The Myth of Prioritizing: It Doesn't Make Us Happy, It Helps Us Get Through

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I’m sure you’ve heard it before: Pick the things that are most important, and let the rest go. Forget about the cleaning, or the homemade food, or the Pinterest crafts. Focus on what’s important. The implication is that prioritizing will make you happy. By ignoring the baskets of unfolded laundry and reading stories to your toddler, you will feel better. Except it’s a myth.

The Myth of Prioritizing: It Doesn't Make Us Happy, It Helps Us Get Through

It’s the middle of football season, and since I am married to a football coach, that means the other day I had my “week five of the season cry.” Because after five weeks of my husband being home for dinner only one night a week, after five weeks of doing bedtime alone three nights a week, after five weeks of our weekend ending at 3 pm on Sunday, after five weeks the mess, the exhaustion, and the loneliness has caught up to me. I miss my house being clean, and I miss being able to get to bed at a reasonable time, and I especially miss seeing and talking to my husband.

Despite being married for over eight years, my husband doesn’t quite know how to deal with this particular meltdown of mine -- partly because he feels some guilt that he is gone so much. Partly because by week five he misses his wife and his kids and is dealing with his own exhaustion and loneliness as well. And, like most men, he wants to solve the problem so he can help his wife feel better.

So he offers me the advice of focusing on what’s important and letting the rest go. Doing my best and being ok with that. Prioritizing. He offers the only solution he can find. The myth of prioritizing.

Except I already do this. Laundry baskets sit on my living room floor for half the week before they finally make it upstairs, and sometimes the clothes don’t get put into closets and dressers until the laundry baskets are needed for the next round of dirty clothes. Dishes sit in my sink, with the excuse that they need to soak, until there is no room for more dishes. And then sometimes we just go out to eat instead of doing them. I leave work unfinished and choose the comfort of my bed.

Instead of doing those chores, I sit at the table and do homework with my first grader. I trace the letter of the week with my preschooler. I choose the necessary, like making sure my kids have meals and baths and get to bed. I read bedtime stories, and fill out school forms, and put chicken in the crock pot for dinner eight hours later. Because those things are important. Those are the priorities.

But seeing the messy house, and walking around the cluttered rooms, and feeling exhausted still bothers me. Just because I choose the most important things, doesn’t mean leaving the less important things doesn’t suck. Just because in 20 years I will be glad I read those bedtime stories doesn’t mean tomorrow I’m not going feel irritated that I haven’t had 10 spare minutes to change the sheets on my bed in weeks. Just because I prioritized doesn’t mean I feel happy.

But we’ve all been told this is the path to happiness. This prioritizing and focusing is supposed to be a magic cure-all for feeling overwhelmed and exhausted. So when we still feel angry that we’re running downstairs naked because all our clean underwear is in a basket in the living room, we feel like we’re failing. And when we walk by the trash can that’s overflowing and starting to stink and want to cry, we feel like we’re doing something wrong. And when we desperately wish we could zone out in front of the TV for ten minutes instead of listening to a Level 1, I Can Read book for the tenth time, we feel like a horrible mom.

Prioritizing doesn’t make us happy right now. Prioritizing helps us get through right now. And having the strength to get through the exhausting, overwhelming, lonely days of motherhood will hopefully make us happy someday. Even in the right now, while I wouldn’t always call it happiness, getting through the day and keeping everyone alive has its own kind of sense of accomplishment. And before I know it, I will be able to look back and say, “I made it through another season.” And I will breathe. And wait for the next season in life, when I hear someone tell me to prioritize and let the rest go. The myth of prioritizing.

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