Over the course of three decades in relationship with our specially gifted son Zach (24) and his Dad, we have had to navigate, assign and claim a mountain-high pile of responsibilities and tasks, as most families do. The division of labor shakes out differently in every household. The only requirement is that it has to work for everyone involved.
Sometimes we have formal conversations about who will do what, where, when etc. For example, who will cook dinner? Do the laundry? Take Zach to his appointments? Manage finances? Keep the house clean? Keep the car on the road? Manage and coordinate Zach’s caregivers and medical treatments?
Other times, “who does what” just kind of falls into place. Zach’s Dad likes to cook on the grill, so that takes care of dinner. And I love to cut the lawn, so I do that. Generally speaking, there is probably more work to do, than there are hands to do it. But in a family where there is a specially gifted person, there is ALWAYS more work, than there are hands to do it.
The only way I have found to survive the ongoing demands of raising and supporting a guy like Zach, is that the people engaged and responsible for his care must feel that they are on the same team. I say this, not based solely on my own experience, but actually from dozens of anecdotal accounts of different people addressing this challenge in their own homes with varying circumstances.
What stands out to me, unmistakably is that the connection among the caregivers (two, or two dozen) must be a genuine one in order for everyone to show up at their best. Showing up as our best selves is the most effective way to make sure Zach and his body have what they need to survive. So it literally matters how we “feel” about what we are doing.
It turns out that the stressor of the perceived work load seems only secondary to whether or not we are shouldering our task lists with at least one other person. Even when there is a lot going on, the Grace with which we can rise to a particular occasion seems driven by the camaraderie of the environment, rather than the volume or difficulty of the work itself.
You may be able to draw on your own experience to tap into the dynamic I am talking about. Have you ever gotten in trouble as a kid and had to perform a clean up job? Or do damage control for a mess or problem you created? I remember as a kid being at summer camp and getting into some kind of mischief. The repercussion was that I had to, along with one of my co-campers, scrub the floor of the whole big boathouse.
Initially, as a camper I reacted to the punishment like “Huh?..Do what?..Hell no!”
But once the two of us got going, with the music on we were laughing our heads off, and other campers couldn’t help but join in. Within no time at all we were all scrubbing suds, spilling water, and joking around. What may have taken two people and a bad mood a whole day to complete, was finished by lunchtime. Those who weren’t involved had FOMO (fear of missing out) when they heard about the fun we had. Somehow, the “feeling” of being in it “together” made the workload manageable.
I won’t bore you with the details of what a busy life has looked like for my immediate family over the last couple of decades. But I will say that I have had the same experience as an adult, when I am feeling overwhelmed, as I did in that boathouse as a kid: That what I had to do was unfair and it sucked, but it was made bearable only by the fact that I was not working alone. There could be any number of things falling apart at the seams, but we glean more power when we are part of a team than we do alone.
And sometimes the “team” factor is a game changer.
The ability to maintain some sense of connection and common purpose matters, when every day life feels like moving through one huge important project after the next. And it is hard to explain what I mean by “connection and common purpose” because it is a bit complex.
After all, wouldn’t it seem like the most important variable in this equation would be the workload? The more work, the harder it becomes? But in my experience it doesn’t happen that way. The more connection, the lighter the workload gets. Not just because there are more physical hands. It is lighter because there is some type of symbiotic strength that is cultivated with this feeling of not being alone in the work.
And “Winner! Winner! Chicken Dinner!” because I have finally figured out exactly how to convey the feeling of being on the same team in a shared project, so keep reading!
A few mornings ago I was driving to the airport. It was 3:30am. I was with a friend and we’d spent the weekend at an active retreat of sorts just outside of Nashville, TN. We were completely exhausted and had only gotten back to our hotel a few hours before we had to turn around and get back into the car.
This friend and I have traveled a lot together so we are pretty compatible. But to be clear, at 3:30am there can only be one person driving the vehicle, through the dark and windy roads, at a time. And on this day, that lucky gal was me. We had an hour and a half of dark roads before we would get to the airport to return our rental car. It was harder than I thought it would be.
I have worked nights, days, weekends and all shifts as a nurse (and a mom). If you have never had to stay up and function in the middle of the night, it is a pretty unique experience, and a challenge for sure. And when you are worn out and in an unfamiliar place, it can be alluring to doze off, even as the driver. Of course I would never let that happen. But I was feeling the weight of the responsibility to get us safely to our destination.
And just around the time I might have let this drive bother me by concocting some story line about how I shouldn’t have to do this, or I hate driving when I am so tired, or something like that… I looked over toward the passenger seat to see my reliable, steadfast friend wide awake. I couldn’t believe it.
We weren’t chatting (which was a TRUE sign we were tired because usually we are usually both trying to speak simultaneously.) We weren’t interacting. But we were in it together. I thought surely I would have fallen asleep had she been driving, but she didn’t. She wasn’t doing any heavy lifting. But her sheer presence and awareness made it easier.
My heart rate slowed, and leaned into the situation as I realized I was part of a two-person team traveling safely along the highway. I could relax into the “team” mentality which is so much more comforting than making up some fake story about why this was a bad idea. The moment I realized she was awake, the energy shifted.
And I have decided to refer to this energy shift dynamic as the “Boat House Rule.” The early morning drive is the best way I can describe the feeling of sharing a burden with someone else, rather than resisting it solo. If you were a Tom Sawyer fan, you might call it the “Fence Painting Rule.”
No matter what we call it, my experience is that it actually exists. And I try to be on a team with almost everything I do. Not because the work is less. But because I can become more.
The same is true on my healing path. The pain and confusion of grief are not reduced because I am not alone. What is actually happening is that I feel lighter when a genuine connection is cultivated with others who are sharing a similar experience. It feels less personal. I feel less singled out. When I see something I am going through in someone else, we can help each other. This is true even when the work is emotional rather than physical.
Whether driving in the middle of the night, trying to navigate a difficult circumstance or condition, or learning to live without someone we love, we can make it easier on ourselves by connecting with others. The work itself remains the same.
But we don’t.