No one has ever told me that I’m laid back. In fact, I’m notoriously bad at setting work aside – whether it’s “work” work or housework (or some irresistible craft project) – and relaxing. I know what you’re thinking: I’m actually trying to pay myself a compliment, aren’t I? It sounds like something a person would say at a job interview when asked about their weaknesses: “Oh, my main weakness is that I work TOO hard and try TOO hard to do a good job…” but it truly isn’t a great character trait. Ask anyone who’s ever lived with me. Human beings need to be able to unwind and to focus on something other than work, or we get cranky. Unbalanced. Forgetful of our real priorities, which are much more than just getting a bunch of tasks completed. My tendency is to go and go and go until I’m exhausted and collapse on the couch at 7 pm, unable to do so much as press a button on the remote control, and snap at everyone who wanders into my field of vision. There is much to be said for a mom who knows the limits of her mental and physical energy and doesn’t let the little things (dusting the baseboards, re-grouting the tub, knitting her own cloth diaper covers) steal her away from the big things (cuddling with the baby, playing Pictureka with the kids, having a conversation with her husband).
So, as a person who is relatively productive and likes to be busy, I don’t usually feel overwhelmed, stressed, or out of control when it comes to managing a big household. I have all kinds of routines and checklists and plans, and I relish the challenge of a day full of chores, errands, projects, and stuff that needs to get done. I can typically look at the day’s schedule or to-do list without panicking or losing hope. Most of the time, I think my kids and husband would say that I’m happy, patient, organized, and pleasant to be around. HOWEVER, there are days – weeks, even – when I kind of lose it. I lose sight of the big picture. I lose the desire and even the ability to get things done. I lose perspective on what matters and what doesn’t. I start obsessing about everything I’m not – the things I’m not getting done, the person I wish I could be but am not, the ways in which I’m failing my family. I get overwhelmed.
I’m on the verge of that feeling right now, with a new baby, a new school year, a serious illness in the family, and the prospect of figuring out another Christmas budget (you start worrying about this early when you have ten children to buy for). Every so often, usually when I’m tired, or we get an unexpected bill, or I forget some important school-related form or event, a wave of despair washes over me and I think, “I don’t think I can do this. I am bad at everything. This is hopeless.” All of a sudden, I feel awful. Every negative emotion there is – anger, sadness, frustration, irritation, envy – wells up in me and I can’t even form a coherent thought. All of a sudden, I hate all of my checklists and chores, and I can’t think of anything to look forward to. I’ve never been clinically depressed, but I think those moments are a brief glimpse into what depression feels like. I think that even the most grounded and capable moms can relate to the occasional feeling that life is just a series of mundane chores and obligations that suck the life out of you. No fun, no joy, no bigger picture to inspire you, no one there to relieve or refresh you. Over the years, I’ve figured out a few steps I can take to get rid of those feelings and refocus on the good stuff, which I’m going to share below. Before you read any further, though, I need to make it clear that I am not a trained physician, therapist, or anything, really, so please talk to your doctor if you think your symptoms are serious. What follows is what works for me, but it’s not a cure for depression or any other serious illness.
Getting Over Overwhelm
Recognize what’s happening.
Learn to recognize when you’re feeling overwhelmed. For me, being overwhelmed is an emotional and a physical feeling that is way more intense than just being tired or frustrated. Once you realize that you’re feeling overwhelmed, try to identify what event(s) triggered it. For me, it’s a cumulative thing, but the last straw is usually some kind of mistake I’ve made – bouncing a check, forgetting one of the kids’ activities, losing something I suddenly really need. If you’re a journal person, keep track of your feelings in your journal so you can look back on them and identify your patterns and triggers.
Tell someone you love and trust how you’re feeling. This should be your spouse, if you’re married.
You might want to make it clear at the beginning of the conversation that you just want to vent, not have him try to fix everything. A husband’s instinct is usually to try to make it all better, which only makes me feel worse when I’m getting overwhelmed. I don’t want my husband to give me advice, because it makes me feel even more incompetent than I already do. I don’t even necessarily want him to say anything. I just want him to listen and hug me and maybe tell me it’ll be okay. If that’s what you want, you need to make sure to say that, clearly (and kindly), before you start venting.
