One of the first questions my therapist ever asked me was, “Have you been overfunctioning?”
I was in tears at the time, no surprise. Therapy brings out some of my best crying. And I wasn’t sure I understood her question. I tried to clarify, but like any good therapist, she let the question linger.
I couldn’t say “yes” because I didn’t think it was true. I’m a wife and mom and I work from home and so I do a lot. But that’s normal, right? Most of the women I know are in similar situations. We make dinner, take care of the kids, do the laundry, run a business or volunteer, keep the house clean. How is that overfunctioning? I wondered. Isn’t that just what we women do?
(And to be fair, my husband is not simply the guy who brings home the most income. He can cook better than I can. He’s comfortable at the grocery store. He does his own laundry. He has taken the kids for an entire day so I can pursue my writing interests. Don’t let me paint a picture that is all about poor me.)
I can’t remember how exactly I answered the question. “Probably” is the answer that seems to fit the best. It’s been more than a year since she posed the question, and I haven’t thought about it again until recently.
If you read this blog regularly (and if you don’t, scroll over to the sidebar and put your email address in the box so you can get them all delivered right to you! Subtle, I know.), you know that this past month has been challenging. For several weeks I couldn’t do much more than hobble from bed to bathroom and back because of muscle spasms in my lower back. I was out of commission for weeks, the longest stretch since being married and having children.
I could not do anything. No laundry. No dishes. No cooking. No grocery store. No driving. No cleaning. I could barely walk. Most days I lay in bed watching Netflix or reading or sleeping or sobbing and feeling sorry for myself and my poor family who just can’t get along without me.
The truth, though, is that they could get along without me. The kids pitched in to do laundry. They know all the settings on the washer and dryer. Izzy pours the detergent and Corban loads the washer, and they haul–with great drama I might add–the full baskets to and from the mud room. Folding is not their strong suit, but neither is it mine. My husband has taken on dishes duty. We are, what feels like, the last remaining household on planet Earth to not have a dishwasher. We are still catching up because washing dishes in this house is a major feat. He did the grocery runs. And the meal prep.
And I saw how exhausted it all made him at the end of the day. Not only was he working a full day at his job, he was then coming home to be a dad and a caregiver and a housekeeper/cook. For the first time in our married life, I wondered if that’s what I look like some days, trying to do everything for everyone.
What I’ve learned from this unexpected injury is that one person cannot do the work of four.
Maybe this is a no-brainer for you. Maybe it’s something I should have learned years ago. Maybe you disagree because that works for your family. But for me the revelation is liberating. I can’t do it. And I don’t have to. Four people live in this house, and it’s going to take all of us to make it the kind of home we want to live in.
Sometimes, the kids are going to have to do the laundry. Sometimes, my husband is going to have to do the dishes. Sometimes, we’re all going to have to pitch in to clean up. It’s an unequal and unfair equation when four of us are making the messes and only one or two of us are setting things in order.
I can now say with certainty that yes, I was overfunctioning in this family, and that may be, in part, why my back decided to give out. I’m not in the best physical shape of my life, and it’s possible I was doing too much.
This is not an excuse for laziness on my part or a plea for martyr status. It’s simply what is true for our family. We are all tired after a day of work, whatever the work may be. School. Writing. Full-time job. But if we all work together at the end of the day or week, we can all give a little to get a lot done.
How this will work itself out practically, I’m not sure. We’re not good with chore charts and rigid role assignments. Some structure will be necessary, but what’s more important to me, is the recognition of the need to change the way things were. And that starts with me. With asking for help before I’m overwhelmed or injured or exhausted. With giving my kids responsibility because they can handle it. With releasing the need to fix everything or take care of everyone all the time while ignoring my own health and needs.
I suspect this isn’t just about families, even though that’s where it’s starting for me. I think there’s a broader lesson here, one I’m not quite ready to explore. Maybe we, all of us, the whole of humanity, need each other to step in and assist and help, to do our part so others can do theirs.
Maybe it’s going to take all of us working together to make this place the kind of place we want to live in.