Several years have passed since that moment, but it still haunts me. Not because of what I did, but because of what I hadn’t done.
Until that moment, I hadn’t considered my self-care as important as any other health and safety need in our family. My stress over paying bills, balancing work with family obligations, and that nagging guilt that I am never present enough for my kids was constantly shifting between manageable and overwhelming.
As the kids got older and life got busier, I started yelling more, and heaving deep sighs at everything. I crossed my arms a lot, and muttered inappropriate words of frustration under my breath when the kids got too crazy or my husband too cranky, or when life felt like a twisted, knotted ball of disaster.
One question floated across the surface of all that life noise: Will my children remember me as a stressed-out mom when they grow up? Terrified of the truth, I sought ways to change how I handled the stress, and how I connected with my children.
Angelica Shiels, a Maryland-based licensed clinical psychologist specializing in families, suggested that I start by practicing mindfulness.
“You practice observing your distracting thoughts and emotions — without getting caught up in them or adding to them — and then going back to your ‘anchor’ activity such as focusing on breathing,” Shiels says.
This sounded easy enough, until I tried it, and felt like an immediate failure for not getting Zen with my kids while they were bickering over the TV remote — again.
“Practice noticing the intrusive thoughts and emotions so that they become more understood as simply thoughts and not credible realities, worthy of sucking the life out of your important moments,” Shiels says.
I practiced my anchor breathing, and tried to notice (but not react to) my intrusive, stressful thoughts while I was with my kids. I began to see patterns of guilt. My stress tends to pile up when I don’t deal with it, then the guilt comes after me, with sneering little taunts like, “You’re not handling this well.” This cycle of anxiety and guilt can feel never-ending.
“Establishing unrealistic expectations, and then feeling guilty when those goals aren’t reached, is an emotional trap all-too-common for parents,” Shiels says. “Sometimes guilt, or the feeling that your behavior was regrettable, is warranted and even helpful for improving behaviors. But shame, or the feeling that you are bad or worthless, is never warranted and is often the source of depression and anxiety.”
If my guilt and shame over not being able to process stress is making me anxious or depressed, then how do I handle that? Shiels says, “Cognitive behavioral therapy can help, along with a hefty dose of staying off the buffet-of -inadequacy-that is social media.”
She has a point about social media. The onslaught of supposedly perfect parenting in my news feed only exacerbates my stress and anxiety. Shutting off my screens and connecting with my kids more through talking and playing — even if that means constantly reminding myself to focus on my breathing to stay calm — will lower my stress and show my kids that I am not too busy to tune into them and tune out the noise that can feel like it is dictating my life.
Finally, Shiels emphasizes the importance of exercise, nutrition and sleep, and cautions parents against overextending themselves. Parents need to regulate themselves, pay attention to their physical needs and set limits, she says. She suggests that learning to say no can be a blessing.
“A parent’s biggest survival skill is establishing your own reasonable limits and knowing how to say no — to the PTA, to friends, and even to your kids — and tolerate any backlash without regret,” she says.
I’m no expert at mindfulness, but since I started practicing these suggestions, the yelling is gone and the screens are dimmed. My kids and I spend more time now connecting, and protecting our precious free time. I may not ever get this totally right, but who does? The goal is not to be a perfect mother, but to be a more present and relaxed one. That way, my kids will feel safe and loved now, and when they grow up, they hopefully will remember me as their solid rock.
Writer Sarah Cottrell is the voice behind Housewife Plus at the Bangor Daily News and is a regular contributor to Scary Mommy. She lives in Maine with her husband and two boys. Find her on Facebook at Housewife Plus.
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