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do you suffer from I'm-so-busy-itis?

by Meagan Francis on July 2, 2009

calendar “Have you ever noticed how busy everyone always seems to be,” my friend Micki asked me a year or so ago, “and how eager they are to tell you all about it?”

Up until that moment, I really hadn’t thought about it in that way. But suddenly I realized that, yes, I had been bothered by it for some time. Trying to make plans with certain friends or asking other moms I knew how they’re doing often turns into a detailed itinerary of all they have to do this week. “Well, I’m fine,” they’ll say with a heavy sigh, “but you know, I’m so busy. The dog has to go to the groomer, the van has a leaky tire, we all have dentist appointments, and the kids have soccer, violin, and fencing. I think I’m getting a cold so we’ll probably have to add a doctor visit in there. And did I mention that my husband is working late three nights this week and I have to make dinner for my sister-in-law, who’s visiting from Ohio? I guess I’ll have to put aside the whole afternoon to clean that day, too.” (more heavy sighing).

Honestly, by the time they get to “groomer” I’ve already glazed over. There’s little in life more boring than listening to a full-on play-by-play of the scheduled minutae of another person’s life–heck, mine is boring enough that I can barely pay attention to my own calendar.

But we’re all guilty of boring our friends at times, and I’m certainly no exception. What really bothers me isn’t just that trying to convince somebody else how busy you are by listing every single thing on your to-do list is boring. It’s that anyone would feel compelled to try to convince somebody else how busy they are. Not just once, but over and over again. And the people in question just seem so unhappy about being so busy.

There are some mothers I know who claim to be so chronically over-run with items on their to-do list that I sometimes wonder: how is it even possible to have so much to do, not just sometimes, but constantly? If you were unhappy with your level of busy-ness six months ago, why are you still at that same level?

I asked this question on Twitter yesterday and received an onslaught of responses from fellow Tweeps who are tired of hearing friends and family complain about the busy-ness they seem to willingly choose to engage in.  “It’s beyond annoying. We’re ALL busy in different ways. GET OVER IT.” wrote  @bessieviola. “In my mind, “busy” has become a non-word. It means nothing.” agreed @kt_writes. And it’s an unfortunate part of our cultural obsession with achievement:  “I think there is also some ADHD and fear at play – like we think downtime isn’t allowed whether w/ work or kids,” wrote @travelsavvykayt.

“There’s nothing wrong with venting,” blogger Kristen Chase told me in an e-mail. “But when all you’re talking about is how busy you are, “wah wah wah”, then my feeling is do something, or shut up.”

“Own your busy-ness. And if you don’t like, then change it.”

Of course, many moms argue that they aren’t able to scale back their lives. The teeth need cleaning. The kids need stimulating. The dog needs grooming. But when you start each week with a feeling of burden over all you have to do, week after week after week, maybe it’s time to figure out what you can cut out. Kids don’t have to be involved in multiple organized activities year-round. The average dog doesn’t have to look runway-ready. You don’t have to entertain all the time if it stresses you out.

The fact is, we’re all busy. Sometimes, I’m busier than the mom next door; sometimes, she’s busier than me. Why waste time hashing out exactly how much we have going on—we’re too busy for that, right?

But what I’m also sensing is that “I’m-so-busy-itis” is less about how busy a person actually is, and more about how she wants to be perceived. If we sigh and moan about how much we have on our plate, we think it “proves” our worth as a mother, wife, PTA member, career woman, volunteer, or all-around overachiever.  After all, if she’s able to, say, volunteer at the school even though she’s so busy, a mom must be some kind of Supermom or saint. And often, the “I’m so busy” speeches seem to imply “I’m busier than you,” as though moms need to prove that that we’re putting in even more effort than the woman next door. As Kristen pointed out, some seem to think that being chronically busy earns them the respect, or awe, (or maybe just pity) of others.

It can also be used as a way to “excuse” us from the things we feel like we should—or would like to be—doing. “I’d read more, but I’m just so busy.” “I’d love to exercise, but I’m way too busy.” Sure, it’s impossible to fit everything in, but as @laurenware pointed out via Twitter, “I’ve learned I can always make time for things that are truly important.”

