How to tell when being a good parent means doing less, not more.
When I got engaged, my mom pulled my fiancé (now husband) aside and said, “If I had to describe Christi in one word, it would be intense.” She wasn’t wrong. I have a naturally intense, passionate personality—which I both love and hate. I have a lot of energy, but I have also spent the majority of my life trying to learn how to stop yelling. I know the shame and guilt that inevitably follow, but learning to control my temper has been a challenge for me. Overall, I’ve actually been quite successful. Casual observers comment about how relaxed I seem with my children, and even my children have been known to tell people I’m very “reasonable.”
Not yesterday though.
Yesterday I lost it with one of my sons.
In my early parenting years, I might have blamed my son and said it was his fault I lost my temper, but my son wasn’t doing anything that I can’t handle with grace on a normal day. A few years later, after some experience and maturation, I might have blamed myself for not being able to control my own emotions, but I’ve confronted similar situations in the past and remained level headed.
Why I Lost It
No, yesterday happened because I broke one of my fundamental rules of parenting. I neglected to make sure my base requirements were met. Every time I fail to meet my basic needs, I lose my temper. Every time. It’s not because I’m a bad person, it’s because my survival instincts kick in. My brain switches from think and analyze, to defend and protect—and that’s never pretty. My son’s complaint yesterday flipped that switch, and I’ll tell you why:
- I’d been gone all day running my children around without a single moment to myself.
- My husband is out of town so I had no one to pitch in or commiserate with.
- One of my sons had been yelling at me via text for close to an hour because he wanted me to allow him to break one of our house rules.
- Two of my children were fighting and ready to tear each other’s hair out.
- One of my children had just thrown my iPad on the hardwood floor in frustration.
- I hadn’t eaten anything in hours.
- AND, the entire house was a disaster.
So when my son started whining that he didn’t want to miss gym this week to go to a doctor’s appointment it took me two months to schedule, my breaker switch flipped. I could feel it and asked him to go to his room until I could talk to him about it. He refused and my inner Hulk exploded.
My Bare Minimums
Bare minimums will vary for every parent, but in a nutshell, they are the things that you have to do to keep your stress level in check and maintain your equilibrium. For me those include:
- At least 6 hours of sleep, preferably 8
- Eating regularly
- At least 1 hour of quiet time to study, think, meditate and recharge, preferably 2
- A clean kitchen
- Connecting emotionally or intellectually with another adult at least once a week
It’s not a huge list, but it’s an important list. Clearly yesterday, I failed to meet several of those needs, and I made it worse by trying to do more, not less. When we came home from our morning outing, instead of making a quick meal and cleaning up the kitchen before I left again, I cooked a big meal and left the mess intending to clean it up later. I didn’t anticipate all the other things that would go wrong in the meantime.
Expect the Unexpected
Fortunately, I don’t have to be able to anticipate the unexpected, I just need to be prepared for it by making sure my minimums are done before I try to do anything extra. If I had made a simple lunch and cleaned up before I left, instead of trying to be supermom, I probably would have been able to handle everything else. Or, if I really wanted to make a big meal, I could have asked my children to clean up the kitchen while I was gone.
When my minimums are done, I am able to work more productively. I can prioritize more effectively, and I have space in my mind to proactively think about and meet the needs of my family. Minimums matter, a lot.
What are your bare minimums?
If the fact that my emotional stability is partially dependent on a clean kitchen sounds ridiculous to you, that’s okay. The kitchen might not be your thing, but it’s definitely mine. Other parts of the house can get messy, but my internal chaos alarms go off and my stress level rises whenever my kitchen’s a mess. I have another friend who needs the beds made before she can start her day.
It doesn’t matter what your minimums are, what matters is that you become aware of them.
Think about it for a minute, what is on your list? Step back and look at your life curiously from a distance. What triggers your internal chaos alarms? If you’ve been doing The Parental Awareness Workout, you probably have a good idea already. If not, start thinking about it. There’s a lot of power and peace to be found in knowing your minimums and making sure you get them done before you try to go above and beyond.
As you start making your list, consider what matters to you:
What if you can’t get your minimums done?
If you find yourself in a situation where you can’t get your minimums done, that’s a clue you need to ask for help. After I have a baby, I know it takes at least 3 weeks before I can start getting my minimums done, and approximately a year before I can consistently do much besides my minimums and feeding my family. We learned the hard way what can happen when I don’t get the help I need, and now we do whatever we can to make sure I have enough help to get my minimums done. I’m happier, and the whole family benefits.
Family Members Have Minimums Too
I’ve also found it useful to understand my family’s basic needs. I work hard to make sure that our family plans enable everyone to meet their minimum requirements for emotional stability as well. It would be hard to overstate how much this has changed our family dynamic. Fighting, bickering and all those hair-pulling moments in our home have decreased exponentially.
If your children have some introverted tendencies, for example, you might actually find they do better with less structure and less direct attention from you. We took my five-year-old out to lunch last week and when we got in the car he said, “I can’t wait to get home to my blocks.” He enjoyed lunch, but he looks forward to time without us too.
One of my super organized, type-A, always on top of everything, friends reached a breaking point a couple of weeks ago. She threw up her hands and decided to take a whole Saturday off. She told her children they could do whatever they wanted and she locked herself in the bedroom to recuperate. One of her children later commented that it was the best day ever.
Sometimes being a good parent means stretching yourself and doing more, but sometimes it means doing less. The key is knowing what you and your family need because when you identify and make those things a priority, you will all feel happier and more successful.