What would you, new parent, give to have a moment of solitude?
To feel like there aren’t a million things going on?
To feel like you aren’t worrying about what’s going to happen, and regretting all the parenting blunders you just made?
What would it feel like if you didn’t get quite so angry at the latest toddler meltdown? Or saw more smiles on your partner’s face because they can tell you’re more present with the kids instead of going through the motions?
What would you do for a Klondike bar?
(Just making sure you’re still with me.)
I can’t say I’ve found some magic solution. I’m assuming the magic solution is being super wealthy and having nannies and butlers; rich people have problems, too, but they have the money to fix it. At least that’s how it worked on Fresh Prince.
But I do have a method parents should consider trying to alleviate stress, increase energy, and feel like you’re more in control. It costs next to nothing. It can most most any schedule. And you can even involve your toddlers, too.
For the past month, I’ve made a huge commitment to mindfulness and doing things with intention. Here’s the payoff:
Less stressed: I just feel better. Even if I have a day that’s full of “NOW what happened?” I’m more aware of how I’m feeling and that it won’t last forever.
Less worried about little hiccups of life: While major aggravations are still, of course, going to cause stress, I’m not spiraling on little things as much.
More energy: I’m sleeping less and feeling better. I know. I KNOW.
A better feeling of being connected and not just going through the motions: Have you had weeks go by and you hardly feel like you were ever really there? Like you were just getting the next thing on the list done? This approach is the opposite of that.
Does that sound like something you’d give your first born for? Well, first, don’t give up your first born, although I suppose that also solves an issue.
I can tell you exactly what I did that has helped me become a calmer and more at peace father. I’m far from being perfectly harmonious and all sunshine, Let’s make that clear. But I can feel the difference and I feel that I can make it continue, and in a world where most of the time we all just talk about change, this is me doing the work to make change happen.
Up front, the biggest change was driven by using the Calm app, which helps you meditate and practice mindfulness, every day. In fact, it’s been every. Single. Morning. Before 6 a.m. On purpose.
Now before you tell me to go stick my New Age essential oil hippy claptrap where the hooka don’t shine, stay with me for a moment.
First off, mindfulness isn’t a dogma thing. There’s nobody you’re praying to, so you can easily adapt it to whatever religion you practice or lack thereof. There’s no chanting, no burning incense to Mother Nature, and no $10,000 weekend retreats to find your zen (I am sure someone offers one, but you don’t need it). It’s about being present. Truly present. Not stuck on what didn’t go right before. Not worrying about what you have to do or what will happen. Just being in the moment. And when you have kids, we have an overabundance of both of those emotionally-fraught areas, so being present sounds pretty sweet.
I’m saying that as a dad of three — 3-year-old twins and a just-started-kindergarten 5-year-old — I think we can agree that when I tell you I understand parental stress, you know I’m not exaggerating. I get what it’s like to feel a lot of anger and that you can’t snap out of a funk, and how that rolls downhill to your kids. I’ve written about it.
I’ve had a long journey in the past few years to find more peace in my life, and I’m not done yet; my 30s have absolutely been a period of constant personal growth. I’ve met with a therapist, and that definitely helped. There’s so much value in just talking out what you’re feeling to someone who isn’t immediately trying to fix it or put in their 2 cents. I’ve also been more vocal with my wife about when I need a break as I learn what my limits are, and she’s been fantastic about helping me, which in turn, helps her. And I’ve started to work on my routines as I’ve figured out my trigger points that set me off.
Does that resonate with you?
Do you feel like somedays you could just blow a gasket over something tiny? Do you feel frustration boiling inside you and you can’t even pinpoint why; maybe it even starts as soon as you get out of bed?
If you’ve ever thrown a toy across the room, slammed a door, shouted into the void, or found yourself trying to out-argue a toddler, just know you aren’t alone. So many parents have reached out to me in the past and told me they’ve done all of the above and more. At the time, I told them what I had been doing so far to help, but I couldn’t quite figure out what my next step should be. Enter: Next steps.
What I’ve Done As a Dad To Feel Calmer and More At Peace
I had a really rough summer. It was full of fun beach trips and playing with my kids in our yard and date nights with my wife. But professionally, I hit a lot of setbacks that seemed to pile on to each other and eventually, I hit an emotional wall, and when you factor in being a dad on top of that (did I mention we were potty training?), it was a lot to handle. Something had to change so that I wouldn’t go revert back to a bad mental state.
I knew I couldn’t just push through it. I needed to revamp my approach. And I came back to my need to control the things I can control.
