In exactly 10 hours from now, at 5:30 am, I’m going to pull out of my driveway and hit the road for vacation.
And yet, at this point, I am still working. And I’m still packing.
Two days ago, I woke up in a cold sweat about my many pre-vacation obligations, checked my email and found this message from another mom,
“Fighting the feeling of being utterly overwhelmed.”
Two more times that same day I had friends use the word “overwhelmed” to describe how they were feeling – about jobs, kids, caregiving, all of the above.
There is an epidemic of overwhelmedness among women, and it’s hitting caregivers especially hard.
This isn’t just a modern first world problem, you know. Remember the scene in the New Testament where Mary’s hanging out with Jesus, soaking up the love he surely emanated while Martha is bustling around trying to get things done and feeling “utterly overwhelmed.”
These are ancient texts but I’m pretty sure she’s cooking, arranging the house and maybe doing the dishes. And, when Martha complains about being overwhelmed andgetting.no.help from Mary the slacker, Jesus says basically “Martha, my dear, you are worried and bothered about providing so many things. Only one thing is really needed. Mary has chosen the best part and it must not be taken away from her.”
And, it’s here, quite frankly, that I realize that Jesus is a man. Because only a man would say, “chill out and leave the dishes.”
Do men think dishes do themselves?…..I really want to know.
But, actually, regardless of your spiritual/religious affiliation, I think we can all agree that Jesus was on to something.
While it’s true that we all have very long “to do” lists and responsibilities, we sometimes make those obligations much heavier because of the way we carry them and the importance we place on them.
For a moment think of your to do list like a grocery bag. Now, the more perfectly you try to do each thing the more important each thing becomes. Add to this pressure we put on ourselves to be “good” and the obligation feels even heavier.. The result of all this is that even a few things in your bag and can seem overwhelming and too heavy to carry.
It’s a terrible situation to be in and it’s exactly the risk you run when you start to care for your parents. That’s when the horrible, trapped feeling of being overwhelmed really sets in.
At the end of the day, there are only two ways to address overwhelmedness. One is to reduce the number of items in your grocery bag. The other is to lighten the load of each item.
The first you do by setting boundaries. I know it’s SO much easier said than done but to survive daughterhood with your sanity intact, you must learn to be clear about your priorities and comfortable with saying, “no.”
We also have to learn how to reduce the heaviness of what we carry. And, this is really hard.
Doing this is essential for caregivers because, for most of you, taking care of your parents is not a negotiable obligation. You are just at your breaking point already with lots of heavy things in your bag and now suddenly you’ve added a whole new job.
In this situation, it can be helpful to recognize that our responsibilities are made heavier, in part, by stories we tell ourselves, myths we believe that are just not true. If you can begin to recognize when one of these myths has taken hold, you can also begin to loosen its grip and lighten your load.
Myth Number 1: I CAN’T handle it.
At this moment in your life you’re standing at the other end of a story you told yourself … about how you couldn’t handle something.
So, obviously you handled it. And, you always will.
Because this myth rings so true in the background of my mind every day, I work very hard to tell my own daughter, particularly when she’s stressed, “You don’t have to worry because you always handle everything so well.” And, when she gets to the other side of whatever it is that is worrying her, I try to point out the following:
It always works out okay and you always make it to the other side. The trick is whether we can use this knowledge more proactively – to lessen the suffering of our journey there.
The writer Diana Spechler recalls, in a New York Times Opinionator article the following exchange with a friend on this topic.
“I can’t handle this,” she told her friend.
“Sure you can,” he said. “What do you do with life every day?”
“I don’t know,” she said.
He opened the front door to let in fresh mountain air. “You handle it,” he said.
Myth Number 2: I’m in Control
So much stress and suffering is related to our thinking that there’s something we can do to change how life is unfolding. Your mom is in pain or she’s experiencing a horrible hospitalization. The subconscious belief that it’s up to us to fix the situation – or that we even can – is ever present and truly agony-inducing.
This myth is a hard-to-see trick we play on ourselves and, at its heart, is the thinking that it’s about us.
Here’s an example. My son plays little league baseball and he’s a competent and consistent left-handed pitcher. I asked him once how he gets out there on the mound and performs under so.much.pressure. He told me that as he takes the pitcher’s mound, he knows that he can only do what he can do and effectively, he’s at peace with that.
He lets go of the idea that he’s in control of anything other than putting that ball over the plate the best way he knows how. And, paradoxically, this is how he performs so consistently.
It’s the same with daughterhood. And what a relief. You are NOT in control. Just do what you can and it will be enough.
Myth Number 3: I Need to be Good at This.
If by chance, you’re entertaining visions of yourself as the perfect daughter, expertly engineering your parents’ old age, just give that up right now.
We’re trained early and hard in the art of being good at everything. Or at least trying to be good at everything. It’s baked into our culture, taught at every turn, screaming at you from every newsstand.
I make it a practice to go through the grocery line with my eyes focused on anything but the magazines, which are either showing pictures of perfectly cooked food, perfectly honed bodies, perfectly decorated houses, the perfect yoga pose…… I could go on but you get the picture.
It’s probably impossible to let go of this mentality entirely but you need to at least be aware that it’s actually not true. You don’t have to be good at anything in particular. You just have to be you. And that’s good enough.
Myth Number 4: It Matters.
Okay. Hang in there with me for a minute. I know you’re thinking, “Hell yes it matters! This is my mom!”
True, but ask yourself what actually matters here and what doesn’t. Because the truth is that there’s so much that seems so important that actually doesn’t really matter at all.
I believe this is what Jesus was trying to say. The only thing that ever really matters is love.
And, that’s pretty much the message at the heart of every spiritual tradition.
Just lovingly care for your parents doing the best you can each day and I promise you, it will be always be SO MUCH MORE than enough.
So, when you are experiencing overwhelmedness, it’s not always about re-arranging the deck chairs of your life – as important as that strategy is. Sometimes it’s really a matter of re-arranging the deck chairs in your heart and mind.
So, here I am, now two days into my vacation, still feeling a lingering overwhelmedness as I try and honor my obligation to you the daughterhood community by not only getting my blog out on schedule but doing it as perfectly as possible because, of course it’s all about me, and just between you and me I don’t think I can handle it.
Truly signing off now and feeling very grateful for all of you and all that you are doing, but most of all for who you are.