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Leaning Into The Stress of Parenting

Keep your head above water with these tips.

I can’t believe that it is less than 90 days from Christmas! It seems like yesterday I was actually looking forward to school starting because it brought some structure back into my carefree summer lifestyle. Today, I am headlong into sports, extracurricular activities, and community service events. It’s far from carefree- it’s stressful. But that’s okay.

I feel exhausted, overwhelmed and don’t know how to get off this merry-go-round that is my life. The real dilemma for me is, do I really want to get off the merry-go-round? Should I get off? Do I know when I need to hop off? Despite all that is swirling around, I am choosing to enjoy this season in my parenting life. I realize that it will only be for a SEASON. So, how do you lean into the stress that is unavoidable?

I am the proud mother of three sons ages 21, 16 and 13. I realize that the time for me to be a Hands-On Mom is quickly coming to a close. If you are like me, living in the midst of chaos, you want to know how to keep your head above water.

Here a few tips on handling the stress of parenting:

  1. Plan, Plan, Plan: I am not the most organized person. I try to keep the car on the road by creating a plan. Understanding that things will probably change, I still have a calendar with everything on it color-coded. (I need the color-coding!) I include my work schedule, the boys’ school calendar, sports, meetings, extracurricular activities, and even my husband’s two work schedules.
    Stress might be inevitable, but NOT having a plan dramatically increases my stress.
  2. Learn To Say, NO: I am generally a social butterfly. I am learning to say “no” to things that are not the BEST use of my time, energy and attention.  Even good things and fun things. Sometimes the answer is just, “No.” (If I say “yes,” I make sure to add it to the calendar and, yes, color-code it!)
  3. Empower My Children: I have to be honest and confess that, often, the reason I feel so overwhelmed is because I am continuing to do things for my sons that they can do for themselves (e.g., washing clothes.)  I rationalize doing things for them by telling myself that I can do it faster and get it done correctly (e.g., not placing a red shirt in the white clothes with bleach.)
    The reality is that I need to empower my children to be independent and to learn how to do certain things for themselves. And that’s less stress for me.
  4. Follow Your Child’s Lead: If we are honest, there are activities that our children participate in that they HATE. Why do we make them do those things? We tell our kids: It looks good on your resumé. It will help you get a scholarship for college. I would have loved to have this opportunity when I was your age.
    There can be a lot of truth in those statements, but what is the balance with letting our children develop their own interests? Sometimes we are stressing ourselves out as parents by rushing our kids around town to do things they don’t even enjoy. Are we really doing it for them or is it to relive our past or fulfill our own hopes and wishes?
  5. Build Relationships: Sometimes stress is relieved in community. I am a proud Band Mom. I have created friendships with other parents whose children are in the band. We tailgate together, sit at the games together, and do the funny band dances with the band. It’s nice knowing we are in this together! (I also get to spend time with my son enjoying something that he enjoys.)

I often hear from moms dealing with an empty nest, “Enjoy your time with your kids. It flies by so fast.”  They’re not wrong. In spite of this being a crazy season of life, I cherish these moments with my sons and try to handle the stress in healthy ways.

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If you have multiple children with different personalities, is it possible to parent them all the same way?

Even if you just have two kids, you know the pressure to treat them both the same.

I am the proud parent of three smart, handsome, curious sons and often refer to them as “The Boys.” It would be so very tempting and easy to parent them exactly the same way and to make the three of them conform to me. Yes, they are all my sons, but each one of them is a fearfully and wonderfully made individual.

I attempted the “all-for-one” parenting style for a while. The rules and consequences were the same for all. Bedtimes were the same for all. I had an interesting encounter with my then 5-year-old son where he asked me why his 14-year-old brother got to sleep downstairs, and he had to sleep upstairs with us.

This is where the proverbial rubber meets the road in parenting.

I recognized that I have three sons in three different stages of life. The recognition that I have to communicate, discipline, and spend time with each of them differently caused me to become Three Parents: Advisor Mom for my oldest; Relator Mom for my middle son and Hands-On Mom for my youngest. I now try to meet the individual needs of each of my children, and worry less about what they consider “fair.” I have become the parent that they need instead of the “throw noodles on the wall and see what sticks” parent.