So here’s what I’m doing now:
Waking up every day between 5:15-5:45 a.m. Depending on your job and your kids, this either seems late or insane. My kids generally can sleep through the night now (at least after they crawl in our bed), so I’m not dealing with the 5-times-a-night wake-up like I used to; I’m not advising you to do likewise if you have a baby cause dude, you need sleep. But instead of trying to squeeze every last moment of sleep and getting up around, say, 6:45 a.m., I’m waking up pre-dawn on purpose. Here’s what I get out of this:
Quiet. On most days, I can get anywhere from 30-45 minutes before my middle daughter gets up (she’s an early riser). That means absolute quiet; I’m not even turning on the lights. It’s been there for the taking, and all this time I kept complaining that I never get enough of it. Sometimes you have to take what’s given.
Each morning, I sit in the same spot and turn on the Calm app. The app is super easy to use, and they have a lot of guided meditation (if you’re like me and have no idea what to do, you want to go that route!). I did a 21 Days of Calm guide and by the end, you find yourself being more aware of how you feel, more alert of your trigger points, and more capable of finding that perfect spot of “now” - not worrying about what’s to come, not regretting what’s happened. If that doesn’t describe what all parents need, I don’t know what does. I’ll have more about the Calm app in a follow-up post, including comments from the Calm team, my favorite routines, and what specifically I do throughout the day with the app and other mindfulness techniques! Give me a shout if that sounds interesting!
The payoff of peace makes it worth getting up, so I don’t need a ton of motivation. While you may think “Wow, I would just fall right back to sleep if I try to meditate that early!” I found otherwise. It’s more like that’s an easy excuse for us to make so we don’t have to put out some effort. Now, if your baby is up all night, sure! You gotta get some sleep. But if you have a decent sleep schedule, it’s more a matter of prioritizing going to bed at a decent hour.
Starting the day on my terms: The thing is, I had known for a long time what one of my toughest moments is each day. It’s the morning rush. It’s getting everyone dressed and fed and brushed, get the house back in order, and dealing with all the inevitable “where did that thing go we need?”, plus trying to get myself ready. But what if, instead, I had a 30 minute head start? Even with 15 minutes for meditation, I could bang out the dishes, tidy up the den, maybe get a kid or two dressed as they meandered downstairs, and have a bite to eat, all before I normally would be getting started. I used to think in my 20s that nothing is worth getting up early. This is.
Being awake before the kids are awake so I’m not annoyed. With babies, it can be impossible, given that most are waking up at all points in the night for no reason. But once you’re in a routine, you start to be so protective of the sleep you get because you are now so aware of how valuable it is! So if I heard one of my kids come into the room crying because they’re awake at 6 a.m., I’d get resentful and a little ticked since they woke me up. But if I’m already up? Problem solved. I’m greeting them with a smile, and both our days are better.
More time for my wife to sleep. This is just a nice side effect. For the most part, she can keep sleeping a little longer, and that energy pays off mid-afternoon when I’m at work and she has all 3 kids by herself. There’s not enough Starbucks in the world. My wife is one of the hardest working people I know, and she spends every day trying to be a super mom. If I can make her life easier, I need to do it.
Getting busy. No, not that getting busy; that’s how we got into this mess in the first place. I’m talking about making sure that as much as I can, if I’m with the kids all night by myself (likely, as my wife and I have opposite schedules), I’m resisting the temptation to just lay on the couch and relax. “Andy, you’re saying that dads should not try to relax after work if they want to feel more relaxed? Are you high?!” Stay with me.
What I realized, at least for me, is that the act of trying to unwind after work only has benefits for me if I can actually unwind. My kids, who haven’t seen me all day, want to play and bounce around and read and show me things. This is not unwinding! This involves a lot of energy. Sure, I could do that for a few minutes and let them cuddle up with me and we can watch a movie, do dinner, and call it a night (and some days, that’s all I can do… like I said, this isn’t magic, and parenting isn’t Instagram).
But what happened a lot was that I’d sit down and instantly feel like I didn’t want to move for awhile, and of course, that’s not what my 3-year-olds and 5-year-old had in mind so I’d get frustrated and a little ticked (do you see a pattern?) that they weren’t down for my plan, and nobody would really get what they wanted. Instead, here’s what I am doing much more often:
Picturing them happy: Before I enter the house after work, I do a trick my therapist taught me: I picture everyone smiling. That puts a smile on my face, and even if it’s hectic in there, I’ve got a better attitude to deal with it.
