It’s 5 am on a Saturday morning and I’m lying awake with that cold, sweaty, anxious feeling that comes from deep existential angst masquerading as too many things to do. I know something has to change – that there’s GOT to be another way to look at my life..to live so that panic isn’t my default emotional channel.
One of the good things about being almost 50 is that I can look back on the last 20 years and realize that being anxious all the time doesn’t change much, regardless of what I’ve got on my plate. In other words, my responsibilities have always felt like too much, even when I was taking math tests in 5th grade.
Clearly I survived 5th grade math – although perhaps I still get a little stalled out when adding and subtracting fractions. But, I’m realizing that maybe this panicky feeling has a lot less to do with what’s on my plate than what’s in my mind.
And, what’s in my mind is that I, alone, am the one who must handle everything…. that it’s all up to me. Believing this is a little like putting a big heavy brick in my basket of things to do.
Now I know that I’m not the only one who does this. It seems clear to me that American women are suffering from an epidemic of panic-inducing, do-it-myself, overwhelmed, it’s all up to me syndrome.
The problem with the do-it-all life strategy is that when you add parental care to your to-do list, your life implodes. It’s just too much. Taking care of an aging parent is not a solo event you can squeeze into the already-too-much, do everything yourself framework that is your life.
It’s a team event. And, although you are the captain, you’re not the captain AND the team.
What this means is that you need to start looking at everything, not through the lens of “how can I get this done?” but rather “who can help me get this done?”
Let me stop right now and tell you that I HATE the latter question. I’m allergic to asking for help. But life always seems to put us on the hill we most need to climb and, as it turns out, I’ve come to realize that my life is no longer manageable without help. I’m being forced – finally – to figure this out. The good news is that I’m learning a lot of lessons about how I sabotage myself in getting the help I most need. Here they are:
Lesson 1: Before you can get help, you have to ask for it.
This seems so obvious but we often miss it. Many women I know believe that, if they are tired and clearly need help, someone they love will step up.
It’s just not how it works. If you wait around for someone to give you what you need, you’ll never get it. And, you’ll be incredibly bitter about it. Because….
Help doesn’t come when you need it; it comes when you ask for it.
When my daughter was two and my son was an infant, I spent many long, sleepless nights knocking around the house taking care of their needs, fuming silently at my husband asleep in bed.
But, here’s the crazy thing… I never once woke him up and demanded help. I mean NEVER. Rather, I was mad at him for not realizing I needed him…
Looking back I can see that I didn’t get help because I didn’t ask for it. And, it reminded me of something a professional mentor of mine once told me: no one gives you a raise because you’re doing a good job. They give you a raise because you ask for it.
You won’t believe how much better you’ll feel and how much easier life will be if you can learn to let go, stop requiring everyone to guess your needs, and just simply tell them.
Lesson 2: Before you can get help, you have to believe you deserve it.
This lesson follows very closely on the first one. I’ve found that sometimes we don’t ask for help because hidden in the recesses of our minds, we believe our value is in what we do, not who we are. So, any request or, god forbid, demand that someone else help, detracts from our value.
It’s like we’re secretly afraid that it might make someone love us less.
After all, we’re programmed in this society to believe that a demanding woman is an unloveable woman. That our worth is defined by our sweat.
And so, I find it’s so much easier to just do everything myself, complain about it, and wait for someone to step in and help. Of course when no one does, it simply proves what I already knew – that I’m not worthy and that no one loves me.
These feelings of not worthy and not good enough are probably the two most pervasive and damaging deep-seated beliefs that women carry around.
Friends, know this, you deserve help, you are worthy of it and you need to believe that, first and foremost so that you don’t give a second thought to asking for it.
Lesson 3: Realize that you are the CEO of a very complicated enterprise
As I said, this is not a solo job. There are finances to manage, health care services to organize and coordinate, day-to-day care to provide… it’s endless and complex.
To survive, you need to recruit, build and manage a team. Whether your team is your family, church members, friends, paid caregivers, or any combination of these, you have to start to think of yourself as the CEO.
Creating a team will give you “leverage.” This means that, by directing the efforts of others and relying on them to do some of the work, your work will produce much greater results. Now I know from my own personal experience that this leverage is easier said than done but it’s worth considering that maybe your mom or dad would be better off with a team than with just you.
While I want you to ask for lots and lots of help, even a little bit will make a big difference. For example, call your local senior center (area agency on aging) and find out whether there are any respite services or training programs available. Reconsider whether you can afford to pay someone to help you out just a little. And, if you can afford help, for the love of all that’s holy, hire some.
A lot of you have shared that you feel either abandoned by your siblings or shut out by them. You might consider hiring a counselor or mediator to help you and your siblings develop healthy working relationships so YOU can get the help you need. This can also help to ease those feelings of guilt if you aren’t the primary caregiver.
The takeaway is that by taking care of yourself you’re taking care of your parent. It’s actually not about you at all. And that’s a good thing. It’s about the inverse of setting boundaries – being realistic about what you can and can’t do and demanding that others do their part.