In order to become the best parent they need, I use the following steps:

  1. Know your child:
    I am very clear on who they are. Each of them has their own likes, dislikes, and aspirations. I am able to recognize their moods – when they are hungry, sad, or just need time alone. I spend time with each of them. I would take my oldest grocery shopping with me. He was leaving for college and I wanted to teach him about shopping and meal planning. My middle son and I talk as I drive him to school. My youngest wants to watch movies with me while he holds my hand. I am being three parents all at the same time.
  2. Don’t compare your children to each other:
    As a young person, I was compared to another family member. As a result, I vowed to see the unique value that each of my sons brings to the world. I am conscious not to say, “Why can’t you be more like your brother?” We often have children who make parenting them seem ‘easy’ because they are compliant or have an easy-going disposition, while your other child is defiant, stubborn or moody. It is natural to want them all to be the same, but it’s not realistic.
  3. Realize that this parenting style takes time, energy, insight, effort, and adaptability:
    Using this approach to parenting will make you tired. It takes time and effort. It takes time responding to individual needs rather than reacting to the tyranny of the urgent and just reaching into my parenting bag of tricks.

My life as a parent is full.

I may feel pulled in several different directions, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I see my sons growing into the young men that they were created to be. This job of parenting may require me to have three different personalities, but the end result is worth it.

For more resources, see our Parents & Families page here.

Image from Unsplash.com.

I was irritated. More than irritated, I was ready to pounce at the next person who asked me a question, about anything. I was mentally and physically exhausted from putting in hour after hour at work, only to turn around and put in hour after hour at home, and I was over it. I was over my boss, over my hard work going unrecognized, over bearing the weight of the invisible mental load of motherhood and oh-so-over being told I was being too emotional about it all. In other words, I was suffering from BURNOUT.

ICYMI, “Burnout” is now an official medical diagnosis, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). No, we’re not talking about just being stressed out. WHO classifies burnout as a condition caused by “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

Symptoms include:

  • Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
  • Increased mental distance from one’s job or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job
  • Reduced professional efficacy

Yup, I had it all. Check, check aaaaand check.

Thankfully I stumbled upon Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle by Emily Nagoski, Ph.D. and Amelia Nagoski, DMA. It opened my eyes to the science and reality of burnout and how to take care of myself by managing stress.

According to the Nagoski sisters, burnout is caused by chronic stress, not stressors. But what’s the difference? Stressors are external: to-do lists, bosses, all the challenges life throws our way. Stress is the neurological and physiological response your body has when you feel like you’re in danger (from a stressor).

For instance: Your boss called you out on missing a deadline at work. The stressor is your boss calling you out. The stress is the guilt, shame or embarrassment you felt from being called out.

The stress cycle begins when a stressor triggers our “flight or fight” response. It is literally our SURVIVAL mode. Think about it:

FLIGHT: If you were being chased by a lion, you would run to a safe place. Once you are safe, your body would relax. 

FIGHT: If you were being attacked by a bear, but you were pretty sure you could fight it off and win, your body would gear up to attack. Once you had won and the danger was gone, your body would relax.

When you’ve finally reached safety and your body relaxes, the stress cycle is complete.

But what happens when the perceived threat is insurmountable? You’ll never outrun it and you’re not strong enough to fight it… so, you FREEZE. 

And this, my friends, is where burnout happens. When we are stuck in a constant, never-ending state of stress, our bodies literally shut down and play dead in order to survive.

So is it possible to prevent burnout?

In order to fix or prevent burnout, we have to complete the stress cycle. That means, dealing with not only the stressor but the actual stress itself. If we hold our feelings in, power through the hard days, but never deal with the stress of the situation, then we keep the stress cycle open and ongoing, instead of closing it and allowing our bodies to relax.

Here are 7 ways to complete the stress cycle and prevent burnout:

  1. Physical Activity – In any and every form, physical activity is your BEST strategy to complete the stress cycle. You know the drill, 30 minutes a day. It can be anything that gets your body moving: running, swimming, dancing, kickboxing, etc.
  2. Controlled Breathing – Deep, slow breaths help regulate your body’s stress response. Try slowly breathing in for a count of 5, holding that breath for 5, then exhaling for a count of 10.
  3. Socialize – Casual, friendly interactions help signal to your body that you’re safe and that not everyone is crazy and that everything will be okay. Sigh.
  4. Laugh – Laughter is quite literally the best medicine! When’s the last time you laughed so hard your abs and cheeks hurt? Laughter like that can help shift your mood and increase relationship satisfaction.
  5. Affection – Finding a deeper connection with someone you love and trust is paramount. A hug or kiss is known to release a mix of the “feel good” chemicals: serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin. Yes, please!
  6. Cry – Have you noticed how you seem to feel better after a good cry, even if nothing about the situation has changed? That’s because crying is actually dealing with the stress you are feeling.
  7. Be Creative – Allowing yourself to channel stress into art is a great way to complete the cycle. Any kind of creative activity will encourage you to freely express yourself and work through some of those big emotions.

