I remember not feeling stressed once; I had just taken a hot yoga class and I went back to my apartment, where I lived alone, ordered take-out and watched The X-Files. Now, over a decade later, my Sunday nights are not as low-key. There are lunches to make, dinner dishes to clean, work emails to check, school slips to sign, laundry to contemplate (“I think I can wear this shirt again”) and a relationship with my husband to maintain, hopefully at a level of enjoyment instead of feeling like exhausted roommates. Every mom parenting with stress will experience struggles that were hard to imagine, especially back when we didn’t have kids. Stress as a non-parent was vastly different, for me, than it is now that I have kids.
As a single lady, or when I was first married and still kid-free, most of my stress was self-induced. I had expectations for myself — about my job performance, my ability to pay my bills, not forgetting to take my birth control, and then panicking when I missed a pill — and didn’t have many people counting on me. With an 8-year-old and a 6-year-old, I have that much more responsibility and a load of stress that comes with caring for them. Meal planning is my biggest domestic stressor. Having to stay late at the office, and miss time with my children, is my biggest professional stressor. Even when my husband takes on the cooking, and I get to leave work at a decent hour, the residual impact of stress has an effect on my parenting (and not in a good way).
There are tons of ways we can attempt to reduce stress (though figuring out the time to do so often adds stress), and before I was a mom, I didn’t make the effort. I complained more and I looked forward (a little too much) to happy hour, instead of really finding a solution to my stressful problems or situations. Now I need to do the work to handle stress for the sake of my children, as I'm not all that helpful to them when I'm completely stressed out.
Here are some of the struggles I experience as a mom parenting with stress. I’m sure too many of us know these all too well.
My “chill” factor has been worn down to the nub at the end of most days that involved parenting and working (and commuting, and finding myself in the one bathroom stall that doesn't have any toilet paper). The tiniest thing may set me off.
I think I lost my sh*t once when I came home and my kid wanted to tackle-hug me before I had set my keys down. Which of course, made him frustrated, causing him to whine, which made my irritability flare up even more and it took even more effort to get back to a calm, loving place. (But seriously, let your mother put her keys down, kid.)
I know it's hard for my kids at the end of the day, too. They’re up at 6:30 a.m., commute to and from school on the bus, try to be good in class and for their babysitter. So, by the time I’m home from work they’re out of patience and have just unleashed any frustration they may have bottled up throughout the day.
Simultaneously, I'm stressed from the length and rigor of my day — with its deadlines, delayed trains, and vending machines that deny me my change — so I'm stuck weathering the storm that is my kids' emotions, which usually erupts right at bedtime. By this time, the patience ship had sailed and by the third time I've tried wrangling them to bed and/or attempting to get them to brush their teeth, I'm spent.
This is the result of having less patience. I always regret yelling, but it takes so much effort to stay calm and when your energy reserves are already depleted (and you feel you’ve given the best part of yourself to co-workers for the last 10, hours instead of to your own kids), you just want to shut a problem down quickly. Too often, this means I resort to yelling and throwing all the frustration at my children. They’re not always innocent, but I need to treat my kids the way I want to be treated: using with an inside voice.
Craving Copious Amounts Of Alone Time
I don’t even have grand plans for this alone time. If I’m just sitting in a comfortable place, staring into space and I don’t have to move or remind anyone to put their clothes in the hamper, I will emerge from my decompression chamber better prepared to choose deep breaths over yelling in response to the sibling fights that will be sure to break out.
Somehow, the opportunities to hide away for more than a few minutes at a time are rare. I think my kids are programmed to sense when I need to be alone, and choose those exact moments to express, at top volume, how urgently they need me.
We all know that stress can trigger the release of hormones into the system, igniting our “flight or fight” response. Well that saps your energy, and if you’re a parent, you’re already operating at a deficit. “Sleep when the baby sleeps,” they say. Sure, that may have helped me be less stressed as a result of being tired, but it would make me feel more stressed as someone who was neglecting the small joys of watching garbage TV while getting the laundry folded during the baby’s nap.
