Anyone else feeling a little overwhelmed right now?
*Raising hand over here* Let's discuss!
I am currently riding the bucking bronco of overwhelm, and as always it’s a hair-raising experience. Despite the best of my New Year’s intentions (I don’t call them resolutions, apparently that sets you up for a fail), I have worked the last three weekends straight, abandoned my husband and kids on a long weekend to do more work (although this doesn’t feel so bad since I support changing the date of Australia Day), and despite being secreted away in a hotel room opposite the temptations of a shopping centre and a burger joint, I’m still behind on my two A4 pages of tasks and my outlining goals for the weekend. Also, school and all those extracurriculars start up again this week. Aargh!
But this is my fault, right? I have set myself up for this through my career choices (writing novels: the most unstable and exacting profession of them all), my lifestyle choices (I try to catch up with people, and keep my house clean), my choices around children (having them in the first place, and then – gulp! – home educating them). Plus, there’s all that other stuff like procrastination and the desire to eat, wash and sleep regularly. If I could just improve my systems, learn to say no, put my kids in school, and let a few things slide, it would all get better, wouldn’t it?
The thing is, almost every other woman I talk to seems to feel this way too. Only this week I have had conversations with friends bemoaning the laundry piles that magically reproduce themselves, the houses that refuse to stay organised, the work challenges that increase exponentially the more research we undertake. In what feels like a horrible irony, the harder I try, the more I seem to have to do! It’s like I’ve been fooled that the work of my life is some sort of long-distance race towards an eventual finish line, whereupon someone will wrap me in silver foil and let me sleep for a week; whereas in reality I’m sprinting on a treadmill with a blindfold on, and when I eventually slide off and fall on my face I’ll find a grim-faced personal trainer shouting at me to hop back on before I screw up my progress. And, he’ll yell at me, ‘if you don’t eat well and exercise you’re fucked, so for god’s sake prioritise that, won’t you?!’
It’s not just my to-do list that can be overwhelming either – it’s the constant feeling of responsibility for things that will impact negatively on others if I mess them up. I have to contribute financially to the household; I have to keep on top of my work; I need to keep my children safe and well in all the ways I’m able – and even encourage them to thrive and take opportunities (which only increases my mum-taxi obligations). And I’ve recently learned that it’s not my fault that I dwell on this, because I’m biologically wired to lie awake at night thinking about it. (If you missed Maggie Dent explaining this to Kate Richie in the kindest way and making her cry, please check it out here.)
This isn’t just a woman thing either – my husband is definitely on the overwhelm train at times too (even if his man-brain does let him fall asleep instantly while I watch on with envy). And of course our daft ‘do/see/hear all the things’ culture contributes too. Who isn’t overwhelmed when we can access everyone’s thoughts, problems, occasions and initiatives at the touch of a button - those little reminders of all the things we could and should be doing but can’t ever get to. All those things going wrong in the world that we should play our part in fixing. All those people we could support if we worked harder, got more organised, made more money. Not to mention the wisdom we could gain from endless books and podcasts; and the movies and TV series we should watch, if only we could remember which streaming service they’re on.
Thankfully, there are plenty of people standing ready to help and offer advice, although they’re not always as useful as I’d like. Most of them suggest alternatives without any real insight into the complex, unique game of Twister that I play each day. One popular blog I read recently had a long list of self-help ‘to do’s including things like ‘smile at a stranger’ or ‘hug your family’ or ‘take a walk’, which actually made me feel a bit better, as I’m still doing those without prompting! Is it weird that experts think we’ll only remember to do basic things now if they devise a checklist for us, rather than as a fundamental impulse towards connection and fresh air? (The answer is surely yes, it’s weird, and also the checklists require reading and printing - when I could have been outside!)
But in some ways they’re right: because overwhelm is situational, not everyone is caught up in it, and at times we might have to go back to basics. I went on a camping trip for two months with my family last year, and although there were the inevitable highs and lows, it wasn’t overwhelming: I read books and took guilt-free naps and wandered bush tracks and swam in waterfalls. But this, unless you’re the cleverest of influencers (to whom I doff my cap), is not real life, particularly not for a woman in her forties. For us it was just an extended time of pure, beautiful escapism and hedonism. At home, it’s much harder. Remember all those vows we made during Covid to live differently in future (if we were the lucky ones who weren’t battling for our health or losing our jobs)? It didn’t stop the obligations of life assailing us as soon as we were allowed out of our houses (and I haven’t even mentioned red tape, tax returns, broken appliances and tech support!). Good intentions do not always conquer overwhelm, but they can help. And sometimes a change of circumstances reminds us that other lifestyles exist, and we just have to work on attaining them, so let’s add that to our long, long lists.
Of course, even if we can’t easily escape responsibilities and circumstances, we’re not completely trapped. We can aim to steadily reclaim our lives and our time through the decisions we make, the invitations we refuse, the new routines we set up, and the schedules we set for ourselves. But summoning the energy to push back against the avalanche of our culture, which steadfastly pursues us, reminding us to do do do and be be be, is pretty darn tiring… and, dare I say it, a bit overwhelming at times, isn’t it?
However, we cannot give in! Perhaps the best way through overwhelm is to dance to our own beat as we search for balance, learning from others wherever we can, while avoiding self-judgement and unhelpful commentary, because no one else can see all the pieces that make up the unique puzzles of our lives. Sometimes I do take a nap - even if there’s no luxurious stretching on waking, just an anxious look at the clock and a mental cataloguing of all the things I could have done during snooze time. But then I message a good friend and we laugh about the insanity of how much we’ve got to do. My kids see I’m busy and cook the dinner. My husband gives me a cup of tea, and fixes whatever appliance is on the blink. And when this happens, for a little while, the endless to-do lists are just scribbles on notepads, and the prowling worries of my brain subside.
Could this be the antidote? It certainly feels like magic to be seen and understood and supported without question. And here, my friends, is some hope. For if it feels like we’ll never conquer our overwhelm, despite all the tick boxes, complex strategies and endless striving, it’s good to know it can subside on its own in small moments of connection. And when this happens, and life briefly calms, the tension will ease and those lists might suddenly seem doable - maybe even surmountable - after all.
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