You’ll be surprised at how implementing just one of these methods every day will change the way you manage your daily stress and prevent burnout from happening!

It didn’t happen overnight, but over time I was able to deal with the overwhelming amount of stress I was under. After a lot of introspection (coupled with a cry-sesh here and there), I realized that I had stopped taking care of my well being under the weight of the responsibility of taking care of all the other people in my life. So not only did I start making time for yoga, an exercise that I truly enjoyed, I also started a book club with my close friends to give me an excuse and motivation to read more and get together with good company on a monthly basis. Honestly, it took a lot of effort to change how I managed my stress,  but changing my stress changed my entire life.

For more resources, see our Self-Care page here.

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“I hear so often that your entire life changes when you become a mother. But I just really want to know how… How exactly does it change? Like, specifically.”

As we walked down the sidewalk on a cool spring day, my best friend, who was pregnant with her first child, asked me this question.

I suddenly felt very nervous, as if I were in an interview and my answer was going to be highly scrutinized and dissected to its core. How can I possibly narrow down the specifics of a life-altering experience? I racked my brain and let out an anxious chuckle as I grasped at how to articulate all the million ways my life changed when I became a mother.

“I think the biggest thing that changed for me is… time. Before kids, I thought I was busy. I thought I had a never-ending to-do list. I thought I was overwhelmed. But I had NO idea what busy was. After kids, you literally have no time. You are working 24/7, whether it’s at a job or at home or both. You are constantly taking care of everyone else’s needs. All. The. Time. It never stops. And it’s the most exhausting and overwhelming thing you’ve ever done. You’ll sacrifice so much… but it’s so worth it because you will finally understand what unconditional love is.”

I vividly remember the moment I realized what being a mother meant.

My first daughter, Jackie, came as a happy little surprise. Although I certainly didn’t feel ready to be a parent, at the ripe age of 27, I found myself with the most precious bundle of joy. There was a flood of emotions as I navigated the waters of motherhood, especially when it came to being a working mom. My entire perspective changed one night, as I rocked and nursed my sweet baby to sleep after a long day at the office.

I realized that motherhood is a thankless job; expected; commonplace. It’s just what you do.

There are no awards given to the best mom. No “Mom-of-the-Month…” (although there should totally be!). You don’t get a raise for doing an exceptional job. No one congratulates you on calming a screaming baby or praises you for changing 50 diapers in a day. There is no recognition for how many times you woke in the middle of the night and no trophy for the fact that you are still able to run on three hours of sleep (barely). And all that hard work you pour into making and sustaining this tiny human will never get you a promotion.

But the paradox is that being a mother is actually MORE rewarding than any amount of acknowledgment you could ever receive. To experience the love a mother has for her child is beyond anything I can begin to describe. It’s supernatural. It’s divine. And that’s what keeps us going at 1 a.m., and 3 a.m., and 5 a.m. … through the blowups and blowouts, the baby blues and the bliss.

Motherhood is a thankless job that I, for one, am so very thankful to have.

Looking for more parenting resources? Click here!

Dating after divorce or death can be complicated, especially if children are involved. As people navigate the world of dating and blending families, they’ve asked Ron Deal, stepfamily expert and author of Dating and the Single Parent, the following questions plenty of times: How soon is too soon to start dating? Should I introduce this person to my children?

“On the topic of blended families, someone once said, ‘People marry and form a blended family because they fell in love with a person, but they divorce because they don’t know how to be a family,’” says Deal. 

Deal believes the key to dating as a single parent is to include the children in the bigger picture.

“Certainly, it depends on the age of the children,” Deal shares. “A younger child is more open to new adults in their life, but you don’t want to introduce your 4-year-old to a person that you just started dating. You don’t even know whether you like this person. Wait until you think this relationship really has a chance of going somewhere, then you bring them into the picture with intentionality.”

For older children, elementary and beyond, Deal suggests talking with them about it first. Ask, “What if I started dating? How would you feel about that?” This way, you are putting it on their radar that this might happen. 

“Once you know that the relationship has potential, it is important to create opportunities for everybody to be together and for additional conversations to take place,” Deal says.

Deal strongly encourages couples to discuss a few things before deciding to move forward with marriage, though.

