The Parenting Tango
As a mother of two young children and a parent coach, I am acutely aware of the parenting paradox. Parenting brings extreme highs and extreme lows. There is monumental joy and heart-gripping despair. There are moments of jumping up and down on the bed and moments of bed-ridden fatigue. The constant in this white space between the parenting paradox, is you, the parent. You matter. How you take care of yourself physically, mentally, emotionally and psychologically impacts how you take care of your children. So how will you maintain a sense of well-being in this unpredictable world? Based on my experience coaching moms and dads, here are my top ten tips for Parent Well-Being in the New Year.
1. Parenting is dynamic, marked by continuous activity and change. One minute is different from the next. Curiosity and openness to the novelty of ever-changing experiences is a great source of meaning for parents. Be mystified and look for what is different and unique in your kids and your partner.
2. Parenting is imperfect. It is not about doing a good job, but rather, about getting better every day. Parents can easily become misguided by the perception of perfect parenting or "having it all", which leads to disappointment, guilt, stress, and disconnection with partners and kids. What if you were guided, instead by your heart's deepest desires, your values and how you want to consistently behave in your family?
3. Parenting is multidimensional. Think about learning to drive. You, the driver, must know the mechanics of the car and its operational functions: knowing how to fill it with gas, turn the lights on and pop the hood. But when you sit behind the wheel, you interact with the car differently. You make conscious choices that will directly impact the functioning, operation and performance of the vehicle. Likewise, there are certain conventions you need to know as a parent. To meet a child's basic needs for food, shelter and safety, it is important to know how to change diapers, feed a child, and provide a safe environment for children to learn. But to meet the psychological needs of the child, it is important to be aware that we bring our own mental processes to parenting that, in turn, directly impact our children. This dynamic interaction between parent and child is influenced by your core beliefs and the subsequent choices you make. Your mind is filled with constant chatter and traffic. Your thoughts and emotions can create the congestion of unproductive assumptions, beliefs, judgments and opinions. Remember that you don't have to believe everything you think. Challenge your assumptions. Becoming entangled in your mind chatter keeps you reactive and impulsive and guided by unrealistic expectations.
4. Your past need not be your present or future. You may have had a horrible, dysfunctional upbringing. You may not have had effective role models for mothering or fathering. True, your past shapes certain mental processes, but your past is not the complete story. It is the prologue. Hopeful people and hopeful parents believe that their actions today will make tomorrow better. By practicing mindfulness and psychological flexibility, you can grow a new mind and start making changes today that are dictated by who you want to be in the present moment.
5. Parenting takes effort and deliberate practice. Suffering is inevitable, but pain is not. Parenting brings a great deal of joy, pride and wonder into our lives, but it also brings an enormous amount of challenges and setbacks. Research from Florida State University indicates that parents are at higher risk for depression than their nonparent counterparts. These negative emotions are normal and healthy, and should not be dismissed. Negative emotions, like the keel of a sail ship, are the foundation for steering us in a new direction. Be curious and open about the negative emotions like anger, sadness, or shame that come into your consciousness. Then be resilient and approach the next moment, the next hour, the next day with greater effort and practice.
6. Positive Emotions enable parents to provide resistance to and recovery from stressful and adverse events. They counteract the physiological effects of negative emotions. The presence of such emotions is like a heliotropic effect of opening up to possibility and opportunity. It allows parents to take a broader view of situations and leads to greater effectiveness in solving problems that arise moment to moment in our parenting world. Positive emotions can be generated from living in line with your values or signature strengths, moments of flow, pursuing a passion or hobby, doing things for others like Random Acts of Kindness, or nurturing strengths of gratitude, hope and love.
7. What you pay attention to grows. You created a family that is a living and breathing system. Your family would not exist had you not constructed it. Knowing that systems move in the direction of the questions we ask, begin asking questions about the strengthening and elevating moments in your parenting. By doing so you will illuminate that which will enable your family system to grow, thrive and prosper: your positive core, the foundation of a resilient and flourishing family. Once you have articulated your positive core, design the road map that will become your destiny.
8. Diversify your sources of meaning. Your partner does not complete you and neither do your children. You are whole, creative and resourceful. As a parent you may oscillate between high and low levels of meaning, but the more meaning you attach to big, broad goals and values, the more contentment you will find in those concrete actions of pouring milk for cereal or tying shoes to go out the door. Parents who report higher levels of life satisfaction are those that diversify their sources of meaning: family, religion, profession, a hobby, a social network. That way, if one source of meaning is depleted you can access meaning from another aspect of your life.
9. Be hopeful and resilient. Hope involves personal agency, pathways and goal attainment. People who are high in hope create multiple pathways towards achieving their goals, even when there are obstacles along the way. They reevaluate, recalibrate and remain hopeful about reaching the end goal. As a parent you have subconscious and conscious goals that motivate action throughout the day. Some goals are habituated, whereas others are more pronounced. One goal that many working parents have in the morning is getting children in the car by a certain time to get to school. There are specific steps that need to happen to accomplish this goal: dressing, feeding, gathering belongings, walking out the door. And there are also variable circumstances; spills, temper tantrums, refusal to get dressed and lost backpacks. The ability to access alternative pathways and find hope, despite the setbacks, is crucial in reaching the goal of getting into the car and getting the kids to school. Hopeful people believe that there is a way and that their personal choices will make a difference.
10. Other people matter. Humans did not evolve in isolation. Animals like ants and bees show an ultrasociality and kin altruism where they give and work for the good of the group. There are systems of support and nurturing to keep the community buzzing. Parents would benefit from reaching out and building strong bonds with the people around them, therefore creating a nexus of support and staying psychologically healthy.