“You just do too much.” “You really need to say ‘no’ to things.” “You don’t have to try to have it all.”
I’ve heard some version of this over and over since becoming pregnant with my oldest child almost ten years ago. It’s one of the very first things that comes out of some (well-meaning and caring) people’s mouths when I express even a tiny bit of frustration or overwhelm.
It’s true that I do a lot. It’s true that on some days (usually the days when I am expressing frustration and overwhelm) I probably do too much. I could give you the list, but while my particular mishmash of paid and unpaid labor is probably somewhat unique, my status of being a mother stretched thin and pulled in multiple directions is not at all unusual.
Consider that Pew Research found women’s average time in the workforce had nearly tripled from 1965 to 2016. And while men’s participation in caring for children rose substantially during that same time, it didn’t translate to less time on the task for women. In fact, women spend even more time on tasks related to caring for children than they did in the past (up from 10 hours a week to 14 hours a week) Seventy percent of moms with minor children are in the workforce.
In other words, “having it all”—if defined as trying to juggle a family and paid labor—is not some elusive badge of honor sought after by the particularly ambitious. It’s simply (and exhaustingly) the reality of most mothers’ daily lives.
Here’s what’s bugging me right now, though. What do those people mean when they tell me that I just “do too much” and should “just say ‘no’” to some of the things eating away my time and energy? What do they actually imagine me doing with that advice?
I don’t think they picture me saying no to cooking meals for my children. I don’t think they expect me to refuse to change a diaper or clean up the bathroom floor when toilet training goes awry. I am pretty sure they expect me to keep giving my preschooler a bath and braiding my daughter’s hair. I am confident they picture me still vacuuming the floor and doing the laundry. I’m surely not, in their minds, stepping over the bag of trash my dog tore apart on the living room floor and going about my day.
These things are non-negotiable. They are tedious and time-consuming, and they are recurring. They are simply a reality of living life.
They probably also don’t mean for me to stop doing the amazing parts of parenting that fill me with joy. I’m probably still supposed to read bedtime stories and take my kids on nature hikes and listen to my children tell me about their days and talk to my husband and pick up my kid’s friend for slumber parties and make smores around the campfire and pack picnics. After all, if I’m not doing those things, what’s the point of it all?
So what they really mean when they tell me to “stop doing so much” is to stop doing the things that fill me with intellectual excitement, the things that give me a sense of independent purpose and a connection to the outside world. Because if something is supposed to go, and it can’t be the things that I have to do to keep my family functioning or the things I want to do to stay connected to that family. The only things left to cut are the ones that I want to do for me.
I’ve seen more self-care articles than I can count, but too often they end up a checklist of more tasks I “should” be doing in a day when I can’t possibly fit in one more thing. The radical truth is that self-care is really about the self, and you can’t nurture that being when all of your tasks are always focused on someone else’s needs.
The next time a mom tells you how overwhelmed she is, resist the urge to point out that her load would be lighter if she neglected her own desires and intellectual needs. Chances are she’s deeply aware of the costs of keeping them, but she’s even more aware of the costs of letting them go.