Some couples decide to test the waters with the two families by living together first. This creates ambiguity for the children. When children experience this uncertainty, it creates chaos and empowers resistance. If they don’t like the idea of the families coming together, the ambiguity leads them to believe they could make the whole thing unravel. 

Deal believes, more than anything, a stepfamily needs two adults who have clarity about their relationship and the family’s future. By having conversations ahead of time, you are valuing the “we,” and then the children. If you can’t come to an agreement on your parenting styles, that’s serious. Deal believes it’s just as serious as marrying someone with addiction issues. The outcome of these discussions should be part of the equation as to whether or not you plan to marry.

“At least half to two-thirds of dating couples don’t have serious conversations about how they are going to parent when they bring their two families together,” Deal says. “If your parenting styles are vastly different, this can be a dealbreaker.”

In many instances, one parent has been making all the decisions for the children. Now add a second adult into the mix who isn’t their biological parent. What will you do when your child asks to do something and your answer would typically be yes, but your new spouse doesn’t agree with that?

There’s no question that negotiating parenting and romance all at the same time is complicated. You have to manage the complex moving parts for sure. But Deal believes that if you’re going to make a mistake as a blended family couple, err on the side of protecting your marriage.

“The goal here is to protect your marriage, which is why it is so important to talk about these things prior to getting married,” Deal asserts. “Biological parents have an ultimate responsibility to and for their children, but if you make a parenting decision without consulting your spouse, it isn’t helpful to your marriage. The goal is to co-create your parenting response. You cannot have two different answers for two different sets of kids. That unravels your “us-ness” as a couple.

“It typically takes four to seven years for a stepfamily to find their rhythm,” Deal adds. “There is no rushing it. You can’t will it into being. There are certain aspects of your family that will merge faster than others. Even in the midst of figuring out how to make it work, your marriage can be thriving.”

Looking for more? Check out this article of JulieB TV on this topic!

Over the years, there has been a shift in the sequence of marriage and parenthood. Remember the rhyme?

“First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes baby in the baby carriage…”

Not so – at least anymore. In fact, 57 percent of mothers between the age of 26 and 31 are unmarried when their child is born.

While you may think this is the “new normal,” it isn’t the norm for everyone.

A study by Andrew Cherlin at Johns Hopkins University shows that a college education has become more than a pathway to higher paying jobs. A college education is now a definitive factor in childbearing. Of mothers without a high school diploma, 63 percent of births occur outside of marriage. Among college-educated young women, 71 percent of births occur within marriage.

How does this trend affect children?

Research shows that this set of circumstances creates two distinct paths for children where marriage and education are the deciding factors. When children grow up in a home with their two married parents, they are more likely to experience a stable environment with access to an array of resources and educational opportunities.

In a non-married home, children are less likely to grow up with stability or opportunity to access the same type of resources.

Children from single-parent homes are five times more likely to experience poverty. But, children who grow up with their married parents in low-income homes are at far less risk of being poor.

Children need stability.

But in an interview with the news site, Vox, Cherlin shared his concern about the stability of family lives for children. Cohabiting unions typically break up at higher rates than marriages. About half of all cohabiting couples will either marry or break up within two years. Those who break up will likely create more cohabiting unions – and creating more instability.

If you believe that people with a high school diploma or less are not as likely to want marriage, think again. Katheryn Edin’s research (Promises I Can Keep) with 150 low-income women clearly indicates that these women want marriage, but they have to wait to find the right person to marry. However, getting pregnant is something they can do right away.

Most teens (74%) see marriage and children in their future – in that order. This is according to a June 2014 National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unwanted Pregnancies report.

Clearly, there is a disconnect concerning the significance of marriage and its impact on child well-being. Our society often emphasizes the importance of higher education for young people. It usually fails to address, however, the sequencing for success and the significance of marriage.

There are profoundly different outcomes for children when people attain higher education, work full time, marry and then start families.

Their chances of living in poverty drop from 12 percent to 2 percent. Also, the chances of joining the middle class move from 56 percent to 74 percent. Imagine how future generations would be impacted if more people realized the benefits of following this “success sequence.”

 ***If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, contact the National Hotline for Domestic Abuse. At this link, you can access a private chat with someone who can help you 24/7. If you fear your computer or device is being monitored, call the hotline 24/7 at: 1−800−799−7233. For a clear understanding of what defines an abusive relationship, click here.***

The challenges of single parenting are many. Holding down a job, taking care of the children’s needs and household repairs, and a whole host of other things vie for the 168-hour week. How do single parents make it through the trials and come out feeling good about themselves and their children?

