“You need to put something down, ” I whispered to myself.
It was a typical afternoon in my house, about the time of day when I glance at the clock and go into panic mode. It’s the moment when I become a raging cleaning robot, because everything is everywhere, my husband will be home from work soon, and although he never says a word about it, I don’t want him to come home and think we’ve been burglarized.
I did as I always do, practically running from room to room, gathering things to return to their rightful place (if only for a moment). I picked up a shoe, a stuffed animal, an empty box with marker all over it, kitchen tongs from the playroom (#momlife), and gathered a fist full of random bits of trash along the way.
As I was passing by my daughter in a hurry she said, “Mommy, can you zip this up?”
“Sure,” I responded, as I grabbed her sequins unicorn back-pack and started to zip it. Only I couldn’t. The zipper got stuck. I could not for the life of me get it to zip up. Struggling with arms and hands full, I fought with the zipper with the only two available fingers I had left.
This is when it hit me, this makes no sense. And I whispered out-loud to myself,
“You need to put something down.”
I laid down all the stuff, picked the back-pack up again with hands free to focus solely on the task, and zipped it with ease. In that moment, I realized that this is a metaphor for my current life.
I need to put some things down.
And by that, I mean stuff, commitments, and even some emotional things I’ve been hanging on to.
Years ago, before we had children, I loved a song lyric so much that I entertained the idea of getting it tattooed on my body. (It didn’t happen because I’ve never been able to commit to a tattoo, but I loved it that much.) And then, as I had kids and life got busy, I forgot. Which is ironic, because this line in particular (in my mind) is about the loss of the good because of the more.
The song lyric is from a Jack Johnson song called Traffic in the Sky. I love the entire song, but the specific lyric that hooked me is:
“If you keep adding stones, soon the water will be lost in the well.”
It’s safe to say that over the years I’ve slowly added so many stones that I completely lost sight of the water.
A few months back I came to a point where I had to, very reluctantly, wave my white flag. I had to pause, re-evaluate what is important right now, and put some stuff down. I had to sift through all of the rocks in my well, and decide which ones were not good, which were good, and which were best. Sometimes there is only enough room for what’s best, and that is where I found myself.
I found myself in a place where, if I had to draw a picture to illustrate my life, it would look similar to that of an ancient torture device called the rack. With this device your limbs would all be stretched out and strapped, then pulled into different directions.
(Side-note: picture me sitting at Starbucks while writing this, and just as I’m Googling “ancient torture device that stretches your body” to find out what it was called, someone walks up behind me. I’m quite sure they looked at my computer screen, because they look scared and did not reciprocate my friendly smile.)
Between work, kids’ school responsibilities, extra-curricular activities, and household duties, I found myself spread thinner than a strand of human hair. I picked that analogy after a Google search of “the thinnest thing in the world“.
It’s not just me, though. Stress has been the theme amongst conversations with friends. Everyone seems overwhelmed. “It’s just too much,” has been a common phrase I’ve heard from friends and acquaintances lately. I’d venture to bet it’s you, too.
Even at our latest MOPs meetings, the theme was all about creating breathing room in our lives. I felt as if the message was curated just me for me, as a sign that I am on the right path now, and a guide to help me navigate that path.
It wasn’t just for me though. Our culture has become so obsessed with being busy and productive that we have lost sight of what life is really all about. We are all feeling it. I am even more guilty than most, because I have formerly given tips on how to be more productive and even posted almost bragging posts on social media about how much I can multi-task and get done in one day.
I am guilty of glorifying busy, and for that, I apologize. While I still believe in productivity, I now know the difference between being productive and being so busy that you are neither productive nor happy.
How MOPs is defining the theory of breathing room
At MOPs they define breathing room as the space between your pace and your limits. Everyone has their own comfortable pace that is natural and good for them. There is no right pace. It’s your own sweet spot that makes you feel fulfilled without burning you out.
In the same regards, we all have our own limit: where we hit the wall and simply cannot take anymore. This is where I found myself, running at a pace that was way above my comfort zone (which is actually pretty fast already). I did it for so long that when I finally hit my limit, I did it head-on at full speed into what felt like a concrete wall.
Breathing room is that sweet space in between, where you allow yourself room to make sure you can keep your comfortable pace without hitting, or passing, your limit.
