Realizing I Can't Do It All Made Me a Happier, Healthier Mom

I used to try to do everything my kids asked. Then I remembered that there's only one of me, I only have two hands, and that's okay. I don't have to do it all.

Photo: Courtesy of Sarah Bradley

I'm washing dishes at the sink when two of my three kids ask for a refill on their snack. The words themselves are polite, but there's an urgency that's unique to children and the acquisition of food (their pleas imply if it doesn't appear in front of them rightthisverysecond they're going to spontaneously combust). At the same time, my third kid comes up behind me and sticks a toy in my face, saying "Mommy, can you please fix this?"

"Hang on, guys," I grumble. "I only have two hands."

It's not the first time today I've said it, and it probably won't be the last. Being home alone for the better part of eight hours with three kids means I never have enough hands to complete all the tasks, comply with everyone's requests, or make everyone feel cared for in anything resembling a timely manner. It means most of my day operates on a triage system: the things that can't afford to wait—or are already in progress—get done first, and everything else has to compete for sloppy seconds.

It's a frustrating way of living life, but it's inevitable right now with small children. My kids are not totally helpless, but the number of things they can do for themselves is far outweighed by the number of things they can't. It's easy to let this dictate my response to their needs—to move at a breakneck pace on a daily basis, flying from room to room and kid to kid, trying to check off all the necessary boxes.

If I just had more hands, I think, this would all be easier.

But I don't have more hands, and moving at lightning speed all day isn't helpful: I make mistakes, drop stuff, lose things, snap at my kids, forget why I walked into a room. Never really focusing on any one thing has a draining effect on my energy and overall happiness.

I wanted to stop. Well, maybe not full-stop, but at least slow down. I had to make a change. So I did.

I started moving more deliberately—doing only one thing at a time. Washing the spoon, then opening the cabinet. Helping one kid, then helping another. Taking a lot of deep breaths. Reminding my kids to wait their turn. Reminding them to be patient. Reminding myself it's not a race.

My kids are free to believe they will implode if I don't hand them a snack in the same nanosecond that they ask for one, but I don't have to respond like there's any truth to that. I'm an adult. I know better. I can get to it when I get to it. I only have two hands.

Embracing the fact that I have physical limitations (like any normal human being) has felt incredible. I've not only learned to slow my body down, but to put the brakes on my emotional to-do list, too.

Sarah Bradley 2
Courtesy of Sarah Bradley

You know what's worse than having an emotional to-do list that's a mile long? Feeling bad about the fact that you can't check everything off—surveying that list and realizing you will never, ever get to the bottom of it.

I want to read more novels. I want to write my own novel. I want to exercise for 30 minutes a day. I want to get more sleep. I want to spend more one-on-one time with each of my kids. I want to spend more time alone. I want to meet my girlfriends for coffee. I want to stay home and watch Netflix with my husband.

It seems that every one of my emotional wants is a bucket on a scale: do enough of one thing, and that bucket gets filled up. Hooray! Except another bucket is necessarily left empty. So if I get on the treadmill, I can fill up one bucket. But another one—the bucket for writing time or coffee talk with friends or sleeping—will remain unfilled. I can't fill up all my buckets at once.

For the longest time, this made me feel powerless. Why can't I do everything? Why do I have to choose? Shouldn't I be able to read and write? Exercise and hang with my husband? Spend more time with my kids and my friends?

No, of course I can't. For the same reason I tell the kids I can't get them a snack while I'm washing dishes: I can't do that thing over there, because my hands are busy over here. It's nothing but physics. It's the familiar refrains of mothers everywhere, throughout all of history. There's only one of me. I can't be in two places at once. I only have two hands.

This is not a bad thing. Thank goodness I only have two hands—it means I can set limits. It means I can say, "I will do this thing, but not that other thing" or "I can't do that right now, but maybe in a few minutes/months/years." It forces me to be kind to myself. Like so many other mothers, my self-kindness has been in short supply for far too long.

It's one of the best lessons I've learned as a mother. I can only "hold" so many things at one time, which means it's okay to set some things down and promise to come back for them later. It's okay to fill one bucket up, over and over, even at the expense of another bucket remaining empty for the time being. It's okay to spare my arms and my mind and my heart from the weight of trying to carry everything at once.

I only have two hands—and that's the way it's meant to be.

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