I’m wondering when I became so cranky. Actually, I probably can put a date to it. It was around the time I first became pregnant and then in one crazy weekend moved house, had a miscarriage and found out my then fiancé and I were likely to end up in family court over a relocation issue with his ex. Then I got married, had a baby, a court case, another pregnancy and now two young children and an 8 year old step-daughter. I love sleep (who doesn’t?!?) and haven’t had a lot of it the past three years. When I think of it like this I can understand how I became Ms Cranky Pants. But enough about me. None of us has a baby in fairyland. Bills still come in, shopping and washing need to be attended to and sadly sometimes loved ones die in the midst of our child rearing years.
Nothing prepares a woman for the emotions of trying for, carrying and raising young children. Anxiety, excitement, disappointment, loneliness, resentment may be regular visitors in your emotional world. There is nothing like a small person to bring out the best and worst of human nature. Thank goodness for family and friends, fresh air, laughter… oh and chocolate. Chocolate has helped on many tough days.
On good days I remember all the skills I have learnt and taught the past 15 years as a clinical psychologist. And some days they help enormously. Here are a few of the strategies that work for me (when I remember to use them). Many of these come from my training and work using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).
Stay in the moment
When a baby is screaming or a toddler tantruming it can feel like it will never end. You might have thoughts like, ‘what if I can’t get her to sleep?’, or ‘how will I cope next month when back at work?’. Of course you may need to look at strategies to deal with particular issues but staying in the moment helps you to focus on what you actually need to deal with right now, not in a month’s time. Smell your newborn’s delicious hair or focus on your breathing for 5-10 breaths. Notice the mind wandering all over the place and practice coming back to right here right now. This will take practice and the more you do it the more you are likely to remember to do it. Like with physical exercise you can build up mental muscle to become better at paying attention.
Be kind to yourself
Being a parent can be so damn hard and tiring and it is easy to buy into the ‘not good enough’ stories in our heads. The term ‘mother guilt’ came about for a good reason. As best you can, be kind and gentle with yourself, taking some time whenever you can to nurture yourself. A wise colleague once told me that the human heart feeds itself first before attending to the rest of the organs! Mums need to fuel up regularly so that they can deal with the multiple mini dramas that each day may bring (as well as all the joyful moments of course)! If you can’t get to a weekly yoga class or swim then take five minutes to stretch the body or sit down to a favourite TV show for one of your feeds each day. Your baby won’t end up in therapy as an adult by taking this time out. In fact not taking time for yourself is more likely to lead to post natal depression and too much crankiness in a mum!
Remember what sort of parent you want to be and what you need to do, right now, to put that into practice.
For instance, if you value being loving and supportive and protective of your children then you can ask yourself ‘What is required of me in this moment?’ This question comes from Sarah Napthali in ‘Buddhism for Mothers‘ which is one of my favourite books about parenting. Asking myself this question has saved me from unnecessary despair at times and helped to settle my anxiety and distress enough to calmly and lovingly care for my children. This comes in handy when they are screaming!
Let the feelings come and go a bit like clouds passing in the sky
We can’t control the weather and whilst we might like to think we can, perhaps we can’t really control our thoughts and feelings either! Anxiety will come, sadness and loneliness and envy too (to name a few emotional visitors). What would it be like to just notice that you feel anxious and not use your precious energy trying to get rid of it? There is a wonderful Buddhist saying that I love, ‘pain is inevitable, suffering is optional’. So whilst we will feel anxious at times we cause more suffering if we then struggle to get rid of it.
Get some fresh air every day
You don’t need a psychologist to tell you this one however it is easy for hours to slip by without venturing outdoors. There is a world outside and no doubt both you and the small people will appreciate seeing it!
Laugh as often as you can
It is easy to become very serious when you are tired. Remember that babies and children are a great source of joy and silliness and remember to relish those moments.
Forgive yourself often
Being a parent is both wonderful and challenging and you are bound to make lots of mistakes. Often we know what we need to do or what is best for our children but due to fatigue, stress and life ‘stuff’ we don’t always act as our best selves! There is no such thing as a perfect parent. Good enough parenting is what your kids need… on balance that they are loved and kept safe and have parents who are not too proud to say sorry when they get it wrong. Being compassionate to yourself you will be able to repair damage quicker and more easily than getting caught up in lots of self-criticism.
What are the biggest challenges that you face as mother? How do you deal with them?