Ladies, let’s knock it off. All this constant “I’m soooo busy” one-ups(wo)manship is disingenuous. It’s unbecoming. It’s not making anyone out to be a hero. And most of all, it’s boring. I’m not saying don’t vent when you’re feeling overwhelmed: everybody needs to unload from time to time. But examine your motives: if you never do anything to improve your situation, if your “vents” are really just “aren’t I super-spectacular to take all this on” in disguise, it’ll show. And annoy.

I guarantee you that rattling off your to-do list to anyone who will listen isn’t earning you respect, and it isn’t making you any happier. If you’re dissatisfied with your level of busy-ness, see what you can change. And if you can’t change anything, consider that the person you’re talking to is probably just as busy as you….so busy, in fact, that she wishes you’d stop talking about how busy you are so you can both move on to more important things.

Like enjoying the free time you’ve got, however fleeting it may be.

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{ 36 comments… read them below or add one }

Julie @ The Mom Slant July 2, 2009 at 10:17 am

Agree that it’s primarily about perception. And much as I hate to admit it, I find myself doing it in situations where I feel a twinge of inferiority, like around the neighborhood moms.

Thanks for the reminder to shut up and smile.

Julie @ The Mom Slant’s last blog post..Risky business: Why do people have affairs?

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Julie Pippert July 2, 2009 at 10:30 am

Oooh I don’t know. I hear 100% what you’re saying, and yes, we do all seem to be so pressed for time. Not to mention very stressed with our own lists, so not really in a frame to hear another busy person’s list! I also agree that sometimes we use it defensively, either to solicit respect or excuse an absence.

But what this article says to me is: major empathic failure.

I quit talking to people about my life because I KNOW their eyes glazed over by “groomer” and yet what else is my life beyond all that I do, much of which I feel quite passionately about?

I think the bigger challenge is to say “listen past the busy list and hear what your friend is telling you.”

Then TALK TO THEM. Listen, hear, engage, and talk.

“You must feel so overwhelmed right now. Are you glad your inlaws are visiting? Do they have kids? How does everyone get on?”

To me that’s being a friend. I’ve ended up feeling very disconnected from a lot of people because they are so resistant to hearing about my life, even or especially when it’s delivered as a to-do list (which is how I think many moms think!). I actually find the “oh for pete’s sake shut up and get over yourself, we’re all busy” attitude and tone much more troubling than the “I’m really busy list list list.”

When did we stop thinking as friends we needed to listen?

Julie Pippert’s last blog post..Her Invented Country, My Invented Country

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bessie.viola July 2, 2009 at 11:03 am

I’ve been SO BUSY today that I can’t believe I took the time to stop over… ;)

You are so spot-on with this. Brilliantly written. I don’t think it’s an empathy failure – as you noted, there are times when EVERYONE needs to vent. This post shows empathy to that situation, it’s just calling the bluff on those who parade their to-do lists as a form of “I’m busier and therefore better and more involved than you.”

I like Kristen’s ideas as well -I think that many women would benefit from the idea that maybe there are some things on their list that they could give up – and be happier for it, too.

bessie.viola’s last blog post..knee-high by 4th of July

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Beth/Mom2TwoVikings July 2, 2009 at 11:09 am

*hand raised* I’m convicted – I’m that person. To be completely honest – ever since I quit working outside the home full time, I’ve felt this nagging feeling I need to “report in” – mainly to DaHubby but kinda to everyone – on how I spend my time or risk appearing like the stereotypical bon-bon eating, soap opera watching, curlers in hair, fat housewife. LOL

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Carrie July 2, 2009 at 11:35 am

I find myself doing it mostly when talking to someone that I feel guilty for not calling. Like it’s an excuse for being a bad friend, or for not wanting to hang out with somebody.

