Overwhelm: When You Haven't Got This


When I talk to parents, one of the recurring themes that emerges time and again, is that of overwhelm. It's the discussion at dinner parties with friends, in the pub with workmates and on WhatsApp groups the world over. We all, as keepers of small humans, feel overwhelmed with the never ending ‘To Do’ list that we mental maintain.

I’m currently two weeks into a month of solo parenting. My husband, a musician, is on a US tour which means that not only is he not here, the time difference also makes it hard to stay connected. This morning I crumbled. I’ve not been sleeping well, looking after two kids by yourself and working is draining, and when I wrote a list of all the things that needed doing, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. There are simply not enough hours in the day and, while I’m aware of the need to prioritise, it’s hard to decide whether taking your kid to their swimming class is more important that finishing a brief for a looming deadline. Sometimes, when your job is to run the house, earn the money and keep the kids alive, it’s hard to know what to bump down the list.

That being said, I’m also guilty of overusing the word ‘need’. My panicked rant to my husband went something like this, “I need to mow the lawn, I need to weed the garden, the fence still has been painted - that needs doing - and the front yards needs weeding otherwise people will think it’s a vegetable patch rather than a driveway. The ironing needs doing, I need to have the homework fight, and if I don't get this brief in on time, I’m going to need to find another job.”

In reality, of course, many of those ‘needs’ are wants. With nice weather on its way (finally!) I’d like to have the garden done so that the kids aren’t at risk of being swallowed by bind weed. It would look better if the garden fence was painted but it’s not a necessity and when I actually went through the ironing pile I decided that, while I’m as time poor as I am, the kids pyjamas/leggings/t-shirts can probably go without an iron. Sure I’d prefer it if everything was pristine and in it’s place and yes I feel less anxious when it is, but here’s a novel idea: maybe I don’t attached my mental wellbeing to the state of my garden or the height of my laundry pile? Maybe I make my mental wellbeing the top of the priority list and put everything else underneath it.

It’s one of those things that is easier said than done though, right? It’s breaking the emotional habit of a lifetime much like telling yourself that cellulite isn’t ugly, or that a thigh gap is beauty. It’s not easy and it’s made harder by the fact that everyone else you know seems to be able to design a magazine-worthy house (while your’s looks like a laundry and a charity shop had a baby), raise a barrel load of kids that all wear clothes from independent brands (while your’s are wearing Primark with a unicorn on it, or maybe it’s a stain. I don’t know), maintain a perfect relationship (people with kids aren’t supposed to have sex, right?) and run a successful business and look fabulous (both my bank account and my eyebrows are often overdrawn).

We all know that comparison is the thief of joy but it’s also the purveyor of anxiety, the destroyer of self-esteem and also, while we’re at it, a total load of bollocks because no matter how perfect everyone else looks, they’re not.

Despite this, it impacts our sense of overwhelm. It makes it worse. It highlights it and the more overwhelmed we feel the more vulnerable we are to negative and destructive thought processes and so the vicious cycle begins. No matter how many inspirational quotes you see that tell you, “You’ve got this”, you feel so viscerally that you absolutely don’t have this, that you might as well do nothing than fail at everything. You’ve dropped all the balls, none of the plates are spinning and here it is: paralysis.

I felt paralysed today. I didn’t know where to start. I couldn’t do anything and I wanted to just hide under my duvet and cry. But, with a kid to get to school, another to look after at home, a job to do and a house to run, there was not escaping the reality. So, I looked at the list and I split it into three:

  1. Things I can do right now.

  2. Things I can get someone else to help me with.

  3. Things that can’t wait.

I did the things I can do right now e.g. fold the ironing pile and put it away instead of spend hours ironing. I also decided to throw money at the garden problem and called a gardener to see if he could help me out for the day - remarkably he was here in half an hour. Once I’d handed that off, everything else felt a bit more manageable. The stairs probably won’t get painted until Christmas. I may never have time to iron again and the garden will be a hotbed of weeds and nettles by next week but for now, today’s crisis has been averted and for a few more days, I can keep the overwhelm at bay.

So, until then…