The alarm sounding at 4 a.m. was an unwelcome indicator of the unusually busy morning to come. In addition to getting two adults and two children up, cleaned, dressed, fed, packed for the day and out the door by 7:45 a.m., I had a story to finish, a “theme” day at summer camp for the kid, an appointment with the pediatrician for the baby and a repairman coming for the washing machine. Then a full day of work before kid pickup, dinner, baths, bedtime, more work and cleaning up from the whirlwind of a day.
Lately, that pace has been the norm. Sometimes it’s even more hectic, especially when child care help (what I refer to as “my village”) is scarce, which has been the case recently: My husband was away on a business trip, our part-time nanny took a few days off and my parents were tied up caring for sick relatives. Taking care of (in my case, young) children is not rocket science, but it is demanding. Shuttling my 8 year old to various activities, my 1-year-old’s endless attempts to climb things or swallow things, the messes, the homework, the friend drama, the requests — it all adds up.
The other day, as my husband and I collapsed in our recliners after putting each child to bed at least three times, I felt so mentally and physically exhausted, so tapped out as a parent that I didn’t feel like I had the energy to be a mom for one more second, never mind do it all again the next day.
And that made me feel guilty, because I have nothing to complain about. My family is healthy, my husband is hands-on, and we have reliable babysitters. We have a warm home and food on the table. But still, at the risk of sounding like a spoiled brat, I’ll admit it: Sometimes, I get really burned out.
So I turned to Leah Klungness, PhD, a psychologist and author of “The Complete Single Mother,” with this question: When you’re fried, and there's no money for extra child care or vacations, how can you continue to be a good, present, positive parent in the face of the unrelenting constant-ness of it all?
Why kids are such a big source of stress
When you're frustrated as a parent, it helps to have friends in the same stage of life as you. They're probably seeing the same behavior issues you are, but nobody's talking about it. (Photo: Yuganov Konstantin/Shutterstock)
What is it about parenting stress that tests us so much? “People wisely say, if it’s not your kids or your health, it’s a detail. We can usually dismiss stresses in our life by saying, what difference is it going to make five minutes from now or a month from now? But when it comes to your kids, you really can’t say that in good conscience," Klungness says. "You’re afraid one blip will become a pattern. It’s choosing things in life that really will matter down the road, and the problem is, many parents perceive everything is important down the road. Everything’s going to have a lasting impact. And that’s just simply not true."
She points to time management as one of the biggest parental stressors, no matter your income level, marital status or personal situation. “You’re never going to accomplish everything in a day that you want to. It’s deciding on your priorities and managing your time. We all have a 24-hour day.”
Here are four strategies to keep in mind as you attempt to soothe your frazzled nerves:
Be mindful of the stress you put on yourself. “Mindfulness for today’s parent needs to include the recognition that most of our stresses are things we have chosen to do or have created,” Klungness says. “A lot of the stress comes from all of these ‘shoulds’ that modern parents put on themselves — my kid should be in four different activities, they should be engaged in some meaningful activity all the time, every morsel of food should be organic and highly nutritious. They set the bar so incredibly high that they’re dooming themselves to stress and ultimately to failure.”
Mindfulness also can help us be more present for our kids instead of being too much in our heads worrying and stressing out. As Kelly Brown, a self-described “formerly frazzled mom” and author of “Cultivating Calm,” writes for The Huffington Post:
Motherly fury erupts when the raging rhinos of emotion stampede. By learning to focus my attention on what’s happening in the present moment I’m able to see past the rhinos rather than being smothered by them. I’m more able to notice the quieter parts of my experiences – the unseen factors contributing to my anger: tiredness (my nemesis), worries, memories, or the fact that I haven’t had any time to myself in days.
Choose family togetherness over a spotless house. Raise your hand if you find it impossible to keep your house clean in the presence of young children, and you feel incredibly inept because of it. I sure do. As the hilariously funny Phyllis Diller once said, "Cleaning your house while your kids are still growing up is like shoveling the walk before it stops snowing."
But the clean house really isn’t the point — Klungness uses it as an example of how we should make happy family time a priority over tasks we feel obligated to complete, but really the world won’t end if they don’t get done. (I'm looking at you, dust bunnies in the corner.)
“What kids really need is a parent that’s present and happy and not stressed all the time. They really want you to be happy, and they’ll remember happy times with you,” she says. Not only will they remember happy times, but “they’ll remember the general tone and temperament of the house, and it will become a part of them,” she says.
Cultivate a community. As I've devoted most of my 20s and 30s to building a career and a family, I'm sad to admit that I don't have many girlfriends now as a result. But I'm not alone on that front, Klungness assures me. “We don’t have a village because we don’t cultivate a village. We’re always on our devices. How much energy do we really put into a support network?” she asks. But you need one — for lots of reasons, the main one being that it helps to have someone to talk to who's going through or has gone through the stage of life you're in now, whether it's venting about the monotony of life with tiny tots or the challenges of raising a teenager.
On FamilyLife.com, writer Susan Yates shares (in a wonderfully titled post: "Avoiding Mama Burnout") how a widow next door used to be her go-to person when she struggled with parenting little ones:
Many times I ran across my front yard, sometimes barefoot and in my pajamas, and knocked on her door. When she opened it, I’d burst into tears. “Edith, I am the worst mother and wife in the world!” Sweet Edith would take me in her arms, sit me on her couch, and say, “You are not the worst mom or wife. It’s just this season in your life. It will pass. You will be all right.” Edith gave me perspective because she was older. She had been there. She understood.
I need an Edith. At school pick-up one day, I tried talking to a fellow mom with a daughter the same age as mine about some behavior issues I was seeing at home. I asked if she was having similar ones, but she looked horrified at the thought of discussing possible shortcomings with her daughter’s behavior. She muttered a brief response, turned away and hasn't chatted with me since. Since when did trying to share experiences about our kids' bad behavior become taboo?
Klungness agrees that parents these days don't feel free to share our non-Pinterest-worthy moments with other parents. And the reason why boils down to one thing: perfectionism. "In the last two generations, mothers felt much freer to say these things. There really weren’t those secrets — nobody felt like the striving for perfection,” she says.
Have a sense of humor. Klungness quotes Diller as saying, “I keep the kids' PJs in full sight all day because it gives me hope.” And this old adage is true, too: If you don't laugh, you'll cry. I remember a recent evening where my husband was away and I was home with both kids after a very long day. (The witching hours of 5 to 8 p.m. will break even the most patient parent.) As I juggled the end of the work day and dinner prep and two crying children, I wanted to cry, too. But then I started making faces and funny noises at the baby, and she started to laugh. And when my older daughter heard the baby laugh, well, you try not to smile when you hear a baby belly-laughing. Soon we were all goofy and giggly, and all was well.
If this advice sounds a little old-fashioned and, well, cheesy — happy family time! make friends! laugh at yourself! — then I'm guilty as charged. But the reality is these little things we've lost over the years could be the cure to this frazzled, exhausted, lonely state.