Eight Mental Hacks for Overwhelmed Parents

My counselor says that I’m making progress.

I think this is a good thing, but my counselor also fought in Vietnam and worked in prisons so he’s seen a lot of crap.

Ironically, I didn’t know that I needed counseling until I was knee-deep in parenting. Caring for a toddler and a preschooler while working part-time shot my blood pressure up 30 points and kept it there for over a year. My coping mechanisms—honed for thirty years as a perfectionistic introvert—proved…how can I say this nicely?…inadequate.

The struggle is real.

No longer could I escape into a book or find some lovely mountain retreat. There was no time to read and no solitude to soothe. I took a Sharpie and drew black prison bars over the slim smiling man on the front of the baby gate box. Take that, I thought bitterly, you well-paid childless model. Then I put up the gate to keep my children out.

Most friends thought that I was fine. My Facebook and Instagram accounts gleamed with tastefully curated pictures of happy children and well-prepared food. I accepted “likes” as currency, a sort of emotional payment to myself that told me I was doing well, that everything would turn out all right.

But neither of those accounts showed the times that I blew up at my boys or yelled at my wife. And they didn’t show the spiral growing tighter, the episodes more frequent. When I looked at myself in the mirror I hated the nasty stranger who stared back.

I felt like I was drowning.

Counseling helped. It put pressure on the bleeding and gave me some tools I hadn’t before known. My counselor also said that if nothing else changed but me, that would be enough. “We can’t control people, circumstances, institutions, or outcomes,” he said in his gravelly voice, “only ourselves.” He was telling me, in a nice sort of way, that the biggest problem I have in life is myself.

Jerk, I thought. But he was right.

A lot of parenting advice comes from medical experts who talk as if they have never changed a blow-out or lost a night of sleep to tend sick children. Or if they did, they dealt with it so gracefully as to be utterly unhelpful to normal people like me.

Listen, this crap is real.

And it needs to be talked about in the present tense in a way that everyday parents caught in the blow-out trenches and backyard tantrums can relate to.

So here’s a list of my eight favorite mental hacks for parenting. I have them on speed-dial even if I don’t always choose to use them:

  1. High expectations, low serenity; low expectations, high serenity. As a person thinks in their heart, so are they. My life is composed largely of conflict between my unrealistic expectations and the cold hard crash of small children rolling strollers through my field of idealistic flowers. If I expect my two-year-old to eat with fork and spoon and leave the table cleaner than when he arrived, I set up myself—and him—for failure. Set my expectations low and find joy when they are exceeded.
  2. Self-talk turns into parent-speak. Everyone has their mind constantly tuned to a talk-radio station with their own voice as narrator. This is the voice that narrates your life and it is the voice that eventually instructs your children. It has the power to encourage them or to crush them. Is your station mostly positive and realistic, or is it dark and cynical? Your kids can’t change your station; only you can.
  3. Resentment covers over a multitude of love. The person you won’t forgive is the person who most influences your parenting. Is it a family member who abused you? A father figure who never found the time to say he loved you? A friend who betrayed you? A priest? A spouse? Resentment and bitterness are the greatest sources of our anger. They keep us locked in a prison of our own making and they act like poison in our current relationships. None of us would let our child climb into a curtained van with a stranger, but many of us bring these hurtful strangers into our children’s lives on a regular basis through our own unresolved bitterness and anger. Learn to forgive.
  4. Comparison kills contentment. It’s been said before, but when I compare my life to someone else’s social media accounts I compare my boring documentary to their highlight reel. None of us is as important as we think, and none of us is as uninteresting as we fear. The competition of parenting—if you can call it that—is less like the Olympics and more like the Special Olympics. Let’s cheer each other on with genuine joy and without comparison. We’ve all come a long way and been through a lot. Practice gratitude.
  5. Progress, not perfection. When we left the hospital with our first child, I remember standing in the parking lot looking around in bewilderment for the real parents. You know, the actual parents. The responsible ones. The experienced ones. It came as a frightening shock to realize that THEY were US and WE weren’t THEM. Parenting is always riding the edge of uncertainty and inexperience because we are learning to be parents just as our children are learning to be whatever age they currently are. It is a recipe that demands humility, a healthy sense of humor, and lots of help. Any young parent who thinks they have their crap together is just living on Planet Instagram. On some days, progress means that everyone is still breathing. Check.
  6. Screens are sugar. In the short-term they make kids happy. In the long-term they make them insane. Lots of screen time has been proven to make children restless, depressed, and socially disconnected. Set limits and stick to them. It doesn’t matter what other parents allow: all societal indicators say too much screen time is killing our kids. Swim against the tide on this one.
  7. Good parenting is not always safe parenting. It is more important to be a good parent than a safe parent. Children often learn best through pain. We can’t and shouldn’t protect our children from every scratch, every fall, every hurtful friend or tasteless vegetable. Consider the way God parents. Has he allowed suffering in your life? Yes. Does he try to control you to do what he wants or force you to make all the right choices all of the time? Absolutely not. ”’Course he isn’t safe,’” Mr. Beaver said about the great Lion Aslan in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. “‘But he’s good.’” Good parenting is greater than safe parenting.
  8. Self care is child care. When I feel tired, hungry, irritable, angry, or out of shape, I am more susceptible to stress and more easily thrown off-balance by the normal wear and tear of small children. In many ways, taking care of my own physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual needs is just as important as caring for my children. Time invested in activities or habits that bring you joy, health, and satisfaction is time invested in the well-being of your children. Any guilt you feel about normal matters of self-care is false-guilt. Get rid of it.

