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.

The Gift of Contentment

In high school I envied the popular kids who went skiing and owned puffy jackets in primary colors. I wanted such a coat. Further, I believed that owning such apparel would mean that I had arrived. When the LL Bean catalogue appeared in our mailbox, I snatched it up to my room and sat in the sun turning pages and wishing that I were in them. That I was one of those beautiful people with ski goggles and perfect smiles and two Golden Retrievers on a plaid mat by the fire.

After I graduated, I worked for two years at the Hannaford deli in Yarmouth, Maine. I made $7.50 an hour, then got a raise to $8. Rolling in such sums, there was only one thing I wanted. I drove down to the North Face store in Freeport and spent the better part of an hour browsing the racks. A wad of twenties burned in my pocket. I finally settled on a brilliant red jacket marked down to $250. I tried it on and it fit. The tag read “Expedition Rated.”

The North Face Himalayan Jacket, intended for use on Mount Everest. Seriously. Perfect for suburban living. Photo via North Face.

Once home, I zipped up the jacket and went out to shovel snow. It was twenty degrees with a wind chill. Still I felt hot. I rolled back the hood. Burning. I unzipped the front. Steamy. With growing alarm I realized that my prized jacket was too warm to use. I shrugged it off and threw it on a snow bank. I felt like a fool.

The jacket followed me to college in Indiana, not because I planned to use it, but because it was an integral part of my self-deception that stuff could make me feel valuable. During a chapel series on helping the poor, the speaker initiated a clothing drive. Each dorm should put boxes in the halls to collect jackets for the needy. I opened my small closet and saw the puffy North Face coat. I stripped it from its hanger and dumped it in the nearest cardboard box. I had worn it exactly once.

For each of us, I think, there is a red puffy jacket that symbolizes we have arrived. A flashy car, a better job, a tiny dress size or a large promotion or an attractive life partner, any one of which we think will make us feel content.

It will not.

Contentment comes from within. It comes from knowing our place in the world and loving God and our neighbor. Contentment cannot be found on a North Face rack anymore than it can be found in the pages of an LL Bean catalogue or at a wedding altar or at the bottom of a gallon of Cherry Garcia ice cream.

Whatever your jacket is, let it go. God says you are valuable today. Right now. In the mess. In the debt. In that sucky job or that fractured relationship or that anxiety disorder that just won’t relax. There’s work to do, for sure, and we all need to grow and change, but God cannot love you any more and he will not love you any less. No matter what. He’s promised.

So throw that puffy jacket in a box and look around at the world–your world–that needs you. There are things that only you can do. There is love that only you can give. There’s a God who adores you right now. It’s a wonderful thing to live in that love.

The Gift of Waiting

I realize it is unfashionable to say so, but sometimes my personal ambitions have to wait. While society encourages immediate self-actualization, nature provides a different sort of wisdom.

Last year I wanted to plant blueberries. I bought a soil test kit and discovered that our garden soil pH was too high. Experts said the only way to satisfactorily lower the pH was to introduce sulfur pellets into the soil and let microbes digest it. This would take a good year. I felt crestfallen. Wasn’t there a faster way? A microwave solution, ten seconds and *ding!* you’re done? No, said the experts, there wasn’t. At least not if I wanted healthy plants and a good crop. The only thing that would improve my soil was time.

It has been a year since I’ve written much. Last April, Josiah came into the world kicking and screaming to join Oliver who was entering his terrible twos. It took several exhausting weeks of tantrums and tears–only some of them the boys’–before I realized that my book manuscript and blogging had to stop. I hoped the hiatus would last a few months. A writer, after all, is what I fancy myself.

Three months of poopy diapers, spit-up, and time-outs turned into six months which turned into ten, and I realized that I was unready to write again. My family needed me in ways that regular writing prevented. It hurt to give up my dreams. I felt in some small way that I was dying.

blueberry_bushTwo weeks ago I planted blueberry bushes in our garden. They leafed out nicely, small roots digging deep into the soil they love. A year that appeared idle was all the time working hard beneath the surface to transform unfit dirt into healthy soil. Another year or two should bring a good crop. It doesn’t seem so far away. I doubt any other blueberries will taste so sweet.

Today, I look at those tiny plants and smile. My own heart has changed, too. More fit, I hope, as a place where words and ideas can find nurture to leaf out and produce a good harvest. A year of learning to live behind the scenes, hands folding laundry or up to the elbows in dirty dishes, a mind scattered between two small lives and the incessant clamor of need. Somewhere in the middle of this chaos life has sprung up. It’s hard to tell exactly how it happened or when. The soil remains unseen. There’s only one way to test it.

I write.

Suffering Well: The Gift of Gravitas

“There is great power in making the small and insignificant, magnificently significant.” – Peter Marty

This year I don’t want to lose weight. I want to gain it.

Let me explain.

The Industrial Revolution had many effects. One of the more unfortunate was to change the way society valued individuals.

