“When do I get my life?”
My friend’s voice gushed the exasperation and weariness of a woman who was overwhelmed, pouring out her anxiety over her situation. She felt “set aside” with all she had to do for her family. I know the feeling.
Once I’d wailed the same complaint. Her heart’s cry brought to mind those days… years… of struggling to be all and do all as a mom, wife, friend, and writer. I’d left a successful journalism career to be a stay-at-home mom, gladly leaving the public stage to devote my life to my family. No one told me how hard that would be.
I landed my dream job writing for the local newspaper at 18, and wrote my first book at 24. Writing was something I did well. I didn’t seem to do mothering as well. Being the youngest in my family, I hadn’t been a babysitter for any younger siblings or neighborhood children because there were none in the rural community where I lived.
Feeling unprepared and inadequate for the challenges of motherhood, and being fatigued from overflowing days and interrupted nights, I plunged headlong into discouragement.
Changing diapers, refereeing squabbles, doing laundry, cooking meals, cleaning up the mess, and handling a multitude of interruptions — the days slipped by, leaving me to wonder if I’d achieved anything significant. I had no certificates of commendation like the awards my husband occasionally received for career accomplishments.
Time for myself? Dream on.
I struggled to find balance, taking care of myself while making a nest for a busy husband and two energetic children. Weariness sent me searching for a plan to survive life with the precious family I loved beyond measure. Over time, I developed strategies to confront the chaos and replace it with contentment.
1. Organize your home and time.
To be productive I needed a massive makeover. I had to stop wasting time searching for misplaced items and rescheduling missed appointments. Boxes and baskets helped organize stuff. A large calendar on the fridge organized time. Using a marker in a color designated for each person, I recorded all family activities — appointments, school events, birthdays, special TV programs, and other reminders. I scheduled doctor and dental appointments at my convenience. Noting the office phone number saved time if I needed to cancel or reschedule. A daily to-do list prioritized tasks. Today, calendars and reminders in smartphones keep many people on track. Some families with older kids sync their cell phone calendars so everyone can share and see any overlap.
2. Do first things first.
I disciplined myself to do daily basics: dress and apply makeup, wipe bathroom sinks and mirrors, empty trash, make the bed, wash breakfast dishes, and start a load of laundry. I call this “doing the gottas.” Getting these out of the way — usually in less than 30 minutes — freed me for the day. Knowing the house was in order nipped nagging thoughts hovering and distracting me. The habit became ingrained and later helped keep my head above water during complicated caregiving years.
3. Plan meals.
My kids were picky eaters, and my husband worked swing shifts. Using a monthly calendar to plan meals eliminated much complaining and simplified grocery shopping. Often I tripled recipes (spaghetti sauce, taco sauce, chili), making enough for dinner and freezing two portions.
4. Learn to say no.
When asked to take on a responsibility, I accepted it only after careful consideration. Having the ability to do a task didn’t mean I had to do it. If it encroached on family time and increased frustration, I said no. I turned down opportunities without guilt, knowing someone else could do those tasks. No one else could raise my children and care for our parents.
5. Schedule family time.
We chose Friday as family night to play games or watch a movie. We treasured this time with our kids before the high school years’ peer activities and part-time jobs stole it away. If you have trouble declining invitations, putting family time on the calendar eliminates a guilt trip. Then you can truthfully respond, “I already have plans.” If anyone wants details, explain, “It’s a family event.” Family is your priority. You needn’t apologize for investing your life there.
I let the kids do what they could (fold and put away clothes, wash dishes, empty the trash, straighten their rooms), even if the result was imperfect. Enlist their help, and resist the desire to take over or to do it over. That sends the wrong message and can deflate their egos.
7. Discard feelings of inferiority and low esteem.
After battling those robbers most of my life, I stopped negative self-talk by speaking truth to myself. I made a list: “things I do well.” Taking an honest look at one's abilities, strengths, and gifts isn’t conceited. I could appreciate my strengths, evaluate weaknesses, and make corrections so they didn’t cancel out my effectiveness.
Since I rarely got to bed before midnight, I often took a nap first thing in the morning — as soon as my hubby was off to work and the kids to school. Reclaiming lost sleep energized me for the day’s bulging schedule.
9. Develop a support group.
Friends can offer encouragement. My friend, Jessie, provided a strong shoulder to lean on when my children were pre-school age and my esteem hit rock bottom. Almost daily she called to ask, “How are you doing?” After I unloaded, ending with tears, she’d say, “You’re doing a great job!” I didn’t believe her, but she renewed enough hope to keep me going another challenging day.
10. Schedule “me-time.”
By the time my kids reached high school, my parents and parents-in-law had begun declining in health. Concerned about potential for burnout, my friend Jo insisted I plan me time. She’d prepare a bag filled with goodies — candles, chocolates, and tea bags — to make this time fragrant and delicious. Spending a couple hours with a book and a cup of tea provided time to rest and refresh. I didn’t do it often, but when possible I put me time on the calendar, along with other important appointments. That isn’t selfish… it’s meltdown prevention. Take a spa day (or half-day) once in a blue moon for a mani/pedi. You’ll feel like a princess, refreshed and ready to wrestle the onslaught of tomorrow.
11. Simplify life.
I didn’t want my kids to miss an opportunity. We did Little League, music lessons, summer reading program at the library, and more — all good activities. But hectic at times. I could have trimmed some of the less significant things from my schedule, and theirs. Sometimes less is better. There’s freedom in less. In general, life is too busy. Eliminate what you can.
“When do I get my life?” you ask? Perhaps a better question is, “How do I make the best of the life I have?”
Are you in the “set aside” season, feeling drained, empty, and lamenting detours that have stolen your dreams? If you feel overwhelmed and underappreciated, you are not alone. Our mentors can help. Just click on the "Connect With a Mentor" button below.
Portions of this article appeared in I Don’t Chase the Garbage Truck Down the Street in My Bathrobe Anymore! Organizing for the Maximum Life. Visit www.diannebarker.com.
This article was written by: Dianne BarkerPhoto Credit: Paul Hanaoka