Parenting: Does It Have to Be THAT Hard?
Parenting is hard. It is certainly the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It means being on call 24/7 for 18+ years. It means your body changing into some very strange sizes. It means your patience being stretched like you never thought it would be. It means risking the grief of losing a child, or mourning a child’s bad choice. It means your clothes stained with sour milk, pee, diarrhea, vomit, and boogers. From a Christian perspective, it means dying to yourself every single day.
Anyone who says parenting is easy and everything will turn out fine if you just follow this simple formula is deluded.
But sometimes when I talk with an overwhelmed mom, or read an article online like this recent one, emphasizing the all-consuming craziness of parenting—“10 Reasons You Don’t Want to Be My Friend Now That I Have Kids”—I can’t help but wonder if we’re making parenting harder than it needs to be. Of course we find these somewhat tongue-in-cheek articles humorous because they remind us of our own overwhelming moments.
But is that what the normal parenting experience should really be like? Is it any wonder if someone reads an article like that and shudders at the idea of ever having children? Does parenting really have to be THAT hard?
My hardest parenting season was when I had three kids, ages 4, 1, and a baby, and I knew I was soon to lose the baby. That season challenged me more than any other, and also taught me some important survival skills about how to make a very hard job a little easier. So when I read an article about the craziness of parenting, or hear a quote like, “Now that I have kids I hardly have time to shower!” I think, “Yes, sometimes it’s crazy, but it doesn’t have to be THAT crazy. There’s things you can do to make it easier.”
So I made a list of things that make my parenting life easier:
Make good sleep a top priority for you and your kids. Obviously with a newborn baby it takes awhile to get there. I’m not advocating unrealistic sleep expectations and especially not harsh sleep training. I am advocating making it a top priority to work toward you and your children having healthy sleep hours.
Have a bedtime, a wake time, and a nap time (for your kids and for you!). When your children outgrow naps, train them to have a quiet time, when they can watch a movie, listen to an audio book, or play quietly with toys. This gives you a breather every day when you can take your own power nap, enjoy your quiet, and regain your sanity.
Don’t stay up too late after your kids go to bed. Try to get close to eight hours of sleep, even if that sleep is in pieces. Wake up before them if possible so that when they wake up, you’re ready. Or give your early riser kids a quiet time so you can have your own before the day begins.
Routine and Rules
Strict schedules may be impossible with small children, but having a routine and a rhythm to your life is healthy. Children want to know what to expect. Have an order to your morning, an order to your entire day if you can, a naptime and bedtime ritual, and a rhythm to your week of how often you go out and when. (And with small children, don’t go out too much. Staying home is easier. Is it really necessary to attempt the grocery store with all the little ones in tow, or can that wait till the weekend?)
Rules are closely related to routine—let your child know what to expect. One of our rules is “whatever you have a tantrum about, you lose.” If you tantrum because you want ice cream, you have definitely lost the privilege of ice cream. This doesn’t eliminate tantrums of course, but it does give clear consequences and boundaries that minimize problems and help things run more smoothly.
Adjust your routine and your rules as you need to in seasons of change, but throw it out altogether and chances are your kids will be screaming and you’ll feel like joining them.
Prioritize eating healthy for both you and your kids, not out of guilt or legalism that you need to do everything a certain way, but simply a desire to make your life and your kids’ lives easier and better. The time you spend cooking healthy, or researching vitamins, essential oils, etc., will be worth it for the difference it makes.
Of course a lot is out of our control. Everyone has bouts of coughing, fevers, vomiting, and some far worse health crises no matter how careful we may be to avoid them.
But there is a lot we can do as parents to minimize sickness in our kids. The constipated child is grouchy. The feverish one may keep you up all night and then refuse to nap. Work to minimize the sickness, and you can minimize some of the most stressful moments of parenting.
Train your kids for independence. If they are physically capable of something, teach them to do it by themselves. This helps them develop as people, and means one less thing you need to do.
This is a example conversation with my 5YO as I’m making dinner in the kitchen:
Him: “I’m thirsty.”
Me: “Help yourself to some water.”
Me: “There are cups on the shelf.”
Him: “But I can’t reach the faucet.”
Me: “Get a stool.”
I would rather spend time showing my son I care by doing quality 1-on-1 activities, like reading a book or playing a game, than by scurrying around acting like I’m the slave and he’s the prince.
Take the time to teach your children to buckle their own seat belts, clear their own plates, put on their own shoes. Teach them to solve some of their own problems instead of expecting you to.
When my firstborn was colicky, I felt like panicking. “What am I doing wrong? Why isn’t he happy? I wish he could tell me! I wish I could help him! Why won’t he just SHUT UP so I can sleep? Wait, was I just angry at my baby? Where did that come from? I can’t believe I was angry! I’m such a horrible mother!” etc.
Then when he was three and going through a stage of almost daily tantrums, I felt myself in a similar meltdown of frustration with him and myself. I’ve needed to learn not to let my kids control my emotions. It’s a learned and practiced skill to be able to remain calm when your circumstances are crazy. When you can be calm yourself, you have a lot better chance of calming your kids.
Am I going to be angry when my daughter spills water, or am I going to hand her a towel and instruct her how to clean it up? Am I going to be frustrated when my son starts a tantrum, or am I going to give him a time-out and talk reasonably with him when he’s ready? Am I going to stress when the baby has a blow-out, or am I going to get the wipes and do the obvious?
Just because my kids may be crazy doesn’t mean I need to be crazy.
Remember “This Too Shall Pass”
The season of having small children, when compared to the rest of your life, is a short season. Even if you want a large family, the years you will spend with small children are still only one season among several in your life.
It’s easy to become overwhelmed with first trimester morning sickness, newborn diapers, the 4-month-old who stopped sleeping, the 2-year-old potty-training, the 3-year-old tantruming—and we forget we are in a short season. The challenge that filled our perspective one month may be gone the next.
We need to zoom out as parents and remember: “This Too Shall Pass.” Newborn weeks are hard, but they are a matter of weeks. They pass so quickly. In those weeks, as in all parenting stages, there is so much to treasure and be grateful for before it’s gone.
You Are More than Mom
Being a mom is a wonderful job. What it lacks in pay it more than makes up for in meaning. I really am grateful to be a mom, despite how hard it can be. But I am not just a mom. I can’t find my identity in my kids. If I do, I’ll be sunk when I’m an empty-nester, and I’ll probably be frustrated a long time before that, when my kids who are my life aren’t exactly fulfilling me how I expected they would.
Being a mom is one of my callings. I am also a wife. I am a friend. I am a daughter and sister. I am a teacher. I am a foster parent. I am a writer. Primarily I believe I am a disciple of Christ—that’s where my identity comes from even if I would lose all else.
No matter how hard parenting is at any particular season, I don’t want to let it consume my soul. Maybe that means when it’s really crazy, I need to ask my husband or a baby-sitter or friend to watch the kids for a couple hours so I can get out. I have always been grateful to have a part-time job, so though I’m essentially a SAHM, there are three hours a week when I do something else. And I like to get together with a friend for coffee and not bring the kids along and talk about something other than kids. I need that perspective.
So parenting is hard, but it doesn’t have to be THAT hard. There are moments and sometimes even weeks or months of crazy, but it’s not always crazy, and even when it is, I can be calm. I may wear sweat pants sporting cereal crumbs on both knees, but that doesn’t mean I can’t change into something else when I go out. I may think about breast pumps and sippy cups and potty training, but I think about a lot of other things, too. I may not be able to answer the phone when you call, but I can get together with you next week. I’m doing the hardest job of my life, but it doesn’t completely define me. It’s hard, but it’s not that hard.