One of my Facebook friends recently lamented that parenting was kicking her butt lately. If you're a parent, I'm sure you can empathize. It is without a doubt the most difficult undertaking any of us experience in a lifetime. It's also by far the most rewarding, and it will definitely show you what you're made of as it pushes you way past what you thought were your outer limits.
Here we are with the first six of our eleven kids. This was by far the hardest time for me, as they were all more inclined toward making messes than cleaning them up. You can probably imagine how stressful getting this picture taken was; it took a couple of hours to get everyone ready, this was supposed to be our Christmas card picture as well as the church directory picture, and poor little Amy wouldn't stop screaming the whole time. Picture me barking through gritted teeth, "Just keep smiling! Maybe she'll stop screaming, and we can get a good picture." Alas, that never happened, and this was both our Christmas card and our church directory picture. Perfectionist me was not pleased..... :0
Those beautiful little creatures we call our children don't come with a guidebook. Not only that, but none of them are alike! When I had my first child, I was absolutely terrified. When #2 came along, I thought I would be a pro because, well, been there done that, right? Wrong. Opposite gender, completely different personality. So then I thought, well, I got both kinds of kids; this one is night, that one is day. I'm set! Then #3 came along, and I was completely dumbfounded. Yet another different temperament and personality. Same thing happened with children numbered 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, and 11. Of course, after about 4, I was kind of figuring out that whomever was coming next was going to be a unique little surprise, with his or her own special gifts and challenges.
Here are a few things I learned along the way:
1. Lower your standards a little...
....or maybe a lot. I am a perfectionist by nature, and I had visions of being the perfect wife with the most perfectly beautiful, clean-scrubbed, well-mannered, perfectly behaved little beings that ever walked the face of the earth as we lived in our perfectly clean and happy household filled with cheerful, smiling faces, always looking to help out, cleaning up after themselves without being asked, and I would have wonderful meals all made from scratch with everyone gushing over my wonderful cooking. And holidays? Well, those of course, would be perfect, too, just like in a classic Norman Rockwell painting. Beautifully wrapped presents, perfect Christmas dresses and little suits, perfect little pony tails and curls, and so on.
I don't know what planet I was living on, but that was clearly delusional thinking. For years I felt like I was drowning in diapers, dishes, and laundry. I have vivid memories of vacuuming my carpet with my little ones following me with graham crackers in their hands, happily munching away and dropping crumbs all over the part I had just vacuumed. I really didn't know whether to laugh or cry at the time, as I was so tired and frustrated.
So my advice on this is lower your standards. It's not going to be perfect. It may be more like perfectly messy, but that's ok. It's only for this season of your life. My little ones weren't trying to make messes, and they weren't trying to cause me grief; they just wanted to follow me around and be part of my world. I often forgot that as parents, we were the biggest part of their world, and especially me since I was home all day with them.
Which leads me to....
2. Let your children be part of your world.
This may or may not be a no-brainer for you. For too many of us, we think we have to do everything or it won't be done right. The kids won't load the dishwasher right or they might break the dishes or they will miss half the carpet if they vacuum or they won't get all the crumbs up. And so on. Who cares?? Little ones are so eager to help; teach them how, tell them how much you appreciate their help, and turn it into a habit. This is easier said than done for many of us. If you insist on doing it yourself, as I did, you end up playing the martyr, slaving away all the time and eventually resenting everyone for making so many messes and not helping with the clean up. You reap what you sow. Sow the habit of cheerful helpfulness in your children. If you can't get the cheerful part to work, then at least get the helpful part down. It will make your life enormously easier, especially as they get older and more capable. Here is a chore chart I saw on Facebook:
As you can see, they can really do quite a lot if you take the time to teach them how when they're young, and this will pay off in a big way later on, both for you and for them. It does no one any favor to have everything done for them; when they move out, those kids won't know how to do anything. Cleaning, shopping, money management, cooking, all will be a big mystery. That's a huge disservice to your children. Prepare them for the real world by teaching them how to help out as soon as they are able.
