How does my friend who recently turned 55 prioritize what is important? "I am in the age of decline," she explained. "I decline this, I decline that. I decline a lot of things." As many of my generation of caretaking, overextended, multi-tasking women can attest to, saying yes is easy; saying no can be tough. Many of us are taking care of children, working outside the home, caring for aging parents, not to mention serving on boards, volunteering at our kid's school and helping a friend who has cancer. Despite feeling exhausted and stressed, we soldier on, often at the expense of those closest to us. In fact, I knew it was time for me to make a change when my kids gave me a tee shirt that read, "Kick me if I volunteer again."
The kids were right -- my impulse to assume more and more responsibilities both at work and at home had a dark side. My inner bitch was beginning to surface. I was irritable, tired and angry. It was time to create some space for myself and get better at saying no.
Like so many women, I was continuously striving to be a better mother, a more attentive daughter and a more accomplished professional. Instead of patting myself on the back when I achieved my goals, I would move the goal posts and expect more of myself. Like Sisyphus, I kept pushing the rock up a metaphorical mountain consisting of all my "to dos," the unpaid bills, the pile of camp health forms and the seemingly endless emails. But somehow I never felt I was getting ahead. No sooner did I check things off my list than I was overwhelmed by all that was left undone.
It was time to start my "to don't" list.
When I turned 50, I started to let go of things I felt I should do, but didn't really enjoy. That was the end of making dinner every night. True, my kids were out of the house. But I realize I don't really like to cook at the end of a 10-hour work day, so why try to whip up a three course meal when all I felt like eating was a bowl of cereal and some ice cream? Somehow my husband learned to make a really tasty salad and we haven't starved.
Another "no" I let myself say "yes" to: I gradually stopped spending time with people out of a sense of obligation rather than enjoyment. Yes, they were good people, and their child was my daughter's close friend in middle school, but they left me feeling drained, not invigorated. And I became more focused at work, saying no to projects and taking on others that were more suited to my skills and interests. As a result, my work has been more gratifying and I haven't gotten fired -- yet.
As a social worker, I often coach family caregivers, most of them women, who quietly fume at the difficulties of trying to be a good daughter, sometimes in the face of a very obstinate parent. "We have a close Italian family," explained Sally, a 53-year-old administrative assistant with an ornery 16-year-old daughter and an 83-year-old mother who refuses any help (except for Sally's). "To mom, no one can do the job of caring for her but me, but I can't manage my work, my family and caring for my mother without losing my sanity!" Saying no was not in Sally's vocabulary, but maybe it should have been.
Many caregivers who cannot see their limits end up driving their own health into decline, because they have not factored their own needs into the caregiving equation.
So I have to take some quiet moments to reflect on my own struggles and those of so many family caregivers. Age does come with some blessings. By the time we reach 50, many women stop trying to be the perfect mother, wife and daughter. We more easily settle for good enough. Life's triumphs and tragedies have somehow put things in greater perspective, and enjoying simple pleasures takes on more meaning. I no longer harbor feelings of guilt that I should be tackling my "to do" list if I get a massage, have dinner with a friend, or just do nothing. Recently, I took out my guitar, which I hadn't played for years, and sang like I did when I was 17 (just worse). Then I curled up on the couch, picked up Fifty Shades of Grey and treated myself to a delicious dinner -- a bowl of Frosted Flakes and a dish of Haagen-Daz. The age of decline... indeed!