By Esther Mann, LCSW
When I was born, my parents were considered old. At least by me and by my friends. At the time, they had a 16-year-old son and a 14-year-old daughter. My guess is that I surprised everyone. Perhaps by that time in their lives, they weren’t really expecting another child.
By the time I reached 8 years old, I felt like an only child. But not only an only child, but an only child to old parents. Thinking about it now, I realize that my parents weren’t old at all. More or less in their mid-forties. But at the time, with friends who had parents in their twenties, forty-something seemed really old.
I’m sure, as a direct result of this situation, I became the much-relied-upon helper. As soon as I could, I started doing a lot of the cooking and cleaning. I babysat constantly for my nieces and nephews. I had heavy duty responsibility, all around.
I can’t say that I was unhappy about this arrangement. It actually made me feel mature and useful. I enjoyed the appreciation and sometimes praise. It felt good to be so needed.
It therefore should come as no surprise to me or anyone else that when I married Rob, I continued being the efficient one. Rob is a good guy, but aside from working, I do almost everything else. From the beginning, I somehow needed to prove to him that I could run the show—soup to nuts. And I think I did a fairly good job.
As we were raising our children, I continued to be someone that everyone could lean on. I kept a notepad in our kitchen, and all my children had to do was write down what they needed—“pens,” “white blouse,” “haircut appointment”—and presto, like magic, it would appear and/or be done by the next day. I look back on those years and can’t get over what an abundance of energy I had. I was also still busy with my parents, who were finally truly getting older and required help at times.
So now I’m a grandmother to two very small children. I have four children and two of them are married, each with a child. I continue to be there for all of these people, all the time.
I’m not even going to get into the friend situation. But my friends all know that I’m the one they can count on for a favor. A lift to a doctor, a meal for someone sick, the first one to offer her home to host a simcha.
Right now, I am writing to you from my bed, on my laptop. After the intensity of this past month, I literally cannot move. Everything hurts me. My body feels completely out of sorts. Generally, I push and I push and I push until I have nothing left to give. This time I feel so totally depleted, that it’s hard for me to believe that I’ll ever be able to stand on my feet again for more than five minutes.
But aside from the physical aspects of my present condition, for the first time in my life, I’m starting to feel used and abused. Everyone sits around and expects me to do it all. From my parents to my husband to my children to my children-in-law. No one seems to have a problem seeing me bend and stretch and serve and clean and wash, while they are yukking it up on the living room couch, having a grand old time. I don’t know why suddenly now I’m seeing this situation for what it is. Up until now, maybe because I had a very high energy level, I was O.K. doing it all. But now I feel as though no one cares about me. I’m having a flat-out pity party.
Right now, I just want to be done. I want everyone to start taking care of me for a change. Maybe, in a few days when I hopefully start feeling better, I’ll look back on this letter and shudder, thinking I had some sort of psychotic break. But for now, I want out. I want to run away. I never want to walk into a supermarket again. I never want to set a table, figure out a menu, or serve up a feast. I want to stop feeling like a slave.
Behaviors that many of us engage in at specific times during our lives can be appropriate and exactly what’s needed for the circumstances of the particular stage that we are going through. Sometimes, these behaviors stay with us throughout our lives and continue to be helpful. However, just as often, behaviors that were suited to particular needs at particular times become outdated, irrelevant, and sometimes even harmful.
In your youth, you viewed your parents as much older than they in fact were and took on the role of the parentified child early on. It worked. Maybe your parents were not the strongest individuals or maybe they just loved the idea of being taken care of by their sweet, energetic, and mature daughter. But as you admitted, you loved being the source of so much of their pleasure and got a real thrill out of feeling so relevant to them.
So your over-the-top helpful behavior became second nature to you, as you continued to nurture and rescue everyone who came within your orbit. And since most people love to be taken care of, even people who are more than capable of taking care of themselves, under the right circumstances, can easily slide into the role of “taker.”
Finally, you are confronting your behavior and realizing that it is no longer working for you. It probably stopped working for you some time ago. But how do you switch it up in a reasonable way, letting everyone know that the times, they are a-changing? Take out an ad in the Five Towns Jewish Times? Go on strike and never cook another meal? Maybe you don’t have to do anything quite that drastic, but make no mistake, Superwoman, the cape must come off. And it’s time for Clara Kent to make her debut!
How does that idea make you feel? Who would you be if you were no longer Superwoman? Can you still feel as though you have value and are lovable? These are some of the soul-searching questions that you have to ask yourself. Try having a discussion with your husband, a super-close friend, a child of yours. My guess is that you will learn a great deal about yourself and about how loved you are, separate and distinct from your ability to be the hostess with the mostest. The key is in realizing that you can be loved and appreciated, even if you decide that you’re tired of taking care of everyone else. Once you can embrace this idea, it will be easier for you to let go of your former behavior.
Yes, for many years you were Superwoman. But no one can keep up that momentum forever. There comes a time when the torch has to be handed over to the next generation or even just to other people around you. Everything you were and are can never be taken away from you. But it’s time to rest on your past laurels.
I hope that you never again have to work yourself silly to the point where you can’t even get out of the bed in order to prove anything to anyone, anymore—and most importantly, not even to yourself.
Say goodbye to your old enabling behavior and say hello to behaviors that suit the woman you are today. And enjoy the relaxation!
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Lawrence. Esther works with individuals and couples. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295.