One of my inspirations for homeschooling is Maria Montessori. A huge part of her teaching is teaching children chores at a very young age and using child-size tools, such as a small broom, to accomplish them. You can read more in her book, The Montessori Method.
3. Make some time for yourself
This is a very tall order when there are little ones underfoot. Try getting up 30 min earlier and just enjoy the morning before everyone else gets up. Don't do any chores during this time, just be still, drink your coffee in peace, and do something just for you. Start with some prayer and meditation (as little as 5 min can make a huge difference!), and then write in a journal, read a book or magazine, paint your toenails, it doesn't really matter. If the early morning is just impossible for you (like when you have a new baby, and all you want to do is sleep for days), try the evening after the baby goes down or do something for you during nap time. If you need to hire a neighboring teen to be a mother's helper for a couple of hours, then do that. Take a hot bath, take a nap, go on a walk, or go shopping! Fill your well, and recharge your batteries. The Bible says to love your neighbor as yourself; the key phrase there is, "as yourself". if you don't love yourself, then how well can you love your neighbor? Or your child? God wants us to love ourselves, too, so that we are refreshed and ready to take care of our kids and give our best to our husbands. As moms it's very easy to get in martyr mode, burning the candle at both ends and then completely running out of steam. No one benefits from that, not you nor your family. I know from experience.
4. Do date nights with your spouse.
This is so important. Your kids may be the center of your world right now (largely because they demand it), but this all started with you and your spouse, and that's where it ends, too. The kids move out, and you're left with each other. That should be an awesome thing, now that you have time and money to travel and do all the things you wanted to do but couldn't. Unfortunately, a lot of marriages fall apart at this point because the couples have drifted away from each other with all the focus on the kids instead of each other. Then when the kids leave, it's like two strangers trying to remember why they got married in the first place. If the stresses of family life are not handled well, it can become very poisonous between the parents. Money problems, nagging, and bickering can all lead to the death of a relationship. Don't let that happen to you. Put your marriage first, where it belongs. The best thing for children is parents who love each other. Not only will the children feel more stable and happy, they will have a model for how to make their own relationships successful in the future. Hire a sitter or get a family member to help you out, but get out of the house without your children once every week or two and go do something fun together! Go out to dinner, go on a double date with another couple, go dancing, catch a movie, it doesn't matter. Do whatever you need to do to keep your relationship strong, as that is the core of your family.
Mike and I doing a little wine tasting in beautiful NorCal.
5. Commit yourself to building a stronger family.
A stronger family starts with your marriage. Remember that every marriage will be tested. It's often a trial by fire, fraught with financial problems, job losses, outside temptations, deaths in the family, unexpected illnesses and injuries, and even addiction issues. Commit yourself to making it work, pray for guidance with each challenge, pray for each other, and get through those challenges together. Remember that wedding vows include phrases like, "Till death do us part, for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health." It's easy to have a strong marriage when everything is going well, but life has its curveballs. These become opportunities for you both to grow in character and come out stronger than you ever knew you could be. Not only do these crosses serve to strengthen your marriage if you handle them right, but seeing you survive these is great role modeling for your children, as they will have their own crosses to bear later on.
Also, it's very easy to get so busy with activities that you don't spend any time together as a family. Have dinner together as much as possible. Do a family game night. Watch movies together. Go play in the lake. It doesn't matter what it is, just do a lot of things together, and have a great time building wonderful relationships and memories.
Some of my kids playing around on a paddle board.
