To start 2012 off right in the mothering facet of life, Sarah Maizes of the Huffington Post wrote a list of 10 Tips for Being a Happy Mom in 2012. She has some good ideas, even if they seem blatantly obvious. She shouldn't be faulted for pointing out the obvious; some of us have to be told to eat. However, my personal favorite of her list is #10: Give yourself a break. But this one I felt should be a post in itself. It's important to take a break - or as Trisha Ashworth and Amy Nobile point out in I Was A Really Good Mom Before I Had Kids: Reinventing Modern Motherhood, you have to take time for yourself, because no one is going to give it to you.
But giving ourselves breaks is, I have discovered, the least talked about aspect of mothering. What I've realized is that when a mother says, she's going back to work after having children, what she is really saying is, "I need a break." What I've also realized is that mostly while we may want a break or some time to ourselves, in the busy ebb and flow of life, unless there's income attached to the time we take for ourselves, it falls to the bottom of the priority list. The Catch-22 of this? If we don't take a break, we break.
As Sarah Maizes points out, however, while it can be scary for children to watch a parent lose it or their mother's head spin, it is important that children learn that parents have needs and emotions too. We may be parents, but we're still human and humans have moments when they lose it. Also, as Maizes says, it's important to own up to our behavior, forgive it and get back on the horse of trying to do our best. When I recently lost it in front of my son, I was overcome with grief and remorse. My son and I sat at the kitchen table while I cried and told him how sorry I was and that I know how scary it is to watch a parent lose their temper. Even if there's no violence that occurs between parent and child, it can feel violent for a child when a parent yells. But sitting together and apologizing can do a lot to mend the situation. Knowing that you feel remorse for your behavior can be valuable for a child, in the world of being role models of behavior. Apologizing doesn't happen very often in our culture; to learn how to do it or why it matters, children have to be on the receiving end of them.
The silver lining of this cloud I discovered? When my son throws his occasional tantrum, he now apologizes. I have mixed feelings about him thinking he has to be sorry for feeling emotions like anger, but the truth is when we feel anger or extreme frustration, it does impact those around us. The other silver lining is that me hitting my breaking point has given us a way to talk about how to express the more difficult emotions. My son and I practice screaming into pillows or walking beneath an overpass where we can scream as loud as we want and no one can hear us or we take walks where we stomp our feet for blocks at a time.
Still, we'd like to prevent parents hitting their breaking point, if only for the sake of the parenting experience. Also, bad childhoods or children growing up in unstable environments happens far too often. We all want to enjoy our children and our parenting experience. So I have my own things I would add to Sarah Maizes' list.
1. Yes, naps are necessary. My three year old is mostly done with napping. I don't understand how this happened given that I still need naps, but he's seems to have moved on. Alas, I have been guilty on days where I can barely keep my eyes open of putting a movie on the computer, getting him set up on the bed, just so that I can nap for an hour with my infant. It literally saves my sanity. Just as my husband says, happy wife, happy life, I say a rested parent is a happy parent.
2. To nurture other people, you have to nurture yourself first. If there's anyway you can muster the strength to get up before the rest of the family to have that first cup of coffee while it's quiet and you can hear yourself think, do it. Even if it's just 20 minutes of quiet. It helps. It makes the day go smoother. I do love the extra sleep when I do sleep in with my family, but when I wake up at the same time, I spend the rest of the day trying to meet my needs at the same time as my children and it is far from easy going.
3. It's okay to want time away from your children. I know they are beautiful and brilliant people. I know they make better conversation than most people working in corporate America. I know they make more sense than most the politicians in office. Still, you need time away from them. And time away helps you appreciate them all the more. Even if you're a full time stay at home parent, a few hours of a nanny or daycare is worth the money. It's breakdown prevention. It's hard work being on call 24 hours a day.
4. Get out of the house. Especially, if your patience is running thin. If your patience is running thin, chances are your child's is too. It's a funny thing how moods are contagious. Getting out of the house disrupts difficult dynamics. Fresh air also feels good. In the New York City winter, 30 degrees is warm enough for the playground, so get thee outside!
5. If you're having a hard day, call someone. Conversation can be a mood lifter, whereas not talking when the going gets rough can be a downward spiral towards Depressionville. The caveat to this is just don't call anyone. There are people in your life who will take advantage of you while you're down or up against it. There are people, whom if you call, will say things like, "Of course you're having a hard time. You're so disorganized. If you had cleaned your room as a child, you would have learned the organizational habits that would have made your life easier now." Don't call them. Call your friend who is a stand-up comic. Call the aunt who has been through it all and maintained her love of you, her children and her ability to laugh.
6. Get help and know it's okay to get help. Blah blah blah it takes a village to raise a child blah blah. It takes a village to support a mother/single parent/at home parent. A few hours of day care here or nanny there, a house cleaner, drop off playgroup, having the groceries delivered, a mom's group, or a therapist. Whatever. Whether you stay home or go back to work, you need help. It's a quality of life issue. If you think you can't afford it, think again. You'd be surprised. There are families who get together on weekends, cook a bunch of dinners together, then swap leftovers containers. Baby sitting co-ops trade time. Many moms groups have sliding scales.
7. Play with your child, but play the things you like. I’m a lousy playground mom. While I like making train tracks, I don’t enjoy playing trains. When I don’t like the toys, I don’t like playing with my son. Luckily for me, he loves dollhouses. I love blocks, and he loves to knock them over. This week at the Met gift shop, he asked for a knight and horse. I bought them because I wanted them. We played happily afterward, building block houses for the horse and knight. The horse and knight chased the cars and trains off their tracks. It was great fun, and a huge tension release.
8. Read. Yes, to your child. But really for yourself and the fun things you like. I’ve spent most of the last four years reading parenting, child development, and education books, with the occasional miscellaneous non-fiction book thrown in, just so I could feel informed. This past holiday season, I started reading Dickens’ David Copperfield and almost instantly felt as nurtured as if I had had a massage. I had forgotten how delightful it is to read fiction. The soul needs stories. It’s true. I read it in a book on Waldorf education.
9. A woman recently told me that children are born into our world, that they have to learn that the world doesn’t quite revolve around them. This is true to some extent, but I think there’s a balance. It’s good for children to learn that their parents have needs, and getting our needs met doesn’t have to come at the expense of our children’s either. For example, my son needs to run around, while I won’t run even if I’m being chased. But my favorite place on the planet is Central Park. I found a group of other parents that take their children to the park for long, lengthy walks. The kids run, climb rocks, collect sticks and leaves, play in the sand pit, and climb up the Alice in Wonderland statue, while I get to talk to other parents and revel in my favorite park. Afterward, we stroll through the Met or Natural History Museum. One day a week where we get Central Park and a museum? My son and I come home worn out and happy.
10. On the roughest days, know you are not alone. My kids are easy going and happy children. Still, our family’s adjustment to having two children has felt like running a marathon in a blinding snow blizzard. Some people breeze through it; in fact, it seems most do. But I felt instant relief when I finally learned that other people found it just as hard. I don’t know why it helps, but knowing I’m not the only one does help.
There. Sarah Maizes has ten things for making a happy mom, and I have ten. Twenty things to hopefully help support parents and prevent breaking points. I hope it helps.