Octopus Moms

Between hauling the kids to swimming lessons, gymnastics, Brownies or sports clubs; between dashing off to do her mom’s grocery shopping or driving her to doctors’ appointments or popping in to see her dad in his chronic-care facility; between scouring the house and mowing the lawn and helping Jacob with his therapy; between homework and day-care drop-offs and long days at work… it’s a wonder how DeBono pulls it off without sprouting a few extra arms.

The truth is, most of us can relate. Like DeBono, we’re balancing so many family, job and household responsibilities that if we added one more thing, we’d fall implode. Trading it all in for a remote cave in the wilderness isn’t an option. So how can octopus moms cope?

DeBono, for example, has an escape valve. “I do a lot of reading,” she says. “I really enjoy books.” She reads late in the evenings, or on the train to work. Other moms take out their angst on a tennis ball, or have a time out with a tall latte.

Grabbing a little ‘me time’ is the right idea, says life management expert Katherine Gibson in Victoria, B.C. She’s author of the books Unclutter Your Life: Transforming Your Physical, Mental and Emotional Space and Pause: Putting the Brakes on a Runaway Life. “We can’t change a lot of the things that are driving us, but we need to put self-care at the top of the list.”

DeBono has learned not to fret about the less important things. Such as whether or not her kitchen floors gleam. “I can be a little anal about my house,” she admits. “But I have to let it go.”

Let it go, or let someone else do it. DeBono’s husband Jim pitches in. He cooks all the meals, no simple feat when you consider Jacob’s special dietary needs.

Reality is, however, that when it comes to housework Canadian husbands are still doing a lot less than an even share (1.4 hours per day compared to their wives’ 2.4). If you’re feeling frazzled it may be time for a reality check – one that involves a job jar. The job jar nags and gets the work done so spouses don’t feel as on the spot.

A lot of overtaxed parents may be overlooking a valuable mini-labour force right under their noses: namely, the kids. Many of us are letting our children off the hook when it comes to household chores. We’re too busy micromanaging them instead of giving them responsibilities, says Gibson. “When we do that, we cheat our children out of the experience of making mistakes and getting back up.” Why should you scramble to fold laundry and take out the garbage when you can teach your tots to do it?

Some of the strain on mom stems from her belief that she must juggle not just competently, but faultlessly. “There are a lot of expectations on moms to be perfect ,” Gibson says. “Not only do you have to have a child who’s on his way to an NHL career or Harvard, but you also know the latest recipe for gazpacho soup, you have a 29-inch waist and flawless skin. We’re crumbling inside from the pressure.”

I certainly feel overloaded. Who honestly cares how much dust is under my fridge? And why does that bother me, when it’s clear I don’t have time to do anything about it? With a kid, a busy job, a needy house and a husband with disabilities, I have to force myself to accept my limitations. But I’m still hard on myself, because that sense of “should” can be overpowering.

I can’t say I never blow my cork, but I do take a page from Gibson’s book and save a little space for me. I dig into my perennial garden or veg out in front of the TV, even if it’s just for 20 minutes. Biologically, our bodies were never meant to be in a constant state of stress. That muscle tension and skyrocketing blood pressure was strictly designed for a fight-or-flight response, so it’s important to find some way to release it through physical exertion or relaxation.

Beware the implosion

Be on the lookout for more serious psychological fallout. “Moms who have a lot of things going on might have depression and not realize it,” says Afsoun Khalili of the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine. “The only symptom is low energy.” Doesn’t that just describe every parent you know? Talk to your GP if you have symptoms like feelings of hopelessness, difficulty making decisions or crying spells.

Getting treatment for any underlying medical condition is critical. Heather Cook, a self-confessed octopus mom in Calgary, AB, who recently learned she has premenstrual dysphoric disorder. (Think PMS with the volume turned up.) Cook does it all – works full-time in sales, keeps a side business in writing, and raises Michael, six, and Emily, two. Somehow Cook manages to squeeze in after-school activities like swimming and soccer, and she volunteers at two non-profit organizations, updates her blogs and runs a book club. But though she’s busy, at times the stress she felt seemed disproportionate. She knew something wasn’t right. “I went to the doctor and said, ‘I want to stab someone.’” Now armed with a diagnosis and vitamins, Cook finds her symptoms more manageable.

What also helped Cook was unloading. She walked away from a longtime board of directors position because it had become too much. “It takes a lot of courage to say no to things,” Gibson points out. “It’s giving yourself permission to live by the values that you feel are important.” Gibson encourages moms to try underscheduling for a change. “Just say, what’s cluttering up my day? I’m going to do less, and do more of the things that are making my life sane.”

After all, at the end of the day, will it really matter whether or not all the spots are polished from your windows? Or whether you miss a few baby-gym classes?

I’ll contemplate that while I reach for the dust under my fridge.

Tips for flat-out moms

Many octopus moms are masters of organization. Here’s what some busy parents are doing to keep all the balls in the air:
  • Keep notes. Clear your mind by putting tasks down on paper. Calgary mom Heather Cook keeps a family ‘control centre’ on the inside of her front door with a calendar, daycare schedule and mother-of-all-bulletin boards.
  • Help your senior parents help themselves. Leisa DeBono of Mississauga, ON, fills her elderly mom’s pill dosette so she’ll take her medications properly. She also set her up with an account at a taxi company so all her cab rides could go on a monthly tab.
  • Flex your job. Find out if your job hours can be modified to accommodate your other responsibilities, or whether you can work from home at least part of the time.
  • Give your kids responsibilities. Catch yourself scrambling to fold laundry, prepare dinner and take out the garbage? Teach your children how to contribute to household chores. They might even think it’s fun to toss a salad or pour the milk (no need to tell them otherwise).
  • Enlist help from your partner. Negotiate to share chores equally. Try not to be the super mom the media leads us to believe is possible.
  • Take advantage of technology. Pay bills online. Set your cell phone or computer to remind you of appointments or must-do tasks. Don’t let technology control you though. Author Katherine Gibson recommends a ‘quiet zone,’ a regular time period in the house during which TVs, radios and computers are all turned off. PC

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