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.

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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.

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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.

After Thanksgiving: The Gifts of Need and Failure

I have a thing about looking good. Because of this, God gave me two small children.

He has not yet given me three children because he knows that I would die. I am not trying to be funny. I was doing okay with one child and then along came another and suddenly I understood that I could not do this on my own.

I have tried.

This can go well for a certain length of time—say when one child is napping, or at pre-school, or in 30-minute increments of Elmo or Curious George—but when both children are awake and undistracted, fully present in their naked state of need, suddenly I do not enjoy myself. Stuff happens. Liquids happen. Tantrums happen. And then there are the children.

This is not how I wanted it to be.

I used to read books. I used to go to the bathroom by myself. I used to spend hours quietly pondering a tree. I used to wear clothes well, without much effort and with some style. Such things may happen again, but they are not now.

My esteem has as many bumps and bruises as my children. I have a college degree, a graduate degree, and some experience in the workforce. Coworkers and bosses used to like me. These things count for nothing—Nothing!—as a parent. My children do not care that I did well in school. They do not care that I was a devoted employee who handled stress with wry remarks. They have never watched “The Office.” They do not understand my competence in life.

What they experience is a daddy who drives in wide circles on rainy days as a way to burn time until mommy gets home. A father who takes them to the science museum and then has to leave in a rush when the social anxiety kicks in and his panic rises. A man who once served to exhaustion in church but now plunks his kids in front of the television so he can sit Gollum-like with his phone for a few precious seconds of adult interaction. Posting my successes on Facebook for the world to see.

I accidentally let my six-week-old fall off the couch.

Oliver fell down the stairs. Again. I blamed myself for letting him wear socks in the house. No traction, you know.

There was the time I saw Ollie run into our master bedroom—I saw him with my own eyes—and when I walked in two seconds later he was not there. I am not making this up. I looked under the bed. I looked in the closet. We have a small room, there was nowhere else to look. I didn’t call his name because I didn’t want to seem like a fool. So I stood there for thirty seconds, gazing at the eggshell paint on the wall and wondering what had happened to my firstborn son. Wondering if I had actually seen him flee into that room or was it possibly a different room? Such things can drive you mad.

“Hi Daddy!” he finally said, wandering out of the closet. I do not know where he hid. Afterwards I checked, but secretly. I didn’t want him to know that I’d lost him.

And there is an ugly side, the side of me that gets frustrated when a child acts badly in public or cries at night and won’t be comforted. Or during choke-points. You know choke-points. Choke-points like wake-up and bedtime and meals and trying to leave the house, when everything seems to come together in a screaming cone of unmet need and there’s two of them and just one of me and the sound and the fury and I’m a linear introvert who once made straight-A’s so for God’s sake shut up and just let me THINK for a minute. It will all be okay if I can just think. Daddy’s doing his best. Here’s your Nutella sandwich and a school of Goldfish. Oh, and carrots. You don’t want carrots? Well don’t eat ‘em then. Leave ‘em on your plate. See if I care. In Jesus’ name, amen.

Sometimes Daddy’s best isn’t good enough.

And this is a great blessing.

My two boys have done something that nothing else in this world has been able to do. They have brought me crashing to my knees. And they have made me reach out for help.

In my life as a single guy I rarely asked for help. From family, okay, yes, sometimes. But not from friends. Certainly not from strangers. I have tried always to be the one giving, serving, helping. There was something in me—that thing about looking good—that refused to humble myself and admit what must have been obvious to everyone else: I can’t do life on my own.

I was never meant to do life on my own. Wasn’t created with the capacity, you understand.

Neediness.

Failure.

These are things God does to make people reach out to him and reach out to others. And you can sometimes mask them pretty well until you have two small children.

I need my wife. At Thanksgiving Oliver sat in his chair and threw small tantrums while our guests laughed awkwardly and looked at us, his parents, for their cues. I felt ashamed and wanted to fix Oliver’s behavior with punishment. I felt we were losing face. Teresa handled it better, observing out loud that he was looking for attention and wanted everyone’s love. She re-directed him, distracted him, gave him some alternative food options, showed him mercy and grace. It worked out better that way.

I need my friends. Yesterday I took the boys in the pouring rain to a friend’s house for a football party. On the way we stopped at Home Depot and Ollie threw a tantrum that knocked me on edge. Josiah screamed for the final fifteen minutes in the car. I felt my nerves balling up and then fraying like snapped piano strings. In the house, Ollie pushed his food around his plate and then stood behind my chair. I smelled an odor. “Are you going poo-poo?” My parent nose detected diarrhea—different, of course, from the normal bouquet of possible poo smells. Did I have diapers? Yes, thank God.

We went to a room. I changed Ollie’s diaper. Steve for the Win!

But his pants were ruined. I sniffed the stains to see if they were salvageable. They were not. I rooted through the bag. I had no extra pants. Those were in the other backpack, the backpack hanging neatly on the hook at home. Steve for the Fail.

We walked down the stairs past a roomful of partiers watching the game, watching us and surely wondering where Ollie’s pants were and why a father with two small children would fail to plan for contingencies. I would never make it as a SEAL. Back at the table, our friends quietly leant me a pair of their child’s pants, said we could keep them, said they’d done the same thing before. Another friend across the table said her daughter had once gone pantless at a department store and she just knew everyone was judging her and saying what a terrible mother she was. My cheeks burned but it made me feel less alone in my failure. It even carried me a little way through the rest of the afternoon when Ollie puked in the car and then in his crib. Diarrhea, people. It always means something.

I need Jesus. In my neediness, in my failure, when the boys have pushed me to my last reserves, I need the One who made me and knows me to give me the grace to push through. To hang on. To slow down, reach out, and ask for help. To find joy—yes, JOY—in the mess. Because it’s the mess that makes up most of each day, and it’s these messy days that make up the years of my life.

I have a thing about looking good. But I have a need for grace.

So God gave me two small children.

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