Feeling Like A Failure
I’m hardest on myself when I’ve had a hard day. It’s more difficult to identify a win when I feel like I’ve been losing all day. If I’ve already lost my temper, raised my voice, or been short with my kid, my lousy mood deepens and turns inward. It’s my fault my kids are acting bratty. It’s my fault I can’t muster the patience I need to weather a tantrum over a broken granola bar.
Feeling like a failure comes too easily to me, especially when I’m stressed by lack of sleep or a to-do list that just never seems to end. Still, every day I get a do-over and there is something about little kids that allows them to wake up loving you so hard, no matter what drama ensued the day before.
Increased Sensitivity To Noise
I’m like an open wound when I’m stressed out. Everything becomes too much. I wear headphones most of the day and especially when I don’t have to talk to anyone else. It’s like, after a day that tests my last nerve, my system can’t take any more stimulation.
Thankfully, kids are known for being super quiet. Yep. That's it.
Poor Food Choices
When I’m stressed, I procrastinate and procrastinating stresses me out, so I stress eat. It was worse before I had kids, because I literally had more time to binge.
Still, shadows of that behavior remain, and when I’m feeling overwhelmed with work and life and I can’t figure out what to prioritize, I just want to press pause. Cue the stress eating. In these moments, I crave the most horrible things; salty, pillowy carbs and a strong hit of anything chocolate. Of course, devouring junk food just makes me feel worse. Thankfully my complicated relationship with food hasn’t completely taken over my life, and I want to eat well so my kids eat well, too.
It’s Challenging To Stay Positive
When I’m feeling like everyone wants something from me — at the office, at home, on the phone when I mistakenly answer a telemarketing call — I lose sight of the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s all terrible. I’m drowning. Nobody understands. Those thoughts start taking up too much space in my brain, overpowering any positive thinking I know I need to will myself to have. Looking on the bright side is great advice, but so difficult to follow when you’re having a dark moment.
"No" Becomes The Only Word You Know
“Mom, can I… ?”
“But yesterday you said I could… "
When I’m stressed, I don’t want to have to think. I don’t want to be forced to figure out the details associated with allowing my kid to do whatever it is she or he is asking. Stress has taken over and I have so little brain space left to put towards good parenting. So, I just make it go away with a firm “no.” I know it’s not the right solution, and I’m working on this, but “no” is easy. It’s more work to really listen to my kids and give them a reasonable answer. If my children are going to grow up to be thoughtful, kind, generous adults, like I want them to be, I have to step up my game and not always go the “no” route.
More Likely To Badmouth Your Parenting Partner
When the kids have set off my shortened fuse and I lash out in frustration, I later blame myself or my husband. If I don’t see myself as the failure, then I throw him under the bus. It’s ugly, and I always regret the moments I let stress get the better of me and I say something in front of my kids that doesn’t paint my partner in a great light.
Most of the time, we are a united front with our kids and our children can count on us being in sync. They very rarely pull that, “But mom said I could stay up later tonight,” crap to their dad because they know he and I agree on that stuff. So, I have to keep it together during those times when stress has weakened my fortitude, and hold back the words I always wish I could take back when they’re hurled in a hurtful way about someone I love and whom I need very much to keep raising decent human beings.
Questioning The Choice To Be A Parent
It has come to this for me, at times. We all have our breaking point, that moment where you have nothing left to give to anyone, even your kids.
I’ve felt tremendous shame in feeling this way, until I realized that other parents do, too. It’s not the feeling that we should resist, in my opinion, but our reaction to it. It cannot cause us to risk any harm coming to our kids, so if I’m alone with them when it happens I retreat to the bathroom and lock the door and let them scream and bang on it for a few minutes, knowing I just can’t open the door until I trust myself to be calm. If it happens when my partner is home, I try to hand him the reins. “I need a moment,” is the most useful phrase I’ve found in parenthood. Always find a way to take that moment, especially when your anger makes you question your decision to have children. When I get that space, it becomes clear, after a little while, that I do not regret ever having my children. I just need to not be “mom” sometimes, and I’m entitled to that feeling.