Carrie’s last blog post..Vacations, parades, yankee-doodle-dandy

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Denise Schipani July 2, 2009 at 11:39 am

Here’s a little secret: No one is that busy. Not, to be specific, the mostly middle-class people we are and surround ourselves with. Try having to hunt and gather your own dinner, or wash all your clothes and bedding by hand before sowing the field, then come back and talk about busy! It’s not that people are faking it, it’s that “busy” has a whole different meaning. I blame advertising! (well, partly). Somehow, Americans have been convinced that their leisure time has shrunk to nothing (so they need Hamburger Helper and Calgon to get through the day). I read somewhere a few years ago that this is patently untrue: we actually have more leisure time now than past generations. Gotta go. I have absolutely nothing to do…

Denise Schipani’s last blog post..The Bus Stop Conundrum: To free-range or not to free range

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Meagan Francis July 2, 2009 at 11:42 am

Julie, I hear what you’re saying. But I think there’s a difference between venting, sharing, and LISTING. The people I’m talking about aren’t venting because they get overwhelmed every so often (which I can totally relate to), or sharing (as in “here’s what’s important in my life right now.”) They’re just rattling off their to-do list. I listen to my friends…and I am interested in what’s important to them. But it becomes harder to listen when every conversation is simply an effort to prove that they’re busy, probably WAY busier than the next person. If somebody’s really into dog grooming, I want to hear about it. If they’re just mentioning it to have one more thing to add to the list, it shows.

I’m very empathetic to the reasons moms feel busy and overwhelmed. I’ve been there and I’ll be there again. And I don’t think anyone is saying you shouldn’t talk about the minutae in your life (as I said up above–I’ve bored many a person in my life, and the best friends are the ones who dig deeper to see what you’re really getting at when the conversation is less-than-scintillating). But busy-ness as competition makes a conversation–and sometimes, even a friendship–one-sided: it’s not about sharing with you, it’s about impressing you or proving a point. I have empathy for why people do it, but at the same time, I think they’d be better off if they found another way to feel good about themselves.

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Meagan Francis July 2, 2009 at 11:47 am

Denise–very good point. I have an old column I should dig up about how, if I complained about my modern life to my great-grandmother–me with my washing machine, dishwasher, refrigerator, etc– she’d probably stare at me with her mouth open. Or laugh. You’re right that perception is reality, and people feel busier than ever even though it’s not really true. In addition to advertising, I’d blame having too many options–after a certain point, I don’t think all these choices are really doing us favors, just giving us more stuff to worry about.

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Kathy July 2, 2009 at 12:10 pm

I didn’t read the rest of comments, but I tend to agree. I grow wary of the mom’s who make themselves ‘martyrs.’ It’s like we’ve convinced ourselves we need to do ‘xyz’ to be a good parent. (Or at least keep up with others…)

Being a parent is a great (albeit hard) gig. I think we miss the blessing and fun in it when we try to set up expectations. (And competitions)

Just say’en…:)

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Jacqui July 2, 2009 at 12:34 pm

Love this. I posted a link on my blog to your post. I’ve had an issue with this whole busy parent thing for a while and to be honest I’ve become pretty hard core in the opposite direction. I take pride in saying that we spend most our days at home now and I often don’t take time to explain what we actually spend our time doing. I feel like someone needs to truly represent the moms who aren’t busy trying to constantly entertain our children with outside activities. There is value in unplanned and free time and not every mom is capable of maintaining the super-mom status we’ve become conditioned to expect.

Thanks for posting on this!

Jacqui’s last blog post..For the record…I hate being busy

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Mom2Miles July 2, 2009 at 12:51 pm

I agree with some of the other commenters: I hate being busy & try to avoid it at all costs. That’s not to say I don’t like to be productive … In fact, I wrote a blog post about my “productivitis”: http://tinyurl.com/nd2ltm

I don’t feel compelled to prove to everyone how busy I am, but since I work p.t. from home & hire a sitter, I DO feel compelled to prove that I’m being productive during that time. I would never use that time to nap or watch TV or relax even when I really, really need to because I’d be wracked w/ guilt. Sad but true.

Mom2Miles’s last blog post..What Nobody Tells New Moms

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Danielle Lazar July 2, 2009 at 4:55 pm

Usually if someone asks how I am doing – I just say “you know – the usual… busy with kids, work, weekends, reading, etc…. How are you doing?” The fact is – we all have our own laundry list of things to do. In my circle of friends we all try to find time for each other. If we can’t see each other for a long time, we assume that things got “busy” and that’s the end of it. Then we pick up where we left off and get on with the business of enjoying each other.

