How to Maintain Parental Sanity in the Face of Chaos

I’ve learned through the years, and particularly since becoming a mom, that stress is sneaky and has to be attacked aggressively and consistently. Otherwise it will drag you down, as well as everyone around you.

Unfortunately, I have a history of poor stress management habits. I was a heavy smoker throughout college while working two jobs and juggling a full class schedule. Even after I quit smoking, I still struggled with anxiety and stress, which always manifested physically as well as emotionally.

A few years ago, it dawned on me that my children reacted to my stress. My kids always “acted out” when I was acting out myself. The whole family would get physically sick during times of stress. If I was irritable, chances were it would be contagious. This is not just an anecdotal story, either. More and more research supports the fact that parental stress has a huge impact on child development, from the womb to adolescence and beyond.

The fact that my stress was not my own was a rude and humbling awakening.

So I got to thinking about ways I could manage it better. I asked myself: “What is the most stressful thing you’ve ever experienced, and how did you cope?” Not just in the sense of emotional stress, but a real, out-of-my-control, physically and emotionally taxing situation.

The answer came to me right away: childbirth, of course!

So I decided to approach everyday tension and stress the same way I approached (or tried to approach) a birth. It has been amazing to see how these techniques have helped get through smaller, less dramatic life events.

1. Breathe

“Always first draw breaths after outbursts of vanity and complacency.” – Franz Kafka

Conscious breathing has made such a tremendous difference for my own sanity as a mom. So simple, and so powerful. During my son’s birth I used a form of breathing used in yoga called “ujjayi” breath. As described by Yoga Journal, “The sound of Ujjayi is created by gently constricting the opening of the throat to create some resistance to the passage of air. Gently pulling the breath in on inhalation and gently pushing the breath out on exhalation against this resistance creates a well-modulated and soothing sound—something like the sound of ocean waves rolling in and out.” Use this breath during periods of stress and tension.

The key here is not to strain – you really don’t want to sound like Darth Vader, despite what I’ve heard some yoga teachers say. Rather, focus on actively releasing the breath as you exhale. It should sound more like the echo of the ocean in a seashell.

2.  Focus

“Few tasks are more like the torture of Sisyphus than housework, with its endless repetition: the clean becomes soiled, the soiled is made clean, over and over, day after day.” – Simone deBeauvoir

No wonder Simone didn’t like housework. She’s absolutely right – it is repetitive. So are leftovers and answering the same question over and over again until your two-year-old is satisfied.

When I was in labor with my third child – an unmedicated vaginal birth after two c-sections – I found myself repeating the same phrase over and over again, almost obsessively. But instead of being monotonous, the repetition kept me grounded. What if we could use the repetition of the daily grind to our benefit?

Repetition is not the same as monotony. At the beginning of each day, choose a word, phrase, or prayer to repeat throughout the day. Maybe it’s something you are grateful for, or something you need to improve upon. I guarantee saying that word will feel slightly different in each circumstance. You will have a point of focus you can always return to in order to reorient yourself throughout the day. And who knows? Maybe changing your perspective on repetition will help you appreciate the “torture of Sisyphus” itself – housework.

3. Laugh

“If you’re too busy to laugh, you’re too busy.”

In her book, Spiritual Midwifery, midwife extraordinaire Ina May Gaskin tells a story about how laughter helped during one of the births she attended:

“I noticed that whenever Judith would laugh at something, she’d have a very good rush [contraction] right afterward, which would dilate her cervix a bunch more. So we all sat around and had a good time talking with each other, and after a few more rushes I checked Judith again and found that she was fully dilated and ready to push the baby out.”

I can’t say I have personal experience with this in the delivery room. But I do know in real life, it’s often a good idea to step back and realize the seemingly catastrophic event that just happened on the white carpet in the living room in your rental house owned by a picky landlord is actually funny. It’s impossible not to relax when you’re laughing a belly laugh. (Just don’t let your children see you.)

4. Move

“Do you want to change?”

“It’s the only evidence of life.”

-Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited

During childbirth, one of the first recommendations for stalled labor is change of position. Often, all that needs to happen to keep labor going is for mom to shift the position just a little so baby can be better aligned. In a nutshell: change of position can generate optimal alignment. So it is in childbirth and in life.

Often all we need is a change of pace, activity, or physical orientation. That can mean anything from moving from a standing to a seated position while working, to doing a strenuous workout. If you do a lot of desk work, one practice I have found works quite well is to set a 45-minute timer. When the timer goes off, find something to do that doesn’t require sitting for 15 minutes before you sit down to work again.

5. Give Thanks

Gratitude was the one thing that kept me absolutely grounded during my son’s birth. Gratitude that he was safe. Gratitude that my husband was by my side. Gratitude that my nurses were gentle and sweet even when I started acting like a raving madwoman. Gratitude that this birth was happening at all.

Giving thanks is the single most important secret of staying not only calm but also happy during busy times. Life is a gift and we all should just be slap happy about it. In the words of Thomas Merton,

“Life is this simple: we are living in a world that is absolutely transparent and the divine is shining through it all the time. This is not just a nice story or a fable, it is true.”

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