Mama Overwhelm

“It’s not the load that breaks you down. It’s the way you carry it.” —Lena Horne

Posted Jul 09, 2019

I’ve been thinking about recent conversations with friends of mine, and how they seem to have a common theme: Mama Overwhelm. We all have so much to do and so little time in which to do it. And this is before we even think about things we want to do for ourselves.

Adding children to an already full life plate can definitely make things overcrowded, especially in those early months and years. But I offer that the lack of space isn't causing our overwhelm.

Of three friends I spoke to this week, 

  • One is a married, stay at home mom of two kids under 5 with four grandparents that are with the kids most days and evenings.
  • One is a single, working mom of two kids under 10 with occasional help from her ex and grandmother.
  • One is a working, single mom of 1-year-old twins with a night nurse, full-time nanny, and daily evening help from family and friends.
  • They are all equally, completely overwhelmed.

Yesterday, I spent the afternoon with another mom friend– let’s call her Anna– and our kids. Anna rarely, if ever, feels overwhelmed. She’s not less busy than me or the three women I just mentioned; in fact, she’s busier. She has two young children and works. She does all of the shopping, cleaning, and laundry. And as her husband works 10-12 hours a day, 6 days a week, she handles 99 percent of the childcare as well. She has no local grandparents or other help. 

She doesn’t go on weekly date nights, doesn’t travel without her kids… she’s in fact never spent a night away from them (and her oldest is 10). Her only ‘free time’ is in the evenings for an hour or two. And again… she’s happy. She’s an in love, educated, intellectually challenged, and fulfilled woman. A woman at peace. 

So what is the difference?  What does my friend have figured out? 

What she knows, and I’m learning, is that it’s not our circumstances that dictate how busy or relaxed we feel. It’s the way we relate to those circumstances.

In the words of Lena Horne, “it’s not the load that breaks you down. It’s the way you carry it.” 

Simply put, Anna has a different attitude about what ‘busy’ means and how it occurs to her. She has a different perspective. 

And one thing I know for sure: Perspective is everything.

For example, if we’re insecure and nervous around people, we’ll go into most situations guarded and watchful. And those situations will occur to us differently than they will to someone who thrives and comes alive around others.

Similarly, those wary of romantic relationships will tend to shut down people and possibilities that someone more open and optimistic might view differently.  

Same circumstances. Yet where one feels fear and sees a trap, another feels excitement and sees an opportunity.

My friend Anna’s context is that ‘being busy’ is a part of having a wonderful, full life. And that busy and overwhelmed are not synonymous. She sees her life as a blessing, and her responsibilities as simply ‘what is so.’  And as a result, she feels content with both.  

Joanna Gaines is someone I similarly admire, albeit from afar. I feel stressed out trying to write two books this year, see clients, raise a son, be a great wife, daughter, and mom, run a household, and all that comes with it. (Can you feel the overwhelm? I can!)

And here Joanna is, doing all of that… times 1,000. She has five kids including a newborn. She’s written four books in a couple of years, starred in a hit TV show, co-created a TV network, runs three real estate and design companies, publishes a magazine, owns and runs a bakery, a retail store, multiple rental properties, and a destination market, employs and manages more than 400 employees… Oh, and I just found out today she’s also opening a coffee shop.

So clearly, it’s not the load on Joanna’s back. It’s how she’s carrying it. How she chooses to carry and see that load.

I’m learning that if we want a similar kind of peace–and power­–that Joanna and Anna have found, we don’t necessarily need less on our plates (though of course, some do… balance is important). Rather, we need to shift our contexts; we need to change our relationship to things.

This includes giving up the payoffs we’ve gotten from being overwhelmed…needing to be right (and make others and our circumstances wrong), wanting to be in control and avoid feeling dominated or to justify ourselves and our busyness. These and other conscious and unconscious desires are powerful. And… they simply don’t measure up when compared to a life, home, and relationships filled with joy, freedom, and ease.

So how do we do give up the cheap rewards in exchange for our lives? Through acceptance and surrender... accepting that life is busy. And that we can be calm and at peace in the face of that wonderful storm. 

If we’re reluctant to see things differently–if it’s tough for us to imagine that we can feel relaxed in the midst of our busy lives–I offer that if not for ourselves, we need to try to change our contexts for our children. When we feel overwhelmed, they feel it too. And it affects their health and wellbeing as much as our own. Even if we don’t say it out loud, our kids, spouses, and others hear it loud and clear: “You are the reason (or one of the reasons) I am tired, stressed, overwhelmed, and not doing what I want.”

They believe it. Because we think it.

My son, almost 6 years old, is about to move from a three-hour morning program to ‘full-day school’ in the fall.  And while I’m excited about the increased time for myself to write and see clients–and occasionally go to the gym–I know myself. I know that a month or so in, I’ll be overwhelmed again... just like I was before he was born.

We’re all busy. And some of us may not be able to lighten what are objectively hard and heavy loads. But what we can do is change the way we relate to our circumstances and ourselves, moment to moment. We can accept and embrace, rather than resist our lives, including the precious people with whom we share them. They are blessings, not burdens. And it's important that they know that.