One of the complaints I hear from moms is that they must leave the house to get time alone. If they are home, and anyone else is home, there’s no peace. No quiet. I joke about moms sitting in their cars for self care, because there’s a stage of motherhood where quiet space is especially hard to find. The pandemic, of course, made this worse. Nobody had anywhere to go. The car became more appealing, with it’s solid doors and automatic locks.
Though my teens are now very happy to not be around me 24/7, quiet space at home remains elusive. Sometimes you want to be home, but not tend to anyone or do anything. (Definitely not cleaning! Don’t use your quiet time for that! If you tend toward needing to be productive at all times, remind your brain that relaxing and naps are great for your health.)
This weekend, my family went golfing and I gloriously stayed home, did some yoga, and read a book. It felt both deliciously simple and luxurious to wrap up in my favorite blanket with a cup of tea and read uninterrupted.
I’m reading Dusk, Night, Dawn: On Revival and Courage, by Anne Lammott. I’ve always enjoyed her witty ruminations, and I can relate to her perfectionistic, anxious tendencies too. I felt seen the first time I heard her say: “I was 35 until I realized that a B+ is a good grade.” Wow. Yeah. Me too. (But is it really?)
In this book, a phrase she used caught my attention because it’s something I’ve heard from the women I’m interviewing for my book:
Air Traffic Control Mode
My hunch, Dear Reader, is that you immediately nodded, “Yep! I know that!” but if not, I’ll explain.
Air Traffic Control Mode (ACTM) is the act of anticipating everyone’s needs, actions, and all possible resulting outcomes in any given situation. It’s planning ahead, negotiating potential conflict, and making sure you’re five steps ahead so nothing (or no one) accidentally collides or melts down. It’s knowing that to get out the door on time for work, breakfast must be at this time, with this plate, and the backpacks packed and shoes untied the night before. It’s knowing what emotions are going to come up for each person, and mitigating the chaos and conflict as much as possible.
There are varying degrees of ATCM, of course, based on the levels of demands, control, and support you have in any situation. As a child, I took on this role without knowing it. As a mother, the stakes get higher. And if you’re a mom of a 2e child, then likely you’re in ATCM most of the time. (And you deserve a break.)
ATCM is one aspect of invisible emotional labor that moms do to make sure their families run like a Swiss train. Ha ha. No, I’m joking. It’s what they do to make sure everyone survives with, hopefully, the least amount of conflict, trauma, and grief. (If you’re a dad that does this, I’d love to talk with you!)
The problem is, you end up carrying the weight of constantly managing everyone else’s actions and emotions. And most likely you’ve got a tendency to blame yourself if things don’t go as planned.
Whatever ATCM looks like for you, remember a couple things:
It’s not your job to manage everyone’s emotions.
Sure, there are times when it’s handy to play your cards in a way that keeps Chernobyl from happening again. Making this your constant state, however, not only disconnects you from your own emotions and needs, it also makes it hard for others to take responsibility for their stuff. You’re handing out great cards to poker players so they win the game, but they never learn to play.
When people lose their Sugar Honey Iced Tea, it is not your fault.
Little kids are learning how to deal with their emotions, and (let’s face it) most adults are too. How other people react to life is not about you. I’m sure you’re talking through emotions that prevent future behaviors, but you cannot control the outcome of others. No blame, no shame. (If you’re the one losing it, then it’s time to get the support you need.) Everyone does the best with what they’ve got.
ATCM takes up a gargantuan amount of brain space, even if you feel like it doesn’t.
If you’ve been doing this kind of anticipation and damage control for awhile, it’s possible you don’t recognize the amount of energy it takes. It takes a lot. You’re probably exceptionally good at it as well, so it feels easy. It still takes space and energy. You’ve adjusted your feeling of ‘normal’ to include this emotional labor. (Following the advice of a career coach I know, sometimes you have to stop what you’re good at to get to the next level.) You’re really good at managing things for other people, but that doesn’t necessarily help you. How it would feel to trust that everything will be ok without constant orchestration?
Air Traffic Control Mode looks a lot like being controlling.
To others, it may look like you’re trying to make the world the way YOU need it to be. When really, most moms would argue their goal is to make life run better for everyone, with the focus on the needs of others. (Really, it’s both.) Life seems easier when you orchestrate and anticipate because you can see the potential undesirable outcomes otherwise, and they take even more emotional energy to manage. You’ve only got so much, so you make a decision on where that energy goes.
How much is too much? How much is too little? There’s no right answer, except what works for you and your family. (Who may not even realize that you’re doing this, or why.) The sweet spot takes iterations of trial and error adjustments, and it’s worth having a conversation with your kids or partner so they can be part of the solution. Once you find a rhythm, things will shift and you’ll have to negotiate the dynamic again. This is why I love coaching. It gives you a solid jumping off point to shift with the ages and stages of life without compromising your own health and wellbeing.
What if ATCM is the only way life works?
There are, of course, situations that warrant a great deal of ATCM. From kids, to bosses, to aging parents who need your care, you’ve got to make choices. I get it. Sometimes life works only when you manage it all. If that’s the case for you, then promise me one thing. Please, for the love of tacos and guacamole, add your own needs and emotions into what’s being managed. Most of the time, you’re managing life for everyone else and completely ignoring your own needs. How would it feel to add yourself into the mix? What if you used your multitasking, intuitive skill to make sure your own needs are met as well?
What if you had AIR to breathe again?
If you’re ready to break out of Air Traffic Control Mode, or add yourself into the mix, let’s talk about what coaching could do for you. I’ve created The AIR Method for moms like you. It’s a forward focused process that results in you having more energy, feeling better in your body, and lightening your mental load. (Plus, it’s fun.) Schedule a free consult call here.
When you take care of your own health and wellbeing, it ripples outward to your family and beyond.
Hey! I'm Cara Maclean, M. A., a Wellness Coach who helps moms like you undo what keeps them exhausted and overwhelmed. Together we cultivate the calm, joyful energy you crave, so you can handle any challenge with humor and grace. I'm also author of Just the Way It Is: A Look at Gender and Generations in Gifted/2e Families, Spring 2022, through GHF Press.
If you're curious about coaching, you can sign up for a free 30 minute consult call here!