Dear Dr. Weisbord,
I am very overwhelmed. This happens to me every summer when the kids are out of school. I don’t come from a frum family, and grew up in a two-child, calm and organized home. It is very hard for me to deal with the chaos, noise, and mess of six children under the age of 11. I do okay during the year, but when the children are home all the time, it’s extremely difficult. I really, really need those few hours to myself, when they’re in school, but it’s not possible. We can’t afford to send the children to camp. Since most of the other children in the neighborhood are in camp, my kids spend the day around the house, getting bored and fighting with each other. I know I could go places and do creative projects with them, but I don’t have the energy. The house is a mess. It’s impossible to make order, and even when I do, it falls apart in a few minutes.
The children ask for toys and new clothing and shoes, like “everyone” else, and I am always telling them we can’t afford it. The kids feel that other people have so much more than we do. I suggested to my husband to ask Ahavas Yisrael for help, but he will not. He is way too proud. He works but doesn’t earn a lot and believes people should be happy with little. We have a roof over our heads, food to eat, and clothes to wear, he says, and that’s enough. He is happy, but I am not. I want to go for marriage counseling, but of course, we can’t afford that either.
I am very angry at my husband, and I can’t help saying mean things about him – to him and to everyone else. I am losing my respect for him and often think of leaving. What stops me is the thought of being on my own with the kids, which would even be worse.
I have two questions: Can I ask for financial help against his wishes? Where can I get some guidance on how to manage my life and be happy and make my kids happy?
Snowed Under in Summer
Dear Snowed Under,
Anyone reading your letter will feel overwhelmed along with you! You have your hands full, and while you might be grateful for your children and the roof over your head and food to eat, everywhere you turn confronts you with a challenge or a problem. It seems to me that you actually are more than overwhelmed; you sound depressed, too depressed, as you say it, to “have the energy” to do camp-like things with the children or to clean your house. The mess you describe is a sign of the “messy” feelings you have right now and the hopelessness that currently engulfs you.
While it would be easy, and even fun, to give you a list of things to do with the children, I have a feeling seeing a bunch of good ideas would just sink you deeper into your sad state. So it looks like we need to start with you! Your first step is to call Jewish Community Services and arrange to meet with a counselor or therapist who can help you start moving emotionally, getting past the paralyzing negativity you are now experiencing. They offer a serious sliding scale, along with very qualified therapists. Next, I would suggest sending one or two children for two or three weeks to a backyard camp. Having even one less child around for a few hours can make a big difference. And please don’t worry about how fair or unfair it is to do this. The family needs this, and you need it to get on your feet. Everyone will benefit from a more manageable situation.
When the children complain about what they don’t have – and you realize that you may be doing the same thing – take a few minutes together and list five things each of you feels grateful for. You’d be surprised with what everyone can come up, with and the exercise will inject a positive note into their lives. Do this once or twice a week and see how many items accumulate on those lists.
I would also like to suggest that, in terms of being the director of Camp Mom, you lower your standards a bit. The children don’t need you every minute of every day; one or two inexpensive outings a week is a lot more than zero! Right now, you’re caught in a vicious cycle. You have no energy to play with the children, then you feel inadequate and overwhelmed, so you have less energy to do anything at all. Start small and stay small – but start, if you can.
Of course, I saved the major item for last: Your relationship with your husband needs some care and attention. Don’t worry if your husband won’t join you. Speak with a rav or rebbetzin with whom you’re comfortable and get some of the toxic stuff out of your system. You can also get guidance about seeking financial relief. In addition – and you undoubtedly know this already – please avoid badmouthing your husband or your circumstances. Your children depend on you to learn how to deal with difficult situations. Instead of handing them the “we can’t afford it” refrain, you can say, “That sounds great. Let’s see if we can manage that” or “It doesn’t look likely right now, but let’s keep it in mind.” The point is to hold back from hammering at the negative in their lives and to help them deal with their situation in a healthy way.
As we all know, taking the first step is the hardest part of making a journey. I urge you to dig deep within yourself and take that first step, for your own sake and for the sake of your family.