MIRIAM: Sometimes it’s just too much.
Our family’s kitchen has two entrances, and the traffic between them is often busy, seeing as many of us pick through leftovers and prepare our own meals. It was one of those soul-tired, spirit-weary days when I had no fresh cooking planned. So when my oldest daughter asked me to make her favorite dish of roasted potatoes and onions, I could feel my universe starting to collapse onto me.
It had been a hard year, one of the hardest in my life. The last few months had tested my courage for the future of my marriage. I felt like I was walking alone, without my husband. He was there, but I didn’t feel him with me. The emotional distance between us felt like a cold weight pressing constantly on my chest.
It had been a difficult week, full of all the normal busy stuff and work drudgery, but it had also been traumatic for people I loved. I had spent days trying to help the traumatized. Yet those who caused the pain were resistant to the cries of the wounded, and I felt thoroughly discouraged. The world felt dark and suffocating, and my daughter wanted me to cook on the one night I thought cooking would kill me.
“I can’t,” I whispered.
My daughter had had a hard week, too, and a difficult few months, and a depressing few years on top of that. I was usually quite anxious to do what little things I could to make her bleak situation better and her prospects brighter, even if it only meant chopping up some potatoes and onions.
But this time I just couldn’t anything anymore. Shuffling around the kitchen amidst the gentle chaos of the family, I felt her disappointment and I wanted to crawl under a blanket and hide. After a few easy tasks were finished, I found a quiet moment in my room, sat down on the edge of my bed, put my head in my hands, letting the sobs softly stream out of my body.
Here I was, a mom, someone trying to help others make their way in the world. In many ways I had succeeded. But I’d also failed. Now that I knew better, I tried to do better. Yet there’s a hitch: I cannot undo and repair all the damage at once, and I cannot do all the things for all the people who want me to.
We are pretty good at reciprocating in our family; there are many little things everyone does, gestures not always necessary, but that manifest love. But too many demands had converged. I was disappointed by the world outside, and by my own world, feeling the need pile up and my ability to meet it winnow down to nothing. The same daughter came in and checked on me. “Are you okay?” she wanted to know.
“No.” The word escaped from me, propelled by minimal air. My eyes flashed to hers. “I’m overwhelmed.” She didn’t move. “I can’t make everyone happy.”
She sat down next to me and put her hand on my shoulder. “It’s okay, Mom, really. I don’t want you to feel bad!” She looked at me and smiled. I could feel my hope and air come back. I followed her into the kitchen.
She cut the potatoes and onions as I sat on a bar stool and watched. We talked. After she finished chopping, I got up and did the part she hates to do, mixing in the oil and spices. Despite all the ways I’ve failed her, things I’ve succeeded at include showing her how to ask for help and how to give and receive it. With a large family, there is often at least one pair of people on the outs with each other. But, likewise, somebody is almost always helping someone else.
It is hard to learn that I have finite time and finite energy, but that is my reality. It’s the reality in our house. I’m learning that it’s okay to rest. It’s okay to say no. It’s okay to stop.
We’ve all been in traffic jams on the highway when too many vehicles are trying to merge into one lane at one time. When that’s my life, there’s no point in trying to cram through and accomplish 0.5 percent of one billion things at once. Sometimes I need to stop and wait at the side of my bed. Maybe I’ll lay down and watch Steel Magnolias and cry all my cries out. Maybe I’ll put on sneakers and run the local trail and feel my body work hard as my mind rests. Maybe I’ll watch the butterflies outside my window.
I need to rest, we all do. Sometimes rest isn’t just a necessity, but the cure.
A couple weeks after that dreadful black-hole-day, I left on a weekend alone with my husband, and we found each other again. I don’t feel alone today. The cold weight has left my chest, and I breathe more, and we laugh together again.
For a couple of days, more recently, another daughter was asking for something. It involved considerable travel and expense and would require careful planning and sacrifice for everyone in the family. We do make time for little trips like this, and she had a very good reason, and I wanted so much to do it. Although I wanted it to be possible, every time she brought it up, I panicked inwardly, delaying my answer. It took me a bit of time, but I eventually recognized the collapsing dark feeling again, and I was able to stop and reflect: “Why am I feeling this?” Am I just feeling emotionally overwhelmed, or am I telling myself that this really is more than I can do?
My husband and I had already discussed our daughter’s request. He had checked out prices on transportation and hotels. It was going to cost money we didn’t have. We both knew how it worked with weekend trips; we’d both spend considerable energy that week preparing for our journey and my absence. We already had many open-ended issues coming up, along with two birthdays and the end-of-the-school year activities. I started ticking off on my fingers the promises to other kids that would probably fall through if we did this. We were both financially, materially, and mentally reaching our limits, and we knew that even without this hypothetical trip, we were going to be overwhelmed this summer.
I looked at my husband. “It’s too much.”
“I know,” he replied. We decided to think of smaller alternatives in the theme of the event. I told our daughter. And, that weekend, we did do something special that she loved, but it was a 20 minute drive to her favorite sandwich shop and a movie instead of a whole weekend.
Sometimes ten billion roads converge and I have to remember to go back to the rule I learned as a child.
I do it and, by doing it, I can keep going. My family is doing it and, by doing it, we move forward together.
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