Remember your purpose. What’s the big picture?
Remember, your purpose on this planet is not to maintain a sparkling clean house, or to ensure that your children all earn academic scholarships to college, or to save up a huge retirement fund. Your purpose is to know and love God, and to serve him by loving others. That other stuff is nice – good, even – but ultimately, it’s worth nothing unless you get the God part figured out. Take a moment now, and each morning, to ask God to show you what HE wants you to accomplish today. When you’re in the midst of a chore or task that seems unbearable, offer it up to God as a form of prayer. It puts a whole new perspective on folding laundry (my least favorite thing to do, next to putting laundry away). There is a great Catholic prayer called the Morning Offering that you can use to offer up your whole day to God.
Remind yourself of all the good things about yourself and your life.
I’m a list person, so I write this down. But even taking five minutes to make a mental list will help. Nothing is too small to include…my list almost always includes “a good cup of coffee in the morning,” because it may be minor, but I enjoy it and don’t want to take it for granted. My kids, my husband, my home, my faith, running water, disposable diapers, YouTube; I list out everything that brings me joy or comfort. And don’t forget about yourself. Are you generous? Patient? A good golfer? Add that to the list too.
Make a list of everything that’s making you feel overwhelmed.
For me, this ends up looking a lot like a to-do list. I start with big things, like “my email inbox”, or even “taking care of the kids” and break them down into tasks. “My email inbox” turns into a series of tasks, like “delete all the junk email from the past month,” “delete all emails more than 3 months old,” and “respond to the top five most important messages in my inbox.” Putting something on the list doesn’t mean you’re actually going to do it. Some items you’ll do right away, some you’ll get to eventually, and some are just on the list to get them out of your head; you may never do them. There is something therapeutic about simply writing this stuff down, even if you don’t ever get to cross it off the list.
Identify the easiest task on your to-do list, and do it. Today.
Send those five emails. Write that thank-you card. Clean out a drawer in the fridge. Do it, then cross it off your list. It feels SO good.
Identify the task you’ve been putting off the longest, and either do it today or decide that you are not going to do it at all.
I have been meaning to write thank-you notes for baby gifts for the past month, and when I finally did it, I can’t tell you how great it felt. I would think about those thank-you notes ten times a day, and each time, I’d feel guilty and anxious. Now that I’ve sent them, I don’t have to think about them anymore, or if I do, it makes me feel good, not bad. It feels almost as good to let go of something on your to-do list and acknowledge that, at least for now, you have no plans of actually getting that thing done. For a long time, I had “organize family photos” on my list, and I eventually decided that I just can’t do that now, or in the foreseeable future. Getting that off my list means that I don’t think or worry about it anymore.
Quit something. In fact, quit as many things as you can.
Think about all of your volunteer activities and memberships. Maybe it’s time to take a break from some of them, or quit them altogether. Maybe the kids need to cut back on extracurricular activities. Quitting some of these things not only makes your schedule less hectic, it increases family time together and relieves some strain on your finances. Don’t feel like you have to apologize or offer a detailed explanation when you quit. And don’t feel bad about eliminating things from your kids’ schedules. If they’re like mine, there are activities that they get involved in that they don’t really enjoy, and they’ll be happy to give something up. If not, then you’re teaching them an important lesson, which is that their desires take a backseat to the overall well-being of the family.
Do something fun.
This means doing something YOU actually enjoy. It can be a family thing, but only if that family thing allows you to relax. Making hotel reservations, packing everyone’s suitcases and a cooler full of snacks, planning an itinerary, making those reservations, and then worrying about whether everyone else is having fun the whole time does NOT count as “fun.” Go shopping and have lunch with a friend. Take a knitting class. Hang out at the library all day reading a good book. Get a sitter and take your husband out for a romantic dinner. Keep it simple, cheap, and close to home. Now, add this to your calendar once or twice a month, and don’t let it be the first thing you cancel when your schedule fills up.
What do you do when you feel like you just can’t do one more thing? Tell us in the comments!