In her landmark book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain argues that we have gone from a culture of character, which valued moral rectitude, to a culture of personality, which values personal magnetism and likability. This happened around the turn of the 20th century when our economy moved from agriculture to industry.

Think about it. All of a sudden Johnny Main Street and Suzy Creamcheese moved from the small town they grew up in—where they were known through the context of their entire lives—to a factory job in a big city where they were anonymous and without history. Job interviews, looks, personal magnetism, and first impressions now counted more than a lifetime of discipline and personal integrity. A person’s life was measured in fifteen minute increments: how they performed during a panel interview, whether they made you laugh at a party, looked swell in a gown, or paid for your drink. Human value scaled to the time between television commercials or the depth of cleavage in a dress.

Left in the industrial wastebasket were traits long-valued by societies around the globe. Things like discipline, kindness, dependability, perseverance, and long-suffering. These were more than words. They represented a philosophy of life quietly lived out in behavior over years and decades. A solidness and weightiness of character. A life of substance rather than show.

There is a word to describe such character. The word is gravitas.

Today, gravitas is usually defined to mean seriousness or solemnity, but its Latin origin means “weighty” or “heavy.” Think of a stone tossed into a still pond. The heavier the stone, the larger the ripples. Character is also like that. People with gravitas have a noble weightiness to their lives. They are heavy with influence, such that people “gravitate” toward them. What they say and do matters, and people around them feel the substantial positive effect of their decisions.

Ironically, while contemporary pop culture and electronic media often devote their attention to celebrity gossip and the fliff-flaff of marshmallow entertainment, history is largely swayed by people of gravitas. Think Abraham Lincoln and Clara Barton; Rosa Parks and MLK Jr.; Anne Frank and Winston Churchill; Mahatma Gandhi and Malala. The best writers, and thus, the best books, have a weightiness of wisdom which promote their words from forgettable hash to timeless classics. There is a difference, too, between politicians of the moment and states persons who transcend their times.

Admitting that gravitas is worth having, how do we gain it?

It is not easy. People with gravitas have credibility. That means, usually, that they have suffered well. They have faced adversity and pain and are the better for it. They have walked through the fire and have not been burned. Instead, they have been refined and purified. They have hard-fought wisdom that can’t be bought.

It is also long-term. The nature of gravitas demands a life of character and personal integrity. It disallows cheap methods or twelve-step programs to capture it. You can’t invade it, schmooze it, impress it in an interview, or pop a pill for it.

It requires suffering. There is a reason we read Joni Eareckson Tada on disabilities or C.S. Lewis on the nature of grief, or why the best books on forgiveness were written by prisoners of war and survivors of concentration camps. Personal tragedy transformed authors Corrie ten Boom, Ann Voskamp, and Philip Yancey in a way no celebrity platform could. They write from a depth of experience that readers can sense whether or not they know their stories.

It is genuine. You cannot conjure gravitas from artificial methods. I know of a television photo-journalist who engineered a series of “hot zone” engagements where he dipped into various conflicts in a tight black t-shirt and Fabio locks, then breathlessly reported from his dire circumstances with muddied flak jacket and darting eyes. It was obscene and the series was rightly panned.

Fortunately for those seeking gravitas, suffering will find you. It probably already has. You don’t need to flee ISIS to understand human depravity. There is plenty of ache in your own neighborhood, isn’t there?

In your own family.

In your own house.

In your own heart.

No one needs world-class suffering to attain gravitas. You don’t need to climb mountains or swim the sea to gain it. The daily grind of a nine-to-five, the demands of small children, the pressure of unpaid bills, chronic illness, sleep regressions, and unrecognized sacrifices offer ample opportunity to gain good character. As Peter Marty writes, “There is great power in making the small and insignificant, magnificently significant.” So it was with God becoming flesh as a tiny human baby. So it is with us.

The Bible knows gravitas.

In Hebrew, the word for honor and glory, “kavod,” is related to the word for weightiness, “kaved.” The idea is that when we honor God, we acknowledge his immense heaviness, his absolute significance. The entire universe pulls gravitationally toward the center of God’s perfect character.

Similarly, when we suffer well we become more like God by gaining gravitas through Christ-like character. Paul writes in Romans that “Suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.

Paul makes the connection between suffering and glory explicit in 2 Corinthians. “Therefore we do not lose heart,” Paul writes. “Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal weight of glory that far outweighs them all.” Because of this, he writes, we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

Suffering well results in a depth and weightiness of character that makes people irresistibly drawn to you. They remember your words long after you’re gone. Gravitas is why I remember the homeless man who shared the gospel with me, the elderly woman with Alzheimer’s who told me of God’s goodness because it was the only thing she could remember, and the missionary to Papua New Guinea who gave up his American citizenship and died in the bush so he could minister to mountain tribes.

What about you? It’s not too late to make another New Year’s Resolution. Will you consider gaining weight this year?

Will you ask God for the gift of gravitas?