The All-Consuming Exhaustion of Being Everything to Everyone
I wake up every day thinking about what everyone else needs to get through their day.
I pour my husband a cup of coffee in a travel mug, adding just the right amount of oat milk.
I grab snacks for my son to bring to school so that he won’t starve between now and lunch, which is at 3 pm. My daughter texted me yesterday to say, “I have a wee cold” and I wonder if she listened to my advice and started taking allergy medicine.
I think about the emails in my inbox, and the people at work who have asked me for things that I have to deliver on.
I need to convince my parents to get a COVID booster shot. I need to plan my son’s 16th birthday party. I need to book the vacation tickets. I need to check in on my friend whose parent is sick, the friend whose teenagers are pushing every boundary, the one I haven’t spoken to in 10 years but recently reconnected with.
All of this, the mental checklist of who needs what, when, and how I’ll address it, happens before 7 am.
I think about going to the gym. Going for a walk. But there is just so much to get done, so many cats to herd. Doing anything other than categorizing and prioritizing this mix of project managing my family’s life plus meeting the emotional needs of others feels selfish. And therefore, even if I do take some “me time” (oh, I have so come to dread that cliched phrase), I struggle with finding the joy in it.
I’ll get a massage, and find myself worrying about the kid who is not yet home from school. I’ll get my nails done, and feel frustrated that it is taking so long (it does not, actually, take long) because I realize I forgot to add something to the grocery list, and now risk forgetting it again because I can't use my phone when my hands are otherwise occupied. I’ll read a book and get distracted, suddenly researching something random but pertinent to others in my life, such as “long COVID symptoms” or “how to be a NYC lifeguard.”
Am I alone in this? I doubt it.
I’ve been wanting to write more because I feel my brain is becoming a trash can that keeps missing pickup day, and thoughts are just piling up and pushing out space for creativity and dreaminess. Writing is a way of taking out the trash, or, better yet, recycling the trash so I figure out how to use the tasks, worries and wondering of my own mind to better myself.
And yes, I know. My husband could pour his own coffee. My son could make his own breakfast. They’d just have to do what I do, which is get up earlier so they have time to get this stuff done. But that’s just not who I am. I am the wife and mother who scrambles the eggs and feels satisfied knowing that bit of protein will help my still-growing son make it through the day. And that cup of coffee is a small way of saying, “I love you and want to take care of you.”
As for everyone else, caring for others’ emotional needs and helping make life a little bit easier for them does give me immense satisfaction. I want to contribute to other people’s contentment, to their joy.
I want, in essence, to do it all. To be everything to everyone, while also attending to my own mental and spiritual health. But here’s the problem – a day has only 24 hours, and being everything to everyone else is all-consuming.
Maybe it is, in fact, an addiction—this need to please others. The dopamine hit you get from people telling you how great you are is no small thing. Maybe it’s a way to avoid my own wants, because those can be scary. What if I put myself first, and fail? Maybe it’s a way to avoid doing things that Instagram tells me I need to do but that I actually don’t relish, like going to the gym, savoring "alone time" or doing things that are just for me. The traditional self-care that mothers are told to prioritize are things that I know I should enjoy but simply don’t.
So where does this leave me? My gas tank will tilt towards empty at times, as I am doing so much to make everyone else’s lives a little easier. And then I get resentful, which makes me feel like a horrible human. I’m supposed to be a joyful giver, always, right? And if I’m ever not, then what’s the point?
But here’s the thing: There are many times when I’m not a joyful giver. When I realize that people just expect me to do all the things I do and so don’t really appreciate it, I feel more than joyless. I feel angry. When I feel like the stage director in the background, making sure everyone gets a round of applause, I feel unseen. When I say yes because it’s the right thing to do, but really, really want to say no, I resent myself and the person who asked.
So where does all this processing of my inner turmoil get me? What do I do with all of these admissions? How do I manage my need to "do" with my resentment over feeling unappreciated?
Let me think.
Right now, I am sitting alone in my bedroom. My son and husband have left for the day. The dog is snoring beside me. It’s only 7:30, and I have 90 minutes until my workday officially begins. I am writing, and processing, and allowing myself to be uncensored and honest with myself and, if I ever publish this, the world.
And maybe that’s where it all begins: being honest with myself. I enjoy meeting the needs of others, but resent being unappreciated. I get satisfaction out of being a support system for others, but the truth is that I need that strength to be offered to me from others as well. I need to figure out how to stop obsessing over other people’s needs so I can enjoy that massage or take that walk. I need to realize that all the things I do for others are very nice, but for the most part no one is going to fall to pieces if I stop trying to be the superhero swooping in at every sign of struggle.
So what do I now do with the next 83 minutes of my morning? I’ll take an unrushed shower. I’ll make a nice breakfast for myself (I do it for others, why not for me?) I’ll remind myself that while it often feels like I am holding up the universe, I’m not. I can sit. I can write. I can think. I can relax. I can let go. Just let go! Everyone will be okay. No one will think any lesser of me, and if they do, that shows that they weren’t worth the investment.
So, off I go into my day. Eggs, over easy, with toast. Some fruit. It’s something I would do for others without a thought, but that I will now do for myself, and me alone. It’s a small act of self-love. Because you have to start somewhere, right?