I was lucky enough to take an international trip recently with my sweetheart. We flew to Costa Rica for a friend’s wedding and left my son, Ronan, at home with Grandma for a week of school and the kind of attention only Grandma can give.
Since I knew we’d be over 3000 miles away and in a more remote part of the country, I prepared for this trip as if I was planning a Mission Impossible style raid on a secret lair. I made a detailed packing list, I walked through all the days we’d be gone and made sure everything was available for Ronan’s every day activities. I made a detailed “Ronan guide” so Grandma would have all the information on how to care for my son. Everything from his typical morning routine and bedtime, to how to help him if he was having a hard time, and the ins and outs of swim lessons, pick up and drop off, and other activities.
While we were gone, everything went so smoothly. We got to sit by the pool and rest. The resort was all inclusive so we ate Costa Rica’s take on Americans’ food preferences for every meal. My favorite was at breakfast where they’d actually include some more authentic Central American food, so there was a different preparation of plantains every day. The wedding we went to was lovely and we had all the different outfit variations you need for a small destination wedding packed with activities. It truly was wonderful.
We’d been away for 5 days when I got a text from my father in law (Ronan’s Opa) telling me that Grandma had been unexpectedly hospitalized and that he had taken over Ronan duties.
Now, it was absolutely jarring to read this. I called him later and he gave me the whole story of being called at 4a because Grandma was having a hard time breathing and how she had been taken down the steps of our condo building to be transported by an ambulance to the hospital. He told me that he and his wife (my stepmother in law) got Ronan off to school just fine and how Ronan was none the wiser about what had happened to Grandma. He woke up and was surprised and delighted to find his Opa and Gamma sitting on the couch, ready to take him to school. A grandparent switcheroo!
We returned home a couple days after that. It was a long 21-hour day of travel. Grandma was discharged the next day and we got her set up in a hotel. We drove her back to her home 140 miles away in a caravan so I could drive her car with Ronan and her in the back, and my boyfriend could follow in our car to take us back home after she was safely tucked back in at home.
Now, this on the surface could be a story of managing dependents and family crises from a distance. It could be a story of the power of networks and people being able to call in help at all hours. It could even be a story about how truly stressful being a parent is because you’re always *on.*
But in reality, this is a story about my favorite piece of organizational development wizardry: Structure.
When I talk about structure, I often talk about it in the context of the workplace. But structure is definitely something that can and is applied outside of the workplace to more personal realms of our life, and still has just as powerful of an effect.
Structure in workplaces is what can help cut down on inter- and intrapersonal strife. Structure can account for all manner of issues and alleviates the need to try and change someone’s personal psychology. Structure includes goals, roles, processes, and resources, and when we come across a workplace issue, it can be resolve with a look at structure 98% of the time.
But I also apply structure to non-workplace settings. Or at least what we would think of as a non-workplace setting. I think of workplaces as any place a group of people are working to achieve a common goal. So while that absolutely can be a business, another workplace I am in every day is my home. My family is all working together to achieve a common goal.
In the case of our trip to Costa Rica, the goal was not just for Grandma to keep Ronan alive, it was to make sure they could have uncluttered time together where they could just be with each other. If it was the former goal of just keeping him alive, my prep would have been much different. With that goal, a stocked fridge would have been enough. No need for a detailed guide on bedtime or pre-packing the bag for swim lessons. Grandma could have packed him a PB&J sandwich every day for lunch and it would have met this bar just fine.
But since the goal was to give them the ability to be with each other without the strain of managing life, it meant I had to pre-plan a lot. I had to ensure all of Ronan’s clothes were clean so there would be no scramble for outfits, I had to stock the fridge and plan for Bethany, my Executive Assistant, to come and make lunches in advance so Grandma could just put them in the lunch box and then into his backpack. I had to write out all the necessary instructions so logistics could be referenced rather than guessed. So any questions or stress that come with running someone else’s household could be answered without us being there. I put everyone who is in our sphere on alert to be ready to reach out and support if something wild happened.
And you know, something did. But the experience for Ronan wasn’t “just keep him alive,” it was “do what we can so this little boy and his Grandma still get to have the best experience with each other possible.” It’s why the drive home wasn’t just me and Grandma and my boyfriend caravanning 140 miles. It was Grandma and Ronan in the back seat so they could build legos and talk and do tic tac toe and puzzles on the iPad.
I handled the details of life so they could have uncluttered time to be together. And because I communicated that goal to all the people who could be responsible for executing it–Opa and Gamma, Bethany, Ronan’s teacher and after school director, and all the close friends who supported us in other ways–it meant even when things took a wild left turn from the plan, everyone was still ready to deliver on that particular goal.
So now Ronan doesn’t associate that time with the fear that his Grandma was going to die, which was a whole conversation we had. Instead, he associates it with the chance to do a road trip with Grandma, to get taken out of school early, to get a Happy Meal and eat *in* a McDonald’s, to play at the beach near Grandma’s house, and to ultimately wrap up a week where he got to be with his Grandma in the most beautiful way possible, despite the acute medical emergency that needed to be managed.
This is the power of structure. This is the power of being clear with goals, working out roles, understanding processes, and aligning resources. In a traditional workplace it can mean days where you feel great about what you do and who you do it with. In the less traditional workplace, or maybe the most traditional workplace of a home, it means a little boy gets to take what could have been a terrifying experience that added to existing trauma about loved ones dying, and instead it became a source of memory where he was deeply cared for and loved unconditionally.