The Signs That You Probably Need to “Put Some Stuff Down”
There are warning signs when we are headed down this path of too much. I’m not talking about yellow traffic Yield or Slow Down signs, although metaphorically that’s what they are.
When our MOPS leader explained what happened to her when she had hit her limit, it brought tears to my eyes. I felt like she had peeked inside my walls and wrote a narrative of my life in the recent past. She was describing things in her own life that I hadn’t told anyone because I was ashamed of myself and my actions at times. I was trying to sort it all out in my head and make it better, without realizing that the big part of that process that I was missing, was knowing I was not alone.
On the inside I was feeling overwhelm, stress, anxiety and immense amounts of self-inflicted pressure. I was plagued by a fear of disappointing anyone paralleled by the exhaustion of trying to do it all. On the outside, it was coming out as bursts of anger, bouts of tears (mostly in my mini-van driving from place to place), shortness of breath, and the feeling that I am just not good enough.
On top of my “Things I Am Least Proud Of” list sits lashing out at my small children in a screaming rage when really, the moment did not warrant such a reaction.
Signs to Watch For That May Indicate You are Overwhelmed:
- Bursts of anger
- Feeling very emotional or crying a lot
- Feeling so overwhelmed you don’t know where to start
- Feelings of anxiety
This is when I knew something had to change. I tearfully spoke with my husband about how overwhelmed I was, and it felt like a knife in my heart when he very gently said he had noticed it too. I mean, I should have known everyone in my house noticed I had turned into a ticking time bomb. To hear it out loud though, that stung. It was a necessary sting though, one that allowed me to create some change.
Although we don’t need permission to create change in our own life, sometimes it feels as if we do. Being open and honest with our friends and family opens up a freedom of permission to create change without guilt. Most of the time, just saying it out loud is the hardest part, at least that is if you’re prideful like me.
The Process of Creating Space, Breathing Room and “Putting Stuff Down”
I began the process of pulling stones from my well months ago, and while I still don’t have it all figured out, I can already feel the weight lifted. Remember when I mentioned that I had to identify which “stones” were not good, which were good, and which were best? That’s the difficult thing about cutting back to create space, letting go of some good things to protect the best things.
In this current season of my life, I have had to say no to some really good things in order to protect what’s best for us. In a future season, what’s good and what’s best may be different.
What Creating Space Has Looked Like For Me Personally:
To put things into a realistic context for you, here are the changes we have made in the current season of our life:
Saying No to Some Sports for Now
- For the first time in three and a half years, my son will be skipping a season of soccer. This was a tough decision because it’s a sport we all love. However, my husband cannot coach this season due to treatment for thyroid cancer. That coupled with the exhausting Saturday commitments and late Monday evening practices made this one that we had to say “not right now” to.
Leaving Some Good Things to Protect My Sanity
- We left our beloved homeschool co-op community. This was probably the hardest decision for me. I agonized over this one quite a bit. We love this community. The decision came down to the stress that the commitment was putting on me due to all of the other commitments in my life right now. I felt like I was letting this community down already, because I had to miss several times, and I knew that would only continue as we navigated medical issues and other commitments. While we loved this time at co-op so much, I found myself always stressed out about it. I was stressed if I went and let everything else fall behind, then rushed to get my daughter afterwards. I was stressed if I didn’t go and let down others who relied on me there to fulfill my commitment. I was just always stressed on this day of the week. It’s easy to let go of things you know are bad for you, but these things that are so good for you, those are the ones that are hard to let go of.
Creating and Protecting Free Space in Our Week
- I have limited weekly activities so that Monday nights, Friday nights, and weekends are free from commitments. My son has been wanting to play tennis for a long time, so giving up soccer made room for that. Because tennis is only once per week and it’s earlier in the day than soccer practice, it was the doable thing for us right now. Now we have extra-curricular activities 3 afternoons after school, and that’s it. No Monday, Friday or weekend commitments. This helps us start and finish our week in a less frantic mode and allows more free quality family time.
Adjustments to My Work Life
- I have had to become more disciplined in my work life. I work full-time from home as a marketing and account manager, as well as running this blog and doing freelance print and web development. It’s very easy for me to over-commit myself with work. I had to take an honest look at my commitments and realize that I cannot currently do all of the things I want to do in my work life. This is a very personal decision and will be different for everyone. I personally want to work less so I can have more quality time with my children while they are little. I am continuing my efforts to be able to work less and less, but it’s taking time. Later in a new season of life, I can work more. I love to work and we also rely on my income, so this is again a tough decision of letting go of what’s good in protection of what I feel is best.
