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If Momma’s Unhappy, Nobody’s Happy!

Five Tips for Finding Joy

1403_RealMom_FA typical morning, I press snooze when my alarm goes off – three times – and rush into the shower only to be interrupted by a child who no longer likes the clothes we picked out last night and instead wants to wear pants he’s outgrown and his favorite shirt, you know the one with the chocolate stain I couldn’t manage to scrub out. A showdown ensues. Either way we both lose. Breakfast goes smoothly until my 4-year-old topples over her glass of milk and cries. I’d like to sit on the floor and join her, but instead I sop up the mess through gritted teeth and send her upstairs to change her clothes. Finally, everyone’s ready to go, but now I can’t find my keys. I berate myself for not hanging them on the hook by the door. Once the keys are found, we’re out the door, but a voice pops up, “Mom, we forgot – it’s hat day.” And I lose it.

Being a mother is tough, exhausting work. I love my kids more than anything. I want to be the best mother I can be for them, but day after day I find myself falling short of my expectations, losing my patience and my energy. Here I am, blessed with two sweet children, an amazing husband, and enough financial security to stay home with my kids for a few years, but something is missing. Me. Sometimes my life gets out of balance with too much energy going outward and not enough coming in.

Listen up, Mommies. It is not selfish to take care of yourself. Research says (and common sense supports) that emotionally wrung-out moms are inconsistent parents, less sensitive, and less proactive, which may lead to behavior problems in kids. Let’s face It, emotions are contagious – your anxiety feeds your kids’ anxiety in a downward spiral. When I find myself slipping down this slope, here are few tips I’ve found helpful.

1. Take a walk.
I know, you don’t have time – busy, busy, busy! What if I told you a twenty-minute walk by yourself takes care of a slew of happiness needs? First, exercise has health benefits, releases happy neurotransmitters, and helps keep the extra pounds off (good for health and self-esteem). Second, time outside provides a splash of happinessboosting vitamin D and a connection with nature. Researchers are currently investigating a phenomenon known as nature deficit disorder. Scientifically, the verdict is still out, but I’d bet on feeling better after a dose of fresh air. Third, in this quiet time alone you’ll discover the gift of yourself. Motherhood changed you. But in our full and noisy world, it’s difficult to get to know the new you. A quiet walk is the perfect time for you to reconnect with yourself. Who knew twenty minutes could accomplish so much?

2. Parent yourself.
When your children are unhappy, you figure out the source of their angst and support them in working through issues. Shouldn’t you offer yourself the same time and support?

The idea of parenting yourself is more than that though; it’s also in how you talk to yourself. Some days you’ll mess up – forget things, lose your temper, misplace stuff, let people down. Don’t mentally berate yourself like some kind of mean drill sergeant. Stop bullying yourself.

One day, when I overheard myself reassure my 6-year-old that I didn’t expect perfection from him, I realized I wasn’t giving myself the same wiggle room. I’d let my failures define me and to avoid them, I’d stopped taking risks, stunting my creativity and growth.

Your inner child needs reassurance, respect, and guidance just as much as your kids need it. You aren’t your mistakes. Accept them, fix them, learn from them, and then…

3. Let it go.
Do you worry? Do you find yourself like a mouse on a wheel rehashing the same worries over and over? Stop. Write down your worry and a plan to address the problem. Then let it go. But don’t stop there. Let go of commitments that drain you rather than fill you. Let go of the belief that you have to be everything to everyone all the time. Focus. In fact, consider writing a mission statement for your life and let go of all that isn’t essential to your mission.

4. Establish boundaries.
Imagine a box around yourself. You are responsible for what happens in that box. Everyone else has their own box for which they are responsible. You determine who you let into your box. The smaller your children are the more you need to share your box with them, but it’s your job to nudge them out of your box as they grow up. A long-term committed relationship also requires some box-sharing, but remember that our partners are grownups with their own boxes that are their responsibilities. Pretty much nobody else needs to be in your box.

I let my kids in my box too much. Unfortunately, my mirroring their pain doesn’t lessen their burden. In fact, it might add to it. My son once told me that he didn’t want to get in trouble, not because he worried about punishment, but because it would make him sad, and then he rattled off a list of all the people that would be sad if he was sad. Seeing him carry the weight of so many of his loved ones’ emotional health showed me how tangled our boundaries had become. My kids need my empathy; they don’t need me to reflect their feelings.

You are not responsible for your parents’ happiness, your friends’, your kids’ teachers, your next door neighbors’, etc. You are responsible for your happiness. Period. Establish a moral code. Live within it and then make the decisions that are best for your box.

5. Seek support.
You don’t have to do it alone. Remember the old Girl Scout song that goes “make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver and the other’s gold.” Building a supportive community around you is essential to happiness. Nourish your relationships with your family, your friends, and your neighbors. Surround yourself with people who boost you.

Support wears many hats – doctors, therapists, pastors, support groups. Sometimes we need more support than our loved ones can give. You wouldn’t think twice about finding your kids professional help if they needed it. So parent yourself and get the support you need.

You deserve a life grounded in peace, love, and joy. Your children deserve a mother who’s got herself together enough to be their anchor. Your partner deserves, well, a partner. Your sacrifice of yourself doesn’t benefit anybody because if you’re not happy, nobody’s happy.

Mary Helen Sheriff has an MFA in children’s literature and has taught elementary, middle-grade, and college students. She lives in Richmond with her husband, two children, and two cats. She blogs about writing and education.
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