Frustration, anger, upset, exhaustion, etc. These are all emotions of motherhood. (I know, there are the good emotions, too, like love, compassion, cuddling (that’s an emotion at our house), happiness, calm, joy, peace, etc.) But this is about the messy emotions that hurt.
I let those get out of control a lot when my kids were young. I didn’t have a good grasp on what it was I needed to keep those emotions in check. Turns out, that last one I mentioned in the list above, exhaustion, was the guiding emotion. He was the Big Kahuna, the one who basically set the tone for everything else.
When sleep was elusive with babies and toddlers in the house, Exhaustion moved in and took over. And when Exhaustion is in charge, Anger, Upset and Frustration are like groupies. They follow wherever Exhaustion leads.
It can be hard, for several reasons, for a new mom to recognize this. There’s the cute new baby that everyone is in love with—and because it’s so cute and cuddly, you’re losing sleep to stay awake and watch it sleep—or you’re wondering why everyone is so in love with this bundle that eats, poops and sleeps all the time, and these thoughts are keeping you up because you’re stressed because you feel like a bad mother. Then there are the constant loads of laundry. I.Mean.Constant.
And there are the expectations that you put on yourself. (OK, the expectations start with society, but we moms internalize them and they become our expectations if we’re not careful.) And these standards are high. We ran corporations, headed up major projects, hiked across Europe and made something of ourselves. This motherhood thing should be a cinch.
Haha. It’s not.
When we were doing all those other great things in our lives before kids, we did them in a non-hormonal state, without the responsibility for the most precious thing on earth—human life.
Turns out, becoming responsible for a new human life coincides directly with enhanced hormones and sleep deprivation.
So, what to do? Don’t let Exhaustion be in charge of you. He already has his groupies. Don’t be one, too.
If you’re a first-time mom, the solution is simple—not easy, but simple. Sleep when the baby sleeps and let your partner (or, if you’re a single mom, let anyone who is willing to help you with these things) do the laundry and cook the meals. Ask for help from neighbours, friends and family. Even better, accept it when it’s offered. There is no prize for doing it all. Seriously. No prize. (This hurt when I found out.)
Your calm, peaceful attitude will rub off on your baby. The less exhausted you are, the less stressed you are, the happier your baby will be. I’m not talking perfect bouncing cherub-faced baby all the time here. I’m just saying, deep down, your baby will be calmer when faced with upsets. Be the example, even at that young age.
If you are not a first-time mom and don’t have the luxury of sleeping when the baby sleeps because you have to make sure that the toddler doesn’t dump all the Cheerios on the floor and burn the house down, put the kids to bed at a decent hour (bedtime is between 7:00 and 7:30 pm in our house), spend some quality time with your partner (I’m talking a good solid connection but for a short period of time), then go to bed early.
I didn’t do this when my kids were little because I thought I had to do it all. And I wanted to spend a lot of time with my husband because, you know, he’s an adult and adults are really cool to talk to. But now that those years are behind me—and I suffer from terrible guilt attacks from how many bad emotions I consistently displayed in front of my kids—I realize that those years were short and my children and I would have been better served by lots of sleep so that Exhaustion could not be in charge.
There is always something good to come out of any bad circumstance. You just have to look for it. And the silver lining to my early years with my kids was that I had ample opportunity (more than I’d like to admit) to be an example of regaining control after losing it.
I wasn’t always good at it. Sometimes Exhaustion had me in its cold, iron grip and I just couldn’t squeeze out. And when I was very upset and Exhaustion was in charge of the upset instead of me, it often spiraled out of control and ended up in the most dramatic of upsets: the upset that I couldn’t seem to keep it together no matter how hard I tried.
But there were days of calm when things would happen unexpectedly and Upset and Anger would step up to the plate and I would reign them in by sheer will and my desire to be a better person and a better mom to my kids. (Those were days that followed nights of adequate sleep.)
So when I see that my children are tired and frustrated, my example is the best lesson for them. If you let yourself get frustrated at your child’s frustration, the situation escalates. Jan Blaxall, a professor of early childhood education at Fanshawe College in London, Ontario says, “Research shows that children learn how to regulate their emotions by watching their parents.” (Source: www.todaysparent.com/toddler/toddler-behaviour/how-to-deal-with-a-frustrated-toddler/).
So what did my angry outbursts and unhelpful self-care patterns teach my children? It taught them that getting upset and freaking out was the way to go when things didn’t go their way. It taught them that cooperating and helping each other was optional depending on their mood. And it taught them that when they couldn’t keep it together, they didn’t have to try harder, they could just fall down into a balling mass of tears and screams. (Yeah, I did that sometimes. I was that exhausted and unwilling to ask for help. Lesson learned.)
And this is a vicious cycle. The more upset I got, the more upset they got. We needed some peace in our lives.
And somehow, somewhere deep down inside me, I found that place where peace exists and I dragged it up into the lives of my children. And I saw an immediate change in their behaviour as it related directly to my behaviour.
And even now, with slightly older children and no babies in the house, sleep has to be a priority. If it isn’t, we open the door and invite Exhaustion in. And his groupies follow him. And they don’t make for a very nice family life.