5. Join a play group or a social group
For stay at home moms especially, it can be very lonely. That seems odd when there are so many people in the house, but I remember many times longing for anyone over 3 ft tall to talk to. Yes, the kids are wonderful, but adult conversation is necessary, too. Often dad isn't home until dinner time, and then the kids want his time, he's tired and stressed from work, and well, there goes your adult conversation. Play groups can be a godsend. Try joining a few of them until you find a good fit. Getting your kids out to the park for some fresh air and sunshine with other kids is as wonderful for them as it is for you to get some adult conversation with other moms who are going through a lot of the same things. If your kids are too old for a play group, join or start a bunco group in your neighborhood. Bunco is a mindless dice game that's really all about socializing. There is no skill at all or strategy; it's purely luck, so even if your perfectionist self gets stressed out by games, bunco is about as low stress as it gets. I have belonged to a few bunco groups over the years, and it's been a wonderful way to get to know the ladies in the neighborhood. We play once a month. There are also bridge clubs, walking clubs, book clubs, Bible studies, church groups, etc. Don't load up on these groups, or you'll find yourself stressed out for shirking your duties at home, but find that balance where you have some friends of your own who are over 3 ft tall.
Everything you need for a neighborhood bunco group!
6. Go on vacation.
Maybe this isn't possible right this minute, but you can at least start planning something, even if it's just a weekend getaway. Get your parents or in laws to help for a couple of days, or hire someone if you need to, but get out of town without the kids for a time. You will come home refreshed and ready to tackle anything! The biggest vacation we ever took without the kids was when our oldest was 18 and the youngest was 2; we went to Europe for 11 days. We hired a nanny for part of the time, and then had a series of babysitters, my mom, Mike's uncle, and anyone who was willing to help for a couple of hours. It was a complicated schedule, but well worth it. We had an amazing time traipsing around Germany, Austria, and Rome, and the kids had quite the stories when we got home. Apparently the nanny we hired decided that my 18 y/o was old enough to watch everyone while she was going to take my Escalade out on a date (which of course, he was, but she was being paid to do it). My oldest was a motorhead, so he snuck out to my car and disconnected some wires so it wouldn't start. He wasn't about to let her take off in my car on a date! Then on another day, she dented our 15 passenger van. Needless to say, she was never hired again, but in spite of all that, everyone lived, they had some great stories, Mike and I had a blast on our first trip to Europe, and I would do it all over again in a heart beat!
Mike and I in Aspen on a road trip vacation from Denver to Sacramento.
Vacations with the kids can be super fun, too. They can also be exhausting. Don't over plan your schedule, leave yourself plenty of extra time for everything you do, look for bargains so you don't break your budget, and look at it as more of a change of venue than a relaxing time. Take lots of pictures, and you will come away with some great memories.
Me at Lego Land with the 8 kids I had at the time -- such wonderful memories!
I know, I know. It's hard enough just to get out of bed. Doesn't that count for something? I get it. But here's the deal. The less you move, the harder it is. So get moving! When my kids were young, we used to go on walks with a baby in the front pack, two in the stroller, and however many were left hanging on to the side of the stroller. I'm sure it was quite a sight, but those walks were amazing, especially when we moved from Sacramento to El Dorado Hills, which is a beautiful little foothill town on the way to Lake Tahoe. Our neighborhood there had some pretty major hills, and pushing a stroller with two kids with a baby hanging off my chest was no easy task! Between the walking and nursing my babies, my baby weight would be all gone in a few months without really trying. It also did wonders for my mood and energy level. There's nothing like sunshine for some mood-altering vitamin D and the endorphins generated by a challenging uphill walk to clear your head and brighten your mood.
Another thing I liked to do when my kids were little was to put on a fun exercise video. I bought a kickboxing/aerobics video called Tae-Bo, and my kids had so much fun jumping in there and doing it with me. Nothing is cuter than little kids doing Tae-Bo!