When Martin Luther King III was asked how his mother handled being a single parent, he responded, “My mother did the best she could. She surrounded us with caring adults, including my grandmother, who loved us and provided structure and security to help us grow to be responsible adults.”

Census reports indicate there has been a significant increase in single-parent households. In fact, more than 13.7 million men and women find themselves in the position of parenting alone. Things that have never been issues before are now on the radar screen, often producing anxiety, fear and many sleepless nights.

“I have been a single parent of three for six years,” says Richard.* “I didn’t know a soul when I moved here and had no family support. The biggest obstacle for me was keeping all of the balls up in the air. I was launching a new business and trying to keep my family going.”

Richard describes his transition into single parenthood as highly emotional.

“I was living in a one-bedroom place,” Richard says. “At the outset it was very difficult. I realized I was insecure emotionally. I remember taking lunch hours to do laundry at the laundromat.”

Fortunately, Richard found resources that were available to assist in his parenting efforts.

“The aftercare program at school was a lifesaver,” Richard shares. “There were teachers and friends who helped out in many ways. We were befriended by many people to whom I will always be grateful.”

If you’re a single parent trying to find your way, here are some helpful suggestions from seasoned single parents:

  • Be organized. Make a plan for moving forward. Take time to sort through activities, job demands, a budget, available resources, etc. This will help you to be more in control of your situation and to focus on what is important.
  • Focus on family. Set expectations, establish boundaries, keep the lines of communication open and set aside time to be together as a family.
  • Throw perfection out the window. It isn’t about having it all together. It is about doing the best you can under difficult circumstances.
  • Ask for help. It’s not a sign of weakness to ask for help. There are resources available, but you have to make the connection. Neighbors, friends and co-workers are often ready and willing to step up to the plate.
  • Take one day at a time. After you have put a plan together, don’t get overwhelmed by the big picture.

After going through the trauma of a breakup, loss or abandonment, it’s easy to shy away from asking for help for fear of being seen as weak. Most single parents say this is not how they wished things would go. But over time, many single moms and dads realize the experience has made them stronger and that it is truly okay to ask for help.

Looking for more? Check out this episode of JulieB TV on this topic!

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Most mothers, whether they work inside or outside the home, feel like their job is never done.

“It’s true,” says Sara Emanuel, wife and mother of five children. “I constantly feel like I run myself into the ground trying to get everything done, and I have to guard against living in a constant state of guilt over all of the things left on the ‘to do’ list. I know that’s not healthy, but it’s hard to turn my brain off or to think about doing something just for me because I am exhausted.”

In addition to constantly feeling like the job is never-ending, moms compare themselves while looking at Facebook or Pinterest. And, in an informal survey, an entire group of women admitted comparing what they do for their children with what other moms are doing. 

“I try not to compare myself to other women, but honestly it’s hard not to,” Emanuel says. “I catch myself comparing how I handle discipline to how another mom handled a similar situation, thinking, ‘I wish I had been that creative.’ I think if most moms were honest, we all spend a lot of time beating ourselves up for what we aren’t.”

Emanuel says she believes that women in general want to look like they have it all together.

“It makes me laugh when someone comes up to me and says, ‘You’re always so put together. How do you do it?’” Emanuel says. “I’m thinking to myself, ‘You only see me once a week. Sometimes I don’t even get to shower.’”

In reality, there are a lot of moms out there who feel alone, inadequate and like a failure.

Andrea Gyertson Nasfell can totally relate to what Emanuel is describing. So, she joined forces with director Jon Erwin to write the script for a movie. 

Moms’ Night Out is the story of a frazzled mom, Allyson (played by Sarah Drew) and her friends. They long for a peaceful, grown-up evening of dinner and conversation . . . a much-needed moms’ night out. But in order to enjoy high heels and food not served in a paper bag, they need their husbands to watch the kids for three hours. What could possibly go wrong?

“This movie was so encouraging to me,” Emanuel said. “My husband and I laughed out loud at so many of the scenes. We felt like they must have been stalking our family because those very things happen in our home. It felt good to know it isn’t just us.

“The craziness we experience happens in every home in America. It really made me know it’s OK if things get a little crazy. I need to give myself a break. I have continuously beat myself up over my own definition of being a ‘good mom.’ I am a good mom and what I do is important.”

If you need some reassurance as a mom, a good laugh and a moment to appreciate the beautiful mess we call “family,” Moms’ Night Out is one movie you’ll definitely want to see.

Looking for more? Check out this episode of JulieB TV on this topic!