Looking back on my life, no time was more stressful than the child raising years. Childrearing is inherently stressful - now add to that children with significant physical, cognitive, and social disabilities, and watch your stress increase not just proportionately, but logarithmically!
Friends/teachers/counsellors often ask us how we coped, especially during those early years; a question I used to laugh off until, for some reason, I recently decided to give the matter serious consideration.
The outcome of those deliberations is this list, which endeavors to summarize the methods that were most effective in allowing our family not only to survive those chaotic years, but to emerge on the other side stronger, happier, and more functional than ever before. Perhaps there's something here that will help others who find themselves in our situation? I hope so!
- Keep it Real. What's the #1 most effective way to prevent stress? Anticipate and avoid stressful situations! Seems easy, yet I can't count the number of times my husband and I took cranky kids to the grocery store, tired kids to the restaurant, wired-up kids to the movie theater, etc. Needless to say, we got what we deserved. Let's get real: besides work, most of the things we do in life are optional. With a little planning, it's often possible to avoid potentially stressful situations. Do your grocery shopping on the way home from work or after the kids are in bed. Skip the restaurant dinner and order carry-in. Watch Netflix at home. To use a sports metaphor, sometimes the best offense is a good defense.
- Vacation Wisely. Ironically, vacations can be one of the most stressful parts of child-rearing. Inevitably, important items are left behind, nap times are disrupted, reality doesn't live up to (unrealistic) expectation, and everyone ends up grumpy. This would seem to contradict the ostensible purpose of vacations, which are meant to provide a mental and emotional respite. With that in mind, dare to consider giving up on stereotypical vacations and create the vacation that works for your family. For us, that meant all long car trips were done at night (so kids would sleep through them), meals were often taken in the hotel room rather than at restaurants (yes, they will deliver pizza to hotel rooms!), and events were scheduled around the attention spans and naptimes of everyone in the family.
- Staycation. Don't wait for vacations to recharge your batteries! With a little out-of-the-box thinking, you can turn any ordinary weekend into something extraordinary. Take advantage of parks, events, and programming in your community to get everyone out of the house. Load everyone in the car and take "mystery trips" to local destinations. Or stay in the house and do something silly/extravagant: create an entire zoo out of playdough, create the world's tallest freestanding lego tower, build an obstacle course and time each other. Create a list of ideas in advance to avoid those fruitless (and aggravating) "What do you think we should do?" conversations ... because, naturally, the times when you will most need the rest and relaxation inevitably will be the times when you feel least capable of coming up with ingenious ideas.
- Parents Night Out. Parenting is hard work, but shouldn't be 24/7/365. Even the stingiest employers recognize the need for employees to have some vacation time. Take advantage of offers from family/friends to watch your kids and catch some quality time with your spouse. However, for this to work, you have to agree beforehand not to talk about anything stressful while you're out and about. No discussions about money, no complaining about annoying in-laws, and - above all - no grumbling about each other. Save those conversations for another time. It's critical that these "nights out" be a time for the two of you to recharge your batteries, not just find new ways to drain them.
- Take a Break. Nights out with your spouse are great, but it's also critical that the two of you maintain separate identities. Yes, you're married and parents, but you are still individuals, with individual hobbies, interests, families, friends, and lives ... all of which play a huge role in reducing stress. So figure out how you are going to incorporate "personal time" into your lives. Usually this means taking turns watching the children so that the other spouse gets time to engage in other pursuits. The trick, however, is to arrange this time so that it *reduces* stress rather than adds to it, so establish some reasonable rules: each spouse gets equivalent amount of "alone" time, spouse on "break" can spend personal time any way they want, unless it adds to the stress to other partner (ex: hanging out with exes, getting drunk, spending excessive money), etc.
- Stay Connected with the World. There's a tendency for young parents to turn inwards and become hyper-focused on family. Yes, this is in some ways unavoidable and appropriate - children put a big dent in your carousing time. But this constant inward focus can overexaggerate familial stressors. To avoid this, make sure you broaden your daily conversation with your spouse to include topics other than family, work and children. Watch the news with your spouse and discuss current affairs. Read books and share them with each other. Make bucket lists and compare them. Whatever it takes to remind yourselves that long before children came along, you had plenty of other things to talk about.