Focusing on the Little Things That I Believe are Really the BIG THINGS
- Creating more freedom throughout our week allows us to focus on what I believe to be truly important for us, which includes things like family dinner. I feel strongly that eating dinner together as a family almost every night of the week is very important. Cutting back in other areas has allowed me to focus more on making that a reality, cooking dinner almost every night of the week, and making sure we all sit down together to eat. I recently taught the kids how to set the table and deemed it their responsibility every night, and take every possible opportunity to involve them in the cooking of the meals as well. Last night, my six year old was so proud that he chopped all of the brussel sprouts, set the table with napkins and silverware, filled the glasses with water and served the plates of food to the table.
What’s Been Happening Since I “Put Some Stuff Down” and Made Adjustments to Commitments
I have a long way to go. When I really look at my life right now, there are still too many stones in my well. I am moving in the right direction, evidenced by the fact that I have more happy days than not, less random crying in the car episodes, and less stress overall.
Yet there are still days of the week where I see myself back on that rack (remember the ancient torture device?). There are still outbursts of anger and frustration directed at my undeserving children. But they are fewer and farther in between, which tells me I’m on to something good.
I don’t think there will ever be a perfect magic life balance that allows for zero stress, zero overwhelming days, and zero emotional mistakes. I think the key is just always being aware of your own personal signs of overwhelm, consciously checking in with yourself. We have to be willing to be honest with ourselves if an adjustment is needed.
I have let go of some good things lately, but here are the best things that have been happening as a result:
- More impromptu dance parties in the kitchen, even baby Koa is joining in on the dancing now.
- Time to sit and color with the kids (adults should color more).
- As a family we started back to church (and then we had sick kids for two weeks so we have to start again).
- That cherished family dinner time I mentioned has been such a positive.
- I’ve put my work away every evening and joined my family in the living room before the kids go to bed.
- I have cried way less, lashed out way less, and thought clearly way more.
- I have joined a gym and actually made time to go there.
- I am starting to feel lighter, more like myself again.
- I have started to write again. I used to write from my heart more about real life stuff, but for so long now there was just not enough mental or emotional capacity left in me each day to even write. I can feel myself starting to be freed of writer’s block, hence this post, and it’s a good feeling.
- I have started reading the book Do Less by Kate Northrup. I haven’t finished it yet, but I would already strongly recommend it.
How to Evaluate Your Priorities and Make Space
Here are some practical tips I’ve been learning along the way, to make space in your life and protect what’s best for you and your family:
- First, identify what’s BEST. Identify the things you want to keep top of your priority list.
- Next, identify the things that are on your plate right now that align with and support those priorities, and the things that don’t.
- Make room. You’ll have to make some tough decisions to cut back on commitments, habits, or sometimes even hobbies.
- Remind yourself, it’s not a forever no, it’s a not right now.
- Be open to adjusting often, as life constantly changes and each season will have different needs and priorities.
My four year old daughter, who is on a mission to pay me back for asking my own parents 78,000 questions per day, recently asked me what “learn the hard way” meant. That question has led into several conversations where we’ve given examples of when we each learned something “the hard way”, and how we can be glad now that we went through that scenario because the lesson was one we benefited from.
As I’m persistently forging a course out of the cloudy area I found myself in, I feel thankful to have been there. I am thankful to have learned the hard way on this one, because the moments I am protecting with this less is more approach feel so much more worth protection now. They are what life really is, and without them, what is all the other stuff for?
If you are feeling overwhelmed, over-committed, like you are on the rack, you are not alone.
I encourage you to take a deep breath, and put some stuff down.
Here is a video of Sandra Stanley talking about Breathing Room. I wish I could spend time with this woman in real life. I am now a huge fan of hers. I’m kind of hoping she reads this and adopts me. Please, Sandra? (I’m kidding, kind of.) In this video she speaks about life and breathing room way more eloquently than I ever could speak or write. I encourage you to listen to this video before you leave this page.
If you would be so kind, because someone else needs to hear this message, please share it to your social media accounts.
Hi, I’m Jessica! I am wife to Chris, and mom to Kaiper, Alana and Koa. I am a graphic designer, website developer and aspiring author. In this space, I share about everything from parenting, working from home, food we cook, and lots of things for kids! Learn more about me here.