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Meagan Francis July 2, 2009 at 5:02 pm

mom2miles–I definitely hear you on that. My sister-in-law and I swap babysitting and even when it’s her watching my kids–which is really more like a playdate than anything–I often feel like I have to “make the time count”. Part of it is that I just like being busy and accomplishing things, but another part is that nagging feeling like I should be “doing something” if I have free time. But I think the trick is recognizing those feelings, and trying to get to the point where we can let them go without having to act on them (by justifying to the world that we REALLY ARE DOING STUFF!) Notice I say “trying”. All of this “getting confident with ourselves as mothers” is a work in progress, right?

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Meagan Francis July 2, 2009 at 5:05 pm

Danielle–I really like the way you’ve put this. Thank you. If a friend of mine wants to tell me about how she swept the floor today or complain about the fact that her car blew a gasket (what does that even MEAN, anyway?) I’m all ears. If she just wants to rattle off a bunch of things on her to-do list without any give and take, I start to feel less like we’re having a conversation, and more like she’s broadcasting her awesomeness. Fortunately, none of my good friends do that…but I’ve definitely had acquaintances who make an art of it.

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Kristin T. (@kt_writes) July 2, 2009 at 8:57 pm

Great post Meagan, and a very important topic. It’s become a cultural epidemic.

For most people who read this blog, I’d venture to guess our lives are built on our priorities, and the choices we make around them. I love the “own your own busyness” comment. It’s so true–if we don’t like how busy we are, we can change something. While I know it’s hard to find ways to pare down and slow down, there are plenty of people (even here in the United States) who deliberately choose to live a very different kind of life. It can be done, on whatever level of simplicity you decide you want to live with.

The point isn’t necessarily that the more simple you life, the better. The point is determining what level makes you and your family feel happy, healthy and fulfilled, and then figuring out how to maintain that level.

Kristin T. (@kt_writes)’s last blog post..Tales I couldn’t tell without Facebook

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deb July 3, 2009 at 8:31 am

why do we do this… are we all rationalizing or explaining away our days. I used to babysit a little guy , and his Mom would rattle of her whole week , often including her hubby’s schedule , while I stood mouth agape , vacuum in hand, my 5 and her little one, waiting for her to leave and close the door.
If she wanted off the train I would have given her a not so friendly push some mornings. Either get to the list and stop telling someone who doesn’t really care, or don’t do some of the things and the world will go on without you.

Having said that , I am guilty of it , especially when I feel held hostage to all these social norms that take up time I’d rather be using to be creative, or soaking up creation. Dog grooming, returning ill-fitting clothing, buying teacher gifts… blah. The prison of suburbia.

I’m sorry if that sounds a little harsh… this post resonated with me in a huge way.

deb’s last blog post..ANYTHING BUT THAT

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FamilyNature July 4, 2009 at 9:23 am

Yes! I too find this annoying. Everyone is busy, it’s true. When I feel like things around here are too busy we schedule down time. My husband and I say, “Okay, no plans on Saturday? Let’s keep it that way.”

I find the same thing about stress. “Oh, I’m so stressed out”. There are some stresses that you just can’t get rid of, absolutely. But then there are things you can control, just like being busy…if things aren’t working, change them.

FamilyNature’s last blog post..My Baby, My C-Sections. Random Ramblings about Babies, Growing Up and Letting Go.

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Jennifer July 8, 2009 at 10:52 am

I have now twittered this, fb’d this, and printed this. I think I like it. :)

I truly hate it when people do this to me… but I find myself doing the very thing I despise, myself. I have a habit of always feeling “I must explain.” It’s the easy way out of “no.”

But today I’m seriously planning to stop. Thanks for the kick in the behind!

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Catootes July 9, 2009 at 10:37 am

I’m a “busy” crime committer myself, but I think I use it in defense.
Due to reasons no one wants listed here, I make guilty “I’m so busy” excuses when trying to steal time for myself and not attending to other’s needs, be they social needs, family needs or friends needs. I hide behind the lst of things that must be done so I don’t burden myself any further.

Gah. I know when I’m doing and want to smack my self silly when the words erupt form my own mouth.

Catootes’s last blog post..there’s an excellent location for that cherry bomb

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Robin Elise Weiss, LCCE July 10, 2009 at 8:56 pm

I mostly agree with you, though I’m guilty of stringing a long list of things I’ve accomplished together on facebook. I do it more as a list of things I can check off. It makes ME feel good to know that I got something done, despite feeling like I didn’t do a darned thing. Though I’ll admit, I read EVERY night. It helps me keep my sanity. Sometimes I only read for 10 minutes before lights out, but it is so important to me.

