What do you do when it all feels overwhelming?
This article was inspired by a good friend of mine – a fantastic mum with two kids and another on the way. She loves her children, wants the world for them and does everything in her power to give them what she thinks is best. All day long she’s pulled in different directions. She’s doing a great job, but I can see she’s overwhelmed. And I empathise, because when I look at her and the stage of life she is in, I see myself. I recognise the overwhelming nature of parenting – I’ve felt it before, I feel it still now. I think many of us do.
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Some days parenting feels easy. I tell myself that all I have to do is love my kids and keep them out of danger, and they’ll turn out alright. Other times, however, parenting seems really hard, and so complex! There are so many decisions to make and so much advice to sift through. In spite of all the ‘helpful’ input at my disposal, or maybe because of it, sometimes I just can’t recognise the right thing to do. I wish I didn’t let the responsibility of raising two small humans feel like a heavy weight, but I do. I love being a parent, but at times it all just feels so complex!
The opposite of complexity is simplicity
I started thinking about how to simplify parenting – both the concept and the end goal. If I had to boil parenting down to one main idea, what would it be? What should my I focus on in those times when it all gets too overwhelming? Come with me on my journey of working this out.
My first thought – it’s all about love. All I have to do is show my kids that they are loved and all will be well. Good in theory, but practically this didn’t help. I know I love my kids – but what do I do when it’s not even 9am and they’ve already exhausted me?!
My second thought – we need more fun. I’ll aim to inject more fun into our home life in the form of more games, more imagination and more silliness. More playing horsey and more eating dessert before dinner. More saying yes to my daughter’s ‘mummies and babies’ games and to my son’s endless requests to play tag. I felt I’d lost my sense of humour and that if only I found it again – and used it with my kids – life would feel lighter and easier. The problem with that idea is that when life is hard, even fun requires effort. Yes, children like fun, and life is easier when they are laughing rather than crying. But our job as parents is not to entertain our children 24/7. Filling each and every moment with a fun game or continually coming up with something new and exciting for them to do is not our responsibility. When we make it our responsibility, we add to our overwhelm.
The big idea: Connection
In my search for a distilled concept of the goal of parenting, I came to a conclusion after much thought – but it’s not a new idea. Psychologist Dr. Gordon Neufeld talks about it. Attachment theory is built around it. It’s woven throughout the Parenting Place Toolbox courses. The simple way to do parenting well is to focus on connection. Now when I feel overwhelmed I simply choose connection. I choose to take my foot off the pedal, to look beyond my to-do list and my children’s challenging behaviour and see what will matter most in this moment. And what matters is connecting with them.
I was on the right track with my first two ideas, because connection can look like love and it can look like fun. It can also look like saying yes, and it can look like saying no. It can look like doing the hard thing, and it can look like doing the easy thing. It can even look like laziness. It’s about knowing your child and what spells love uniquely to him or her.
Connection in action
Here’s what connection has looked like in my house over the past week or so.
My daughter woke up in a bad mood and her behaviour for the first part of the day was so difficult that I felt like walking away. I needed a break, which could have looked like ignoring her for a while. Instead I made myself walk towards her and I gave her a cuddle.
My kids asked to bake cookies after school. I’m always looking for ways to get them to eat nutritious food that’s filling and useful for their growing bodies. Generally I don’t want them to eat too much sugar but I said yes, because the moments of connection we would have while baking together are more important than my discomfort with them eating a bit of chocolate.
Connection looks like listening to my son’s bad ‘knock knock’ jokes, instead of telling him to be quiet when he’s already talked all afternoon.
Connection looks like reminding my son to pack his library book in his bag, even though he’s old enough to remember it for himself.
Connection doesn’t mean being the nice parent all the time or letting our kids off the hook. Yes, it looks like coming to my son’s rescue when he hurts his leg falling off his scooter in the living room, and sitting with him for a minute while he cries. But it’s also connection when I tell him, quietly and after he’s finished crying, that he shouldn’t have been scootering in the living room that had puzzle pieces and toys all over the floor. Being there for him while he was hurt was more important that telling him off straight away.
Sometimes connection means taking the easy route: Putting on the television for a bit in the middle of the day so I can have a rest and regain my energy; or serving hotdogs for dinner, rather than something more time-consuming, and eating pleasantly together as a family. It could mean sleepily welcoming your toddler into your bed in the middle of the night, even though it’s not what the sleep training books say, because she just needs a cuddle.
Sometimes connection means taking the hard route. Right now I’m working on making it a habit to lie with my son at his bedtime, reading him a chapter from his book and debriefing his day. To be honest, at the end of the day and with the promise of a few child-free hours stretching ahead of me, this is often the last thing I feel like doing, but I choose to value the connection with my child.
Yes, love and fun are important ingredients in a harmonious home-life but when it all gets a bit much and we feel overwhelmed, the answer is connection.