When I was young, I was a competitive swimmer, and I have recently returned to that (see "Why Swimming is My Jam")
8. Change Your Diet
I am probably being presumptuous here, but if you're like most people, you probably aren't eating quite as well as you should. I certainly wasn't until just recently. In the course of my 53 years, I think I've heard about every diet fad there could possibly be. I remember the crazy lady in the 1980's jumping around and yelling, "The fat makes you fat! The fat makes you fat!" which coincided with the research at the time that saturated fat was going to kill you. All kinds of low fat and nonfat products came out, and ironically, obesity, heart disease and diabetes have all sky-rocketed since then.
The latest research shows that sugar is actually the big bad guy, not fat. Sugar causes inflammation, which causes heart disease, diabetes, and even cancer, as well as joint pain. When you're young, you don't think much about that stuff, but sugar also causes something called glycation, which makes your skin age faster, and it causes insulin spikes which leave you exhausted and constantly craving more sugar. Sound familiar? When I was a kid, I was quite active, and I burned off all that sugar really easily, but when I hit my mid-20's, my metabolism started slowing down a little, and I began to really notice that every time I would eat something with sugar and/or white flour (bread, cookies, muffins, etc), I would get super tired within about 30 min, and then I would crave more, and then I would crash again. That is no way to get through the day, especially with little ones! Talk about tired and cranky mommy...
There's been a lot written about clean eating over the last few years, and I have completely ditched my sugar addiction. It has been a gradual process (like years!). I have gradually phased out bread and cereal, and it's rare that I have my former favorites: ice cream, cookies, candy, and pizza. What really did it for me was the Whole 30 program. I only made it in the strictest sense for 14 days instead of 30, but in that 2 weeks time, my taste buds changed and I could feel my whole system shifting in response to eating only clean food. I literally thought I was going to die the first week, but that's when the extraordinary happens, and your system remakes itself. Unbelievable. Consistently high energy throughout the day now, far fewer cravings, and no more insulin spikes and crashes (praise God!). When I do succumb to the cravings, those same foods that I used to be addicted to don't taste very good anymore because my taste buds have changed. Fruit is now far more preferable than candy, which literally just doesn't taste all that great anymore. That makes it a lot easier to resist it!
9. Find a Creative Outlet
This is critical. It is so easy to lose yourself in the middle of the diapers, dishes, and laundry. A creative outlet will refresh you and make the unending chores doable instead of overwhelming. A lot of creative outlets you can do with your children. When they are painting, paint right along with them. Music has always been my creative outlet, so I started a children's choir at my church and put my children in it. Later on, when my kids started doing musical theater, I took the job of music director when it opened up. These both led to writing opportunities; I wrote a Mass setting which was played at my church in the regular rotation, and I teamed up with a couple of writing partners and wrote the music for 10 youth musicals! It made such a difference for me when I started doing these. Not only was I contributing in a real way, but I was brainstorming about my projects while I was doing my chores, which made them go by quickly.
Me at the piano with my children's choir and my little guy Alex in the center of the three "little drummer boys".
God will never give you more than you can handle (although it may feel like it sometimes!), and it is so helpful to just say, "You know, God, I'm having a rough time with this. You're going to have to help me through this because I'm at a complete loss right now!" If you've never tried this, well, give it a go. Prayer has become my number 1 go to and is the secret sauce in everything I do. It wasn't always this way, and I wish I had been more in tune with this from the start. At the end of the day, the best thing you can do is pray for guidance and help and then do your best. Focus on gratitude for the things that are going well, and you will find that things that are going less well start to fall into place. There are always going to be challenges. Just knowing that and then choosing to focus on the good is enormously freeing, and it's also healthier for your mind and body. Who needs all those pesky stress hormones flying around?
If parenting is kicking your butt, please know that you are not alone. It kicks everyone's butt repeatedly and sometimes really hard!. However, there is grace in your trials, and you will come out better and stronger on the other side. In the meantime, be gentle with yourself, adjust your expectations, build in some "me time", find a creative outlet, plan a vacation, strengthen your marriage with date nights, find some like-minded adults to hang out with regularly, pray, get some exercise, and ditch the sugar! You've got this!!
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