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Cindy La Ferle July 16, 2009 at 6:26 am

Funny thing, in France (and other parts of Europe) it’s considered very rude to talk much about your work, your job, or how terribly busy you are. Working too hard isn’t considered something to boast about — and having leisure time is the goal of the good life. At cocktail parties, French people rarely ask “what do you do for a living?” Of course, this forces everyone to make conversation about deeper social issues, current events, books they’ve read, and so on. I’d like to borrow a page from them…

Cindy La Ferle’s last blog post..Call of the wild

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Michelle August 17, 2009 at 4:30 pm

I really needed to read this. I am so guilty as charged. I am getting over my story now – for me, my kids and the rest of the world. ;)

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Carrie September 30, 2009 at 1:40 pm

Yes! Thank you for writing this! I am not a mom (yet), but everyone I know IS a mom…and anytime I try to get together with anyone, all I get is “I’m soo busy”. I thought that this was an excuse, but doubted my insight as I do not have children, therefore, I must not be able to understand how busy children make mothers these days.

But Lo! I find this article, and all of you who already have children see through this “too busy” excuse as well! I am not insane! Nobody can be so busy that I can only see them three times a year!

If these people are trying to gain my pity, or make me jealous, or feel more important or more special than me because of their insecurity…then this “too busy” ploy is not working. We’re all busy. So, if I can make time for my friends, but my friends can’t make time for me…I better re-evaluate my friends and watch out for this catch phrase, as this is a clue that the person is too wrapped up in their lists to bother with being a friend!!

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Sundance June 24, 2011 at 6:18 am

A wodnefrul job. Super helpful information.

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tracy smith May 3, 2010 at 8:11 pm

I find myself in perpetual conflict..because although I do truly enjoy entertaining and very much value our relationships with friends and family, I also really crave alone and down time with my husband and three children.. I’m looking for advice: every weekend and even through-out the week, we are approached about plans ..so much so it feels like we are never alone to really relax as a family..What do I say to people without sounding im-polite when we don’t have arrangements and would not like to have plans without out lying or sounding rude?

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Tanya October 29, 2010 at 12:49 pm

Guilty! As a working mom I’ve complained about this many times on my blog. It’s usually when I’m overwhealmed, tired and/or needing a pat on the back. I remember ladies in our office (before I had kids) always rolling their eyes becauce this one lady in our office, when asked how she was, would always reply “busy.” The general consensus was – yeah yeah we are all busy but how are YOU?

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Kelly October 30, 2010 at 9:31 am

I agree! I think that busy-ness in our lives is a choice. It is absolutely possible to fill every second with activity, even activities we don’t enjoy (like running errands) but I’ve made a conscious decision not to.

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Elena November 2, 2010 at 2:09 pm

I am that busy. I have 4 kids (ages 11 months – 8 years). I homeschool my 8 y.o. At night, I teach online classes at night– five of them. No babysitter. I love my days with my kids . . .that is my “break.” It’s the nighttime that is tough, because I am so tired.

I talk about how busy I am for two reasons:

(1) I want my husband to help me more.
(2) I want other people to stop asking me to do more! This is the big reason. It seems like if you don’t say you are busy (and even if you do), there is always someone waiting to ask you to do just one more thing . . .

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Meagan Francis November 2, 2010 at 2:56 pm

@Elena,

Truth be told, with five kids and a writing career I’m busy too! So please don’t think I’m unsympathetic to the myriad demands moms (especially we working moms of many) face. I think, though, that there’s a difference between matter-of-factly saying, “I’m too busy to take on XYZ”–which is usually just the plain truth!–and using “busy” as the one-word descriptor for your life whenever anyone asks how you are or what you’re up to.

Like so many things, the tone and intent are really what matter, not the words. It’s not always possible to change your level of activity, but it sounds like getting your husband on board to help would take some pressure off you. Problem I’ve found with men, though? If I tell my husband, “I”m so busy!” he’ll just say “Me, too.” Hint completely un-taken. But if I say “I have a lot on my plate today, so I need you to take the kids to practice/do the dishes/cook dinner/take the baby so I can sleep in tomorrow,” he almost always comes through. I just have to be really, really specific about what I want. To him, “I’m busy” just doesn’t compute!

