You can’t pour from an empty cup

But that doesn’t stop me from trying to do it!

Over the past week, I’ve had several conversations with people who are running on empty. I’ve talked with mom friends who are having trouble keeping up with all of the demands of raising healthy, happy, thriving children while also trying to excel at their jobs. I’ve talked with journalists who are exhausted from a never-ending news cycle and are struggling to maintain the boundaries between work and life. And I’ve talked with my partner, Billy, who would love the experience of one day—maybe even a half-day!—of not having to worry about parenting, chores, or other stressors. I hear you, honey.

I hear all of you. Because I’m in the same boat. I’m overtired, overworked, and over it all. I could use just one day—maybe even half a day!—to catch up on sleep and do something just for me. But I’m not sure if that’s in the cards anytime soon.

You’ve likely heard the saying, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” It’s true. And yet, I keep trying to do it. 

Lately, my cup has maybe a couple of drops of water in it at any given time. More often than not, those drops go to my 7-month-old daughter. Sometimes they’ll go to Billy or a colleague. If I have an extra drop or two to spare, they might go to a friend in need, or even a Sweet Dumb Brain reader looking for some support. 

By the time I get to myself, the cup is bone dry. There are no drops left to give.

This, my friends, is not a good strategy. There’s a reason the cup metaphor is so common. 

It’s not like I don’t know how important it is to fill up your own cup before tending to others. I regularly dole this advice out to other people! As I wrote in my self-care workbook: I truly believe we’re better to each other when we’re better to ourselves.

This is simple advice. It’s self-care 101! But I often find it exceptionally hard to put into practice.

As I’m writing this newsletter, it’s noon on Saturday, and my daughter is taking a nap. If she’s not awake by the time I finish this, my plan is to begin transcribing an interview I did yesterday. I’m unshowered, my hair is a mess, and my mind keeps wandering to all the other tasks I need to do, like submitting invoices, putting away dishes, and catching up on emails. I’m trying to cram this all in today, so I don’t have to work the next day, which happens to be Mother’s Day.

I could use this time to take a shower or a walk. I could use it to call a friend or read in the backyard. I could do a million different relaxing things with this time, but I’m using this precious weekend day to catch up on work because work is the most pressing thing right now. If I don’t write this newsletter today, when will I? If I don’t put away the dishes, who will? And if I don’t respond to emails in a timely manner, what does that say about me?

(To be transparent: Billy is currently holding our napping baby. I have more work tasks than he does, but he does more of our household errands. As far as couples go, we have a pretty equitable set up! Even then, it’s hard to find the time to get everything done.) 

This problem isn’t exclusive to women, but women seem to suffer most. As Eve Rodsky discovered in Fair Play—which was written before the COVID-19 pandemic—78% of mothers say “they are so busy maintaining family stability by being constantly available, mentally and physically, to deal with every detail of home life that they aren’t taking care of themselves.”

This problem also isn’t exclusive to mothers. Last week, I had several journalism coaching calls with managers who put their teams ahead of themselves. They protect their employees’ time, preach the benefits of work-life boundaries, and look for the signs of burnout—but they don’t do these things for themselves.

And it’s not just an issue plaguing journalists, either. Our teachers are facing a burnout crisis. So are healthcare workers. Almost everyone has hit some kind of wall during the pandemic. We are all in desperate need of some extra help and some time off.

I don’t have an answer, except to say that this is not ok, and this is not sustainable. As much as I’d like for people to think that I regularly practice what I preach and, you know, take consistent showers, it’s not always the case. I’m not going to pretend that I’ve got it all figured out, because doing so makes outsiders looking in feel like they’re the only ones struggling.

If your cup has also been empty lately, you’re not alone. I sincerely hope you find ways to fill it back up. And I’m going to try and do the same for myself.

So here’s my plan for right now: I’m giving myself permission to keep this newsletter a little shorter than others and call it Good Enough. And I’m going to go take that damn shower.



p.s. In the spirit of taking care of ourselves, I’m taking a slightly different approach with Friday’s subscriber-only newsletter. I’ve read some really thought-provoking articles on the subject of burnout, and I’m going to highlight some of my favorite excerpts. If you’re feeling like your cup is also empty, reading these articles might help!

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Alisha! Thank you. I definitely hesitated on the attention-grabbing subject line, but decided that this was a topic worthy of grabbing attention.

If you do not yet know the amazing Alisha Ramos, now’s the time to remedy that. She’s the founder of Girls’ Night In, and an all-around badass. She’s also a delightful follow on Instagram.


My Sweet Dumb Brain is written by Katie Hawkins-Gaar. It’s edited by Rebecca Coates, who is working to refill her cup by dedicating time to go to the gym a few times a week. It feels great, so far. Photo by Manki Kim on Unsplash.

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