Rehearsing these eight phrases has improved my parenting because it has arrested my own slide into depression and stress. A healthier mindset—more realistic, more graceful, more grateful, and more humble—results in a healthier parent and by extension, healthier children.

If that’s progress, then I don’t need perfection.

You’re Doing a Good Job

You’re doing a good job. Better than you think. Better than the voices in your head care to admit. Because it’s not about going faster, doing more things, fitting into that dress, or cleaning the house and the garage and trimming the yard so everything looks perfect for this upcoming weekend–it’s about grace. It’s about people. It’s about who you are in God’s eyes and not what you’ve done or who society says you are or what you want to accomplish.

Oliver has been praying out loud and he talks to God and to Jesus and to the Holy Spirit. When Teresa asked him if the Holy Spirit talks back, Ollie said yes. What does he say to you? Teresa asked. Oliver grinned. “He says, ‘You’re a good boy!'” We all smiled. Then Oliver turned to me. “And to Daddy he says, ‘Good job!'” Everything blurred as I reached for my napkin.

With all of the negative self-talk in our heads, it might take a two-year-old interpreting the Holy Spirit for us to hear what God really thinks about us. Look at the newspapers and you’ll hear one narrative. Go through the checkout and see the Photoshopped models next to the rows of candy porn and hit “pause”–how many times have you seen those covers and felt great about your day? About your life? There are highly-paid, highly-skilled people whose only job in life is to design advertisements that make you hate yours.

You’re doing a good job. Not a perfect job, of course, not a Better Homes and Gardens job, not a Mom of the Year or Medal of Honor job, but a good job. Maybe even a great job. With all of that crap in your past? With all of those medications you’re on? With those size jeans and the muffin top and the crow’s feet, you’re doing a good job. There are people who love you. There are people who need you. God put you in this place in this time in this body to live joyfully and to serve others. Jen Hatmaker or Dakota Meyer or Stephen Curry couldn’t do your job better than you. Receive God’s grace. Settle down into his arms. It’s going to be a great weekend. You’re doing a good job.

Just ask Oliver.

The Gift of Trials

Paging through my Greely High School yearbook I can find three or four places where friends wrote that I was “sweet.” I remember reading those passages in 1999 and thinking to myself, “Friend, how right you are.”

Today I read those lines and feel something quite different. I was always a sensitive boy, but for many years I wore my sensitivity around a rotten core of bigoted self-righteousness that judged my neighbor and threw him under the bus in order to prop up my own deflated ego. Today I feel less “sweet” than at any time in my life. But I also feel more real, more resilient, more open, and less brittle. If I could choose to spend a night around a campfire with my 18-year-old self or the bald guy in today’s mirror, there is no comparison.

But the road to significant change runs long and broken.

To get there requires something I dislike. When I look at my personal history, the times I changed the most were the times at the end of a period of suffering. One of those periods lasted twenty-five years. The moment I was freed from that trial, my worldview shifted so radically I still feel myself reeling, six years later. In some respects, this new life seems too good to be true.

Times of testing come to sift my heart and to show me what I’m made of. The point is never to make me feel secure in my own ability to overcome a trial, but to make me depend more upon God. And the closer I walk with him, the more I can become like him.

I love comfort as much as anyone–please Jesus, bring seasons of abundance!–but I also want to change. And while God is too kind to leave me unhelped in my suffering, he is too good to leave me unchanged in my comfort. So I welcome the trials that come.

The Gift of Slowness

This morning I rushed to get my boys out of their car seats so I could rush into a hardware store before rushing off to get groceries. Oliver dragged his feet and I snapped at him. There was no reason for my urgency–we had plenty of time to do the little I had assigned before Josiah’s nap time. But there were boxes to check on my index card and I knew I’d feel better with money spent and tasks accomplished. Lost in the shuffle were a little boy’s feelings and the simple joy of watching small children act like children.

I have noticed that most of the frustration I feel with my boys occurs when their lives and needs intrude on my task list. I am more patient with childishness and misbehavior–more ready to give grace or to gently apply consequences–when I feel rested or realize there is space and time to live in the moment without the pressure of unchecked boxes on a list of errands and chores I have created for myself.

Perhaps today I can shift my focus more toward people and less on things. Perhaps I can look at my boys and love them more for who they are and not for how long they napped or how little maintenance they required while I solved all the problems of my narrow world. I have heard there is richness in relationships. I have heard there is joy in people and events. The life of a child is a life full of wonder. I would like to borrow some of that joy, let it soak down deep and make me nice to be around.

