me. I liked having them work beside me in the garden. I liked tipping up a zucchini blossom and finding a bee busily loading up on pollen. She'd start suddenly at my presence and whiz out, so heavy with the collection that she seemed to struggle to hold herself up.
''Thank you,'' I'd murmur as I finished loading up a basket of zucchini and tomatoes. The bee circled back to the nest; I hefted vegetables in one hand and a basket of clean laundry from the line in the other, struggling to carry it all in one trip to the kitchen.
As I dropped off the load one day, I heard a daughter call from the driveway, ''Mama, come play with me!'' I glanced at the vegetables beside the cutting board and the laundry waiting in a heap. Then I headed back out, plunking beside the bees' nest to make chalk pictures on the driveway. As I began coloring, I found the body of a bee who never made it home on the cement. I scooped her up with a bit of paper, and my older daughter and I took a long, close look.
The bee is a remarkable creature: What a strange life story she has! A bee spends a total of about three weeks as a juvenile: a legless larvae whose only job is to eat and then metamorphose inside her hexagonal cell. The moment she matures, she saws her way out of the cell with her teeth and sets immediately to endless work.
Her first job is to clean her room (licking up small debris; carrying out large), then the adjoining rooms, readying them for the queen's next batch of eggs. Then she starts packing together pollen, honey and saliva to feed the larvae—sisters whose eggs were laid perhaps just a week after hers. Before long the milk glands in her head start producing what’s known as ''royal jelly,'' which she feeds to the youngest larvae by tipping her head far into their cells. I imagine it like breastfeeding from her forehead, only with more acrobatics involved.
A bee barely has time to eat, between nursing babies 'round the clock and snatching at sleep. Oh, and in her abundant spare time she's also responsible for flapping her wings like a maniac to make sure the honey gets made. The whole thing feels all too familiar to me. It was not so long ago that I weaned my youngest, and I remember very well the times I'd sit nursing the baby with my stomach growling while my own dinner grew cold on the table, then eating said cold dinner while washing dishes.
Once the nursing stage of a bee is over, though, she leaves the nest. She's only got about 2,000 flowers to visit in the course of a single day. Imagine her commute. Four or five miles for a creature that weighs less than a paperclip. But somebody's got to bring home the pollen that will feed the whole family.
Her wings beat 230 times per second. They must. Faster motion is the only way she can hold her own body up, keep it all moving. Her life is one long dead-out sprint, racing from task to task until the end of her life.
And at the end: A bee may drown, or she may be eaten by birds, or swatted or stepped upon, or ravaged by parasites. But a good many of them simply work themselves to death, taking off and falling flat, or dragged into the dust by the sheer weight of the pollen, their lives' work. Their wings fall finally to shreds. Their tiny hearts cease. The bee in my driveway must have died like that, dropping dead in midair.
You could sum the entire life of a bee in one word: sacrifice.
There's a word parents know very well. My husband recently explained to a friend what it's like to become a mother or father: After you have children, every good thing you want to do comes with a price, a trading out of something good for something else good. Blanket rules are impossible; each sacrifice has to be weighed, daily, on a case-by-case basis.
I find this explanation entirely true. At various times, I can put away laundry or play with the kids. I can volunteer at church or have quality time as a family. I can exercise or write this column. My life feels like a 1,000-piece puzzle with 10 extra pieces in the box: How can I possibly fit everything in? I've written out hour-by-hour schedules, agonized over what I'm just too tired to finish, pushed multitasking to its extreme (eating breakfast, unloading the dishwasher, scheduling a doctor's appointment, and putting on my daughter's shoes all at once).
Unlike my husband, however, I feel a nagging sense of guilt each time I sacrifice one thing for another: No matter what I do, I remember the cost of doing it. I drew chalk pictures on the driveway, so the laundry is still sitting in the basket, waiting to be rummaged through when somebody needs clean socks. I volunteered at church; my youngest daughter broke my heart screaming when I walked out the door. I sat down this afternoon to write, and I still don't fit into my pre-pregnancy jeans.
So I've tried to minimize whenever possible the things left undone. Mothers particularly, I've heard, can ''have it all,'' a phrase that implies that we need not put anything on the altar for sacrifice. We can raise great kids and climb the career ladder—in addition, of course, to cultivating great marriages, regularly getting together with friends, throwing Pinteresting birthday parties, raising money for what I cannot deny are good causes, sculpting six-pack abs, and posting continuously about all of it on Facebook.
I need to reclaim the right to set and trust my priorities. For me, it starts with letting go of ''having it all.'' To choose what is good, I have to give up something else good. Setting down a ball or two forces me to decide what is most important: a decision that defines who I am. Exercising choice means examining those values, making up my mind about what constitutes a well-lived life. Then I can stop focusing on the ''good'' I’ve given up and savoring instead the ''better'' I have chosen.
These days, when that guilty-mom feeling starts welling up, I try to remember my ''betters": I value my relationships more than my clean house. I value my mind's ambitions over my body's. I value making a difference in my community over being present with my family every night of the week.
We can put choice on the altar and try to ''have it all.'' We can beat our wings 230 times per second until we drop dead mid-flight. Or, we can choose to let some things go and, in doing so, refuse to let the load drag us right down into the dust.
As for me, I carried the bee gently to the compost pile and whispered "thank you," as I laid her down. Then I went back to my daughters, picked up the chalk, and whiled away the morning drawing flowers where the bee had died.