I revved the engine of the minivan, anxious to get home. Ethan, then a preschooler, was telling me in no uncertain terms, "I have to go number two!" My nap-deprived 2-year-old daughter was getting crankier by the second. So I did what any stressed-out mom would do: I put the pedal to the metal.
Then I heard the siren.
Yes, I was pulled over for speeding on my way home from grocery shopping. As I rolled down the window, the officer could clearly hear my 2-year-old crying.
"I'm sorry," I said as sincerely and pathetically as I could. "My girl is cranky and needs a nap. And my boy has to go to the bathroom. Big bathroom."
I still got the ticket, which only added to the tension I felt.
Motherhood can be a nonstop white knuckler, a ride where it's often impossible to please everyone, or anyone — including yourself. According to a Barna study, eight in 10 moms report being overwhelmed by stress. Seven out of 10 say they do not get enough rest. How can we avoid being part of these disheartening statistics?
Many of us know the basics: Eat healthy. Get plenty of rest. Take care of our needs — which is often difficult when our job is taking care of the needs of others.
Yes, parenting inevitably leads to some tense moments, but it's also true that the way we parent can make a huge difference in the amount of stress we experience. Instead of diving into a bag of chips, try these stress busters:
Take the lead
Who's calling the shots on most days — you or your kids? (Huddle in and repeat after me: "I am the leader, and my children are the followers.") These days, it's all too common for these roles to be reversed. We cave to our kids' demands, rearrange our lives to suit theirs and almost apologize when they don't get their way.
Psychologist John Rosemond, in his book The Well-Behaved Child, points out how often parents tack "OK?" to the end of their instructions to their children. For example, a parent might say, "A friend of mine is visiting in a few minutes. How about let's get these toys picked up, OK?"
"What does that mean?" Rosemond asks. "If it's not OK with the child, he doesn't have to do it?"
Recently, as I dropped my daughter Lucy off at kindergarten, I heard myself say to her, "I don't want you to chase that boy around the playground, OK?”
I was caught red-handed, saying the same "OK" I had promised to purge from my vocabulary.
"Bad habits are hard to break," Rosemond writes, "but they can be broken. Before giving an instruction to your child, ask yourself: What do I want my child to do, and how can I phrase it in the most authoritative way possible, using the least number of words?”
Lucy probably didn't recognize my personal training in progress, but I managed to quickly correct myself:
"Lucy, do not chase that boy on the playground today." Period. End of sentence. Stop asking your children to pick up their toys, to do their homework or go to bed. Tell them. It takes practice to parent like a leader, but this decisiveness is a key strategy toward minimizing stress in your life.
Create powerful consequences
You've probably uttered desperate phrases like, "Mommy's going to count to three," or "If you do that one more time, I'm going to…" We can threaten, warn, plead, cajole and thunder until our faces turn red. But all we're doing is allowing stress to build with every futile threat. Instead, plan ahead with powerful consequences for misbehavior. Be creative and decisive. Most of all, be consistent so your children clearly recognize that certain behaviors always lead to certain consequences.
In the Pellicane household, my husband and I were constantly harping on the kids to hang up their backpacks, help set the table, put away their dishes. Instead of the daily nagging which yielded few results, my husband, James, made an announcement:
"If I have to ask you to do something around the house that's expected of you, such as putting your shoes away or hanging up your backpack, you will owe me one dollar. These are reasonable tasks that shouldn't need reminders. If your sibling does a task for you because you were lazy, you will owe him or her a dollar."
But this is only one side of the equation. As our kids do their chores and other tasks over and above the everyday expected — cleaning up all the dishes after a meal or helping a sibling with homework without being asked — they earn a dollar. As parents, James and I now have less stress in our home because of those dollars circulating between us!
Quit babying your children
When my son, Ethan, was in fifth grade, I would bring him a clean pair of white socks at bedtime, putting them on his feet as I had done since he was a toddler. One day, it hit me: Ethan is way too old for me to be putting his socks on for him. I threw a pair of socks at him, and he's been putting them on by himself ever since.
Often, it's not our children who have a hard time assuming responsibility around the house. The problem lies with us. We don't want to let go of the feeling of being needed and important. We complain about being stressed out and pulled to do every little thing that revolves around our children, yet we are often the ones who engineer that dependence.
Sometimes, our childhood contributes to this problem. I grew up as an only child and did my first load of laundry in college. But my husband was the last of four kids and was running the washing machine before he was done with first grade. Thankfully, his background has guided this area of our parenting. Our older kids (9 and 11) do their own laundry, and my 6-year-old does hers with a little assistance from me.
Are there tasks you are routinely doing for your children that they could be doing for themselves? Give your children age-appropriate chores and responsibilities around the house. As you work yourself out of many household tasks, you will lighten your mommy load and create some breathing room for yourself. This will lessen your parenting stress, and it's a win-win because your children will gain experience in teamwork, responsibility and service. They'll discover dinner doesn't magically appear on the table and the laundry doesn't fold itself.
Meditate on God's Word
If your mind can worry and stress out, then your mind can be trained to meditate on God's Word instead. And you can integrate this into your busy parenting day. Put some verses on your phone, bathroom mirror or car dashboard to remind you of God's promises. One of my favorites: "Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God" (Philippians 4:6, NIV). Or maybe listen to an audio version of the Bible on your phone. Fill your mind with truth and not the stress of the economy, mom gossip or the race to replicate other "perfect" families around you.
Fern Nichols, the founder of Moms in Prayer, says this about meditating on the character of God: "A mom with little ones around her feet can get up 10 minutes early and meditate on an attribute of who her God is.… When you focus on an attribute of God — like His goodness or faithfulness — it will give you stability throughout the day because your mind will be on the God whom you have just praised."
Stress decreases as appreciation for God increases.
Sweat it Out
Exercise not only keeps your waistline from expanding, it also lowers your stress level, boosts your mood and immune system, and helps you get a good night's sleep. One study showed that depressed adults who took part in aerobic exercise improved as much as those treated with antidepressants. Don't feel guilty about going to the gym twice a week or putting in an exercise DVD at home. You will be setting a great example of physical fitness for your family — and reducing stress at the same time.
My mom and I have attended a weekly cycling class together for more than 10 years. There's no way I would have kept spinning and sweating on my own; I think I've ridden our home spin bike maybe twice in five years. But when I'm motivated to get my mom to class and am afraid of my instructor's wrath if I don't attend, I get on the bike every week without fail. That's the power of having an exercise appointment with someone else. Environment is stronger than willpower. You may want to exercise, but you really won't until your environment demands it.
These stress busters have helped me reduce my mother load. And powerful consequences have not only improved my kids' behavior; they have also changed how I handle the tense moments of motherhood. After spending some humbling time in traffic school, I haven't been caught speeding since.Arlene Pellicane is a speaker and author of 31 Days to Becoming a Happy Mom.