Thanks for your comment–I hope you’ll be back!

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Jennifer See February 10, 2011 at 7:09 am

Meagan – I was just talking about this exact topic the other day!!! This is such a pet peeve of mine!! If I hear one more mom say “Things are so crazy!!” or “I’m so busy!” I’m going to scream. We are all “busy” – it’s called life!!! Thanks for writing this.

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Linda April 5, 2011 at 10:15 am

I’d comment on this post but “I’m too busy!”

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Sally April 5, 2011 at 4:01 pm

Definitely food for thought. I guess I’ll have to come up with another reply for “How are you?”

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Crystal April 6, 2011 at 12:29 pm

I am SO GLAD I found out about your blog from Mamapedia today! I find myself in a regular funk of “busyitis” and stress over all the little irritations in my day. Already today after reading several of your posts I find myself taking a step back, a deep breath, and regaining some perspective. I’ll continue following your blog and plan to buy your book! Thanks!!!

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Margot September 6, 2011 at 5:54 am

I’ve been reading your blog for a while, but not so long that I saw this post the first time around. I’m glad my eye caught it today.

I’m not sure that I talk about how busy I am all the time, but I have been taking notice of how overwhelmed I feel and attempting to improve that. Sadly, I feel like my successes in gaining control of the work of being a mom/woman/worker/wife aren’t something others would be interested in. Since I don’t tend to talk about them, I have trouble on occasion coming up with topics besides my present to-do list.

One reason moms may list all the reasons they are busy is because that is all that they feel they are at that time. With the push to prepare dinner, shuttle kids, clean house, go to work (continue any ‘busy’ mom’s list), it’s easy to forget that you are more than the sum of those activities. Taking time to nurture the rest of you takes time away from all the other things on the list, all the things other people depend on your for. Eventually, it feels like all that remains is the busy-ness and that is a lot easier to talk about that the lost feeling that remains when you aren’t busy.

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Birdie June 13, 2012 at 11:31 am

Sometimes I wish I was busier to so I could avoid annoying people, invites, requests. People in general, can have a LOT of nerve. Like this past weekend when my neighbor asked if I could sit in her house so her son wouldn’t miss his nap, while she took her daughter to a dance rehearsal. (I’m the only mom in the neighborhood that doesn’t have three kids under age 3, mine are age 8 and 5). And I am the only working Mom in the our circle of friends – by the way – I NEVER hang that over anyone’s head, I stayed home with my kids until they were school age, so I have been on both sides. We are in military housing, and husbands are gone a lot. But that is pretty nervey, to ask me, obviously she wouldn’t ask the other mom’s to interrupt their naptimes. I never EVER talk about or FB rant about being a busy, tired, working mom – I would get skewered for that!! I am happy – I paid my dues, my kids took naps, which sometimes got interrupted or flat out cancelled due to military life. I have no room to help make some other mom achieve her perception of being perfect. I focus on the positives of being a mom – how much my daughters enrich my life, I really, truly enjoy them. Motherhood is not a daily grind for me, I wanted these beautiful kids, and I am going enjoy what I have been blessed with. And if they are not athletic because there is no time or desire to sit by a soccer field in the rain – then I will gladly pay for their therapy when they grow up – there are worse things a parent can do!

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Catherine Vos July 11, 2012 at 5:41 am

I know this is an old post but upon reading it I felt compelled to comment. For the first 4 years of my parenting this was me but not for the reasons that have been thrown around here. I was totally totally overwhelmed with my to do list. I had 3 babies in 3 years in a town with no family support, a husband who worked long hours and a house that I just could not get on top of. I also had one child who was exceptionally difficult, incredibly clingy and cried a lot. I lived in mess and mayhem going from one crisis to the next. I honestly felt like I was drowning and because this was what I thought about all day long, this was all I talked about whenever anyone asked. I mentioned all the things on my to do list because they completely overwhelmed me. Looking back it was a cry for help but I was sharing it with the wrong people. People started avoiding me because they weren’t the people who loved me unconditionally. I should have called my mum, and two of my friends who lived out of town but I was so desparate for a hug and perhaps some actual help and to be honest a break which never ever came, that I was turning to the wrong people.

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