- Divide and Conquer. Family time together is great ... except when it's not! Just because you all love each other doesn't mean it's a good idea to spend all your time together. My husband used to call this "divide and conquer" - we'd divide up the kids between us and then head our separate ways. Not only was it a welcome break from sibling bickering, but it gave each of us special bonding time with just 1-2 children at a time.
- Share the Load. Actual or perceived inequalities in housework and errands can be a major stressor at a time when a family's housework load not only doubles (all that laundry! all those school-related obligations!), but you and your spouse are already weakened by lack of sleep and disruption of your marital routines. But this needs to be a conversation, not a fight! Find a time when you are both feeling reasonably pleasant, establish base rules (no whining, no accusing, no hyperbole*), and really talk about how housework and family obligations can be most fairly handled. (*Because nothing kills a reasonable conversation like "You never do anything!") By the way, remember that "fair" doesn't necessarily mean 50/50 - it just means that both spouses are expending approximately the same amount of personal resources over the course of a day/week.
- Be Consistent. Remember tip #1, in which we said that the best offense is a good defense? The time you spend now establishing consistent patterns and expectations for your children will pay off for years to come. Why? Because the world is a big, confusing place, and children feel safest when they know that there are walls and where to find them. It may seem like no big deal to enforce a consistent bedtime, to establish and enforce rules about sharing toys with siblings (whatever rules you feel appropriate), or to threaten a punishment and then not carry through. But too many "exceptions" leave children confused and frustrated, leading to unnecessary battles and, inevitably, unnecessary stress. Above all, you and your spouse need to present a united front! Differences in child-rearing approaches are to be expected between two adults who were probably raised in very different ways, but those conversations needs to be conducted off-stage. Because nothing's more unsettling to a child than when mom and dad have different rules - and when they're stressed, the whole family suffers.
- Pick your Battles. Speaking of expectations, be realistic with your own expectations. Don't try to do everything at once. When faced with competing demands - little Johnny is pushing kids on the playground! and he's still sucking his thumb! and his spelling is atrocious! - prioritize the concerns, and then tackle them one or two at a time.
- Keep it Simple. As long as you're picking the battles you're going to fight with your child, pick the battles you want to fight with other aspects of your life. Because once children start to come, you simply don't have the time or energy to sustain the lifestyle you lived BC (before children). Let's face facts: every dinner doesn't have to be nutritionally balanced, beds don't have to be made every day, your child does not need to participate in activities every hour of the week, and it may no longer be feasible to maintain a beauty/exercise ritual that requires 45 minutes in the morning and another 45 minutes every evening. As before, the trick is to prioritize. Figure out what's genuinely important to you (fixing vegan meals, keeping the sink clean, watching the news, 30mins of jogging every day) vs. what's nice to do if there's time, then let some (or most) of the latter items go.
- Take Care of Yourself. This is so obvious you wouldn't think it needs saying, except that trying to keep up with the needs of a child (or children) has a way of warping your priorities. So here's your reminder: make sure to get enough sleep (even if that means napping), maintain some sane nutritional standards (even if that means supplementing with vitamins), and take time out of your week to exercise. Deficits in these "big three" are guaranteed to exacerbate feelings of stress.
- Use Your Manners and Maintain Respect. It's amazing how far good manners and mutual respect can take you! My favorite example is my youngest son who, at the age of 2, discovered the word "no" and availed himself of it ... freely. His negative attitude impacted all of us. Until, one day, my husband and I came up with the brilliant idea of teaching him to say "no thank you." It's remarkable what a change this made in the mood of our whole household! Not to mention the life lesson it taught our son. 17 years later, he's still a stubborn fellow, but meticulously polite and respectful at all times, which makes all the difference. Everyone - you, your spouse, your children - need to "use your manners" and obey the golden rule, treating others as you'd like to be treated yourself. Because the best way to teach your child to behave respectfully towards you is to behave respectfully towards them.
- Laugh! I saved this one for last, because it may the most important stress-reducing tip of all. Being able to see the humor in your day-to-day frustrations will help you maintain your perspective. Sometimes, however, life can be hard and laughter hard to find: when this happens, you'll need to proactively find the funny. Rent goofy movies. Watch comedians. Make time to do things that make you happy. Spend times with friends that make you laugh. Psychologists have proven that even "forced laughter" reduces anxiety and stress. Laughter is the ultimate coping skill. Make it work for you now and it will be the gift that keeps on giving, as your children learn from your example how to maintain perspective towards the stressors they'll face in their own lives.