Maybe today’s task list is to destroy my task list. Maybe I will find myself surprised by joy with the simple, slow activity of living life with small children. It will wreak havoc with my productivity. My inner “manager” will have a fit. No matter. I’ll talk to my Supervisor and take a vacation day. I’ve heard that the owner of the world is fond of children. I think I’ll invite him along.

The Gift of Disruption

When I was a young man I disliked children because they appeared noisy and messy. My few experiences with children over the next ten years did little to change this opinion. Uncomfortable with chaos, I focused on things that I could do well and cleanly: work, for instance, or writing, or folding laundry, or living in the glacial stillness of my own mind. I felt satisfied with my labor and content with the fences I had constructed to keep children from trampling on my intellectual azaleas. Like many young men, I misbelieved that control of my environment meant that I was in control of myself.

It was, as you can tell, a life needful of disruption.

The first glimpse I had of Oliver was the tiny thatch of hair on the top of his head. It wasn’t even his whole head–let alone his body–just a wet patch of hair and my universe exploded. Everything about him seemed soft and vulnerable and perfect. He cried, and I didn’t mind it. He pooed and I burbled with pride. I changed his sticky tar of meconium and felt as Armstrong must have felt stepping onto the moon. This is easy, I thought, when all I feel is love.

the_gift_of_disruption Now I have two of them and it is no longer easy. Gone are the days of chest cuddles and tiny swaddles and strangers oohing at toes the size of capers. I can remember when I read books. I remember when I left the house and got into my car and drove out the driveway in less than a minute. I remember when I could stay on the toilet with the door closed, silent and content. I remember life without strollers or diapers or Goldfish. Schools of Goldfish–whole pods of Goldfish swarming in the darkest recesses of my SUV. These children, my children, have changed everything.

When I was a young man I disliked children. But what I really disliked was myself.

chaos_reignsDisruption is a gift. The noisiness, the messiness–these are crowbars that lever me open in ways that undo me. My boys make me see life in ways that I had forgotten. In richer, deeper ways. I am confronted every day with my inner workings. My own mess, my own chaos. Through these children I have become sometimes nastier, yes, sometimes angry, true, but also more loving and more authentic. I realize that I have little control over my environment but a lot of opportunity to change myself. And that gives me hope.

It is a beautiful thing to have your life disrupted when the trampling is done with love. It is a great gift to invite messiness into your life when that messiness is a child.

Parenting Advice from a Tomato Plant

Last year I learned something about tomato plants which I think applies to parenting.

tomato_plants_with_stakeMy steel tomato cages worked well to prop up the tomato plants when they were young. But once the tomatoes grew to chest height and produced fruit, the cages tended to tip and the plants fell. My tomato plants needed a steel stake–a strong, unmoving reference point–to anchor to when they grew tall.

Parenting is like that. The rules I place around my children prove helpful when they’re young. Like steel tomato cages they help prop up my kids and provide limited stability. But children need more than mere rules–a steel structure of dos and dont’s–to grow strong and healthy. They also need an example of good character which runs strong and straight and true.

Rules serve a purpose, but rules alone are inadequate. The example of a good and kind character, a life full of the fruit of the Spirit and love for God and neighbor, is the best gift I can give my children if I want them to grow strong and healthy.

I wonder whether the decisions I make today will cause my character to falter or to stand straight and strong? Am I living in such a way that my children will someday look past the family rules to see a life they want to imitate? I hope so. There’s a lot at stake.

The Gift of Story

When I was a boy I took a tattered green copy of The Boy’s King Arthur into my room and read it from cover to cover. Flush with swords and dragons and flying pennants, I knew with the certainty of childhood that one day I would also do great and noble things.

A quiet life in a quiet part of Maine did nothing to dissuade me. I felt uncommon, despite a brother who looked like me and a glaring absence of extraordinary ability. None of that mattered. As children, we think ourselves kings or queens.

Sir Launcelot, by N.C. Wyeth, in “The Boy’s King Arthur”

Today I look around at my life. Measured by most standards I have failed in my youthful dreams. No one would mistake me for a knight. My influence is small. I have no horse and, to tell the truth, no stall in which to keep one. I shake in crowds and can number my truly brave exploits on a single hand. Reality throws his brawny arm around my neck and presses down. “Remember that green book?” he seems to say, and his voice is not unkind. “Remember when you believed in fairytales?”

I remember.

“What a young fool you were,” he says. “To think yourself a prince.”

I disagree. There are other measures of success, and other ways to see. There are truths we know clear as children–ancient stories we remember in our youth but forget when we are old. That kindness is a virtue which never goes unseen. That in our veins runs royal blood and eternity haunts our hearts. That courage sometimes walks in sneakers and looks a lot like love. That the greatest is the least and the least is still our brother.

Reality drops his heavy hand. “You’re hopeless,” he says. “You always were a dreamer.”

I smile. Perhaps. But it is such a wonderful story. And some stories are too wonderful to be untrue.