Doing something with them right away: Before my brain has the chance to tell me to unwind after a long day at work, I try to do something active with the kids. Maybe it’s just playing around. Maybe it’s a walk. Maybe it’s doing a puzzle. But it ensures that I’m starting off positive, for them and for me, and that’s already going to help stave off those frustrated feelings. After all, it’s not their fault!
Get chores done all night long. If you’re like me, mounting frustrations can lead to you losing energy (you know how some days, you just feel drained all day? That’s probably more a stress thing than a sleep thing). If you lose energy, one of the first things to go is your will to do chores around the house. But all that does is just create compounding problems — those chores don’t go away, and now you’re mad about having a shit-ton of things to do.
Instead, often after doing something with my kids on a weeknight, I’d completely clean up from dinner so my wife wasn’t coming home to a bunch of dishes (we all know the visual isn’t exactly welcoming, so that would suck for her to come home and see dinner wasn’t cleaned up yet). Or instead of relaxing while my kids played (God, it’s so much easier when they can start entertaining themselves, but if you’re not there yet and can strap your kid on you, it’s the same idea), I’d vacuum or do the laundry or weed wack. And by staying busy, I wasn’t allowing myself the opportunity to get mad and frustrated; I was being productive, and being productive for me is something I really value. This isn’t wanting a pat on the back for doing the freaking dishes, by the way; Jesus, don’t be that dad. This is about being intentional in making chores part of the way I’m channeling my energy.
Taking a breath. This isn’t all bulletproof. Did I mention I have 3-year-old twin girls? In recent months, I’ve watch them lose it over not getting to close a door; not brushing their teeth first; not moving a sock where they wanted it to be; not being the one to hold the dog food scoop; and so many other things I lost count. (The #WhyMyKids AreCrying hashtag is dead on.)
Even with all the mindfulness in the world, you’re still going to lose it sometimes. But I am making sure, more and more, to pause before I react and even step out of the room if needed. It’s OK to say the moment is overwhelming, step out, count to 10, and go back in. They aren’t going to remember. (Calm even has a Take 90, which is a 90-second meditation solely intended to help you calm the f*&@ down).
A great example: We took all the kids to the National Aquarium, which I highly recommend. As toddlers are wont to do, there’s always some tears and whining mixed in, even if they are having a great time. Taking some mental pauses to reset myself helped a lot. I found myself enjoying everything more because I was getting away from a “Oh great, now this thing happened” mindset and just appreciating that stuff happens and let’s move on. I’ve got more work to do, but it’s a step in the right direction. In other cases, I’ve even closed the door on my crying kids to go to another room and take a minute to pause and breathe before returning. Let yourself simmer down. It’s OK. You’re human.
I don’t know where you are on the “Need to Chill Out” index. But I think a lot more parents than we know are dealing with a metric ton of frustration, anger, doubt, worry, and so many other day-ruining feelings. Parenting is a lot! Babies and toddlers do not make sense, and they won’t make sense, tomorrow, either. They aren’t going to take it easy on you because you’re at the end of your rope. They may, in fact, grab that rope and light it on fire and then shit completely up their backs just for the thrill. My daughter has pooped in her underwear while laughing in my face! It’s psychotic!
Please take it from me. I am far from being at a perfect place, yet I’d take the past 30 days, though, over most any I’ve had as a parent in terms of finding inner peace and quiet. You can’t control how loud your kids are, how many things you’re asked to do at once, or when the next round of the preschool colds are coming your way. You can’t control much of what your kids do at all (we pretend we can, but it’s all an illusion; how often do you say “I think it’s just a phase” to describe some devious thing they’ve done?).
But you can find some peace with how you react to it all. Whether you pick and choose some of the things I’ve done or come up with your own routine, the key is just doing it. Maybe it’s mindfulness. Or prayer. Or rotating duties. Or using a babysitter more often for nothing more than having a night off.
I love what Jen Sincero says about priorities (and if your mental health isn’t a priority, you need to reconsider your approach). A priority is only a priority if you actually do it, she says. It’s not a priority if something else always comes up and supersedes it. Then what you’re talking about is a wish. A desire. A hope. And your won’t find inner peace and quiet that way.
If you’re serious about changing your life, you’ll find a way. If not, you’ll find an excuse. - Jen Sincero
Priorities get done. It’s a priority for your toddler to have lots of social interaction, so you drag them to soccer every Saturday when you’d rather be sleeping. It’s a priority for your baby to have organic food, so you spend hours custom-making pouches for them rather than just buying them at the store.
Priorities. Get. Done. Make your own mental health a priority for the next 30 days. I think you’ll find the benefits go far beyond just feeling a little happier.