The Curse of the Over-Functioning Mom

They were everywhere. Lurking beyond every corner. Hiding behind every door. They even showed up in my sleep, with their cries playing an endless loop in my nightmares. I was not being haunted by ghosts or chased by monsters. These scary “things” that were consuming me were just that—things. Things to do, complete, return, make, check on, follow-up, nurture, accomplish.

The Curse of the Over-Functioning Mom

I felt cursed with a lifetime of tasks and didn’t see a way out. Was I the only one in my house that was under this spell? I would watch with equal parts wonder and rage as my partner would (gasp!) relax after dinner while I geared up for the marathon list-slaying that was my nightly routine. Tidying, prepping, and puttering, I would fall into bed each night feeling like I was on a pit stop in the Amazing Race.

I believed it was my job to manage not only my own life, but the lives of everyone around me.

My days were filled with to-do lists on top of my full-time job. Sometimes, my husband would dare to say things like, “Why don’t you come sit down with me and relax?” Relax? How could I relax, I would counter, when there are still 100 things to be done before bed? And so the curse continued.

I am achievement- and goal-oriented, both qualities that had served me well in my education and career. When these qualities spilled over into my personal and home life, the result was the constant feeling that I had to do all the things, all the time, to be a good mother-partner-daughter-sister-friend-colleague-citizen. More important, this curse made me feel like I was the only one who could do all the tasks correctly, efficiently, and with care (control issues, anyone?).

I knew I couldn’t sustain this pace, and I was losing myself in my quest to keep everyone else together.

This wasn’t the curse of adulthood; I was over-functioning.

The Curse of the Over-Functioning Mom

I over-functioned to avoid my feelings of anxiety as I worked through some personal issues. I had been in perpetual motion for years, never stopping to care for myself or empower my partner and kid to do the same. Look at me, managing everything for everyone! Feeling emotional pain? Let’s make cookies for the bake sale! Run-down physical self? Let me pour my 10 year-old’s cereal so she doesn’t make a mess! Emotions getting too intense? Better overeat to numb those feelings!

Step 1: Examine my habits

It took a lot of self-reflection and copays to my therapist to realize that I needed to make a change. I had to break the curse, but it wasn’t easy. My therapist suggested that I start by taking a week or so to just take stock of how I function. I started by approaching my daily habits with intention, asking the question, ‘Am I doing something for someone that they are capable of doing for themselves?’ If the answer was yes, then I had to examine why.

Some of the things I noticed were a little embarrassing. Had I fallen into the habit of setting an alarm for my husband because I was worried he’d oversleep? Somehow he’d made it to his mid-thirties without me and never missed a day of work and yet here I was, adding “get husband to work on time” to my list of responsibilities. This is just one example of the ways in which I had become a classic over-functioning partner.

Step 2: Share the struggle

Next, I needed to share my struggle with my family and ask for help. This was not easy, but my husband and kid were all-in. My daughter, now 10 years old, was eager to do more things on her own and my husband was up for anything that would help me relax, give up some control, and spend more time together. We each made a list of all the things we do for the house and family, put it on the table, and created a more equitable split. My daughter started doing her own laundry, making her school lunch, and setting her own alarm to get ready for school. She also started loading the dishwasher in the evenings so I could…wait for it…relax.

These changes to our family dynamic and daily routine have made a big difference in the way I feel. The time and energy that I was devoting to everyone else’s life is now available to focus on myself and work on the underlying issues that prompted me to over-function. Seeking this balance and allowing each member of the family to function as autonomous, capable individuals is hard work. Letting go of control and addressing my own stuff is worth the daily struggle to back off. I’m showing my daughter that I care for myself and I trust her to do the same. I’m showing my husband that I respect him as a functioning adult and that I value our time together.

Resources

In addition to a fabulous therapist and medication, I have found some good resources in my quest to break the over-functioning curse. Here’s a few of my favorites:

Dr. Roberta Gilbert’s book Extraordinary Relationships is a hugely popular book on marriage and family dynamics. She approaches marriage as a positive venture where each person can learn to address their own anxiety and function as a separate, equal, and open partner. (Bonus: She’s a Midwesterner!)

Eve Rodsky’s book Fair Play contained several light bulb moments that helped me and my husband start the conversation about household responsibilities. Her website includes a set of downloadable “cards” with household and family tasks that you can use to deal a more equitable hand.

Kathleen Smith, Ph.D. listed 50 Ways You Might be Overfunctioning for Psychology Today and it was (cough, cough) illuminating…

Christine Koh and Asha Dornfest are the hosts of Edit Your Life, a podcast about “simplifying, decluttering, and making room for the awesome in your life.” I love hearing the perspective of other moms!

If my story sounds familiar and you think you might be cursed with over-functioning, maybe one of these will speak to you. Better yet, consider talking to a professional. It’s not so scary when you ask for help!


 

Sherri is a transplant from Oregon who came to be a Hawkeye in 2006 and stayed for the sweet corn...and for the Iowa boy she met along the way! She and her husband (Kyle) have a 9 year-old daughter, Aissa. Sherri earned her Ph.D. in Higher Education and Student Affairs at The University of Iowa and works for Ruffalo Noel Levitz as an Enrollment Marketing Consultant for colleges and universities. When she's not working, you can find her with her family, enjoying Iowa City and cheering on the Hawkeyes.

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