Note: This post is adapted from my book Mother Nurture, a book written for mothers — focusing on typical parenting situations and gender differences that are experienced by many, though not all, mothers and fathers and by parents in same-sex relationships. Parenting is a complex subject, plus it intertwines with larger issues of gender roles and the long history of mistreatment of women; obviously, society should do a better job of supporting families in general and mothers and fathers in particular, but meanwhile, there are things they can do for themselves.
Nothing changes a person's life like a child, especially their first one.
Raising children is deeply fulfilling. Yet it's also intensely demanding. Compared to people who haven't had children, parents are generally more stressed, more unhappy in their intimate relationships, and more prone to illness.
Most parents are busy one way or another most of the time and hitting the red line on stress. They look around and wonder, where's the support?
Many parents figure that feeling like they are running on empty is somehow their own fault or simply inevitable and unavoidable. Well, neither is true. Parents are not to blame for feeling run-down and blue, and there is plenty they can do about it from the inside out — even if their co-parent(s) and the wider world are slow to help.
The path is direct and straightforward: Do what you can to decrease the "bad" — the demands — and increase the "good" — resources and resilience. Every parent is entitled to walk this path. With all that parents give to their children and others each day, they more than earn the right to take good care of themselves.
Here's a summary of some low-hanging fruit you can start gathering for yourself today to refill your cupboard.
Use Mental Imagery to Release Stress
The accumulation of stress makes a world of difference, so it's important to do small things throughout the day to keep the stress meter in the "green zone." There are many ways to lower the sense of stress in your mind or body, even in the middle of a busy day. Here are some ideas:
Recall or imagine a relaxing experience, picking images of situations that are the opposite of the ones that are causing the stress. For example, when unable to solve a problem with a child, imagine successfully skiing down a challenging slope, or when feeling unable to break out of a sticky situation at work, imagine sailing freely under gorgeous skies.
Let Go of Feelings
The safest way to express emotion is to oneself, which doesn't reveal feelings to anyone else. As a start, and as best as possible, try to name your feelings. Additionally, feeling emotions fully helps to let them go. Try to own them, even the most difficult ones, inside your mind. Then, if it feels right, express them to someone else. Pick a person with whom it feels safe, tell him or her the purpose of talking, and ask for whatever would feel comforting, such as a promise to keep things confidential. This is not a request for advice but for feelings to be heard and released. When speaking, try to sense that the emotions are leaving the body, that the listener is drawing them out.
Ride the Wave of Desire
Many times a day, there is probably a collision between the normal desires parents feel like people and the realities of life with children. There is nothing wrong with wanting itself, whether it's our most fleeting wishes or deepest values. But trouble comes when you cling too tightly to your wants. If you sense this could be true for you, try to step back, be kind to yourself about your wants, relax and release any feelings about not getting what you want, and try to move on to a new want and a new plan.
Take in the Good
Since the cliché is that parents (especially mothers) are self-sacrificing, at first, it might feel odd or even wrong to stay with beneficial experiences for a dozen or more seconds in a row. But if you don't take a little time with these good moments — fun with a child, a good talk with a friend, the relief at the end of a long day — they wash through your brain like water through a sieve. During your day, pay attention to positive events. These are not million-dollar moments but small changes in everyday life. Stay with those experiences for a few seconds or minutes longer than normal. Let the body relax around the good feelings, be filled with them, and soak them up like a sponge.
In particular, try to recognize your own goodness — as a person and as a parent — and then help this recognition become a feeling of being a basically good person. You are!