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The Parent Trap: How to Stay Cool When You’re Overheated

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In this economy, many moms are working overtime—literally. Whether you’ve always worked full-time and are more stressed now than you’ve ever been, or you’re finding yourself having to take on a part-time or second job, search for another job, or freelance, all of these situations leave people depleted—especially when you factor in taking care of children at the same time. For me, juggling an eight-year-old and a one-year-old primarily by myself (my husband travels frequently for work) while also freelancing means I lose my temper or become distracted easily when I’m with my kids. For that reason, I’m always looking for strategies that will help me stay present around my children and lower my stress so that I don’t lose my cool. 


Ironically, experts say one of the top ways to achieve this goal is to take time for yourself. If you’re working around the clock, you may feel that you need to spend every nonworking moment with your children, but this approach can eventually be a disservice to them, as you’ll wear yourself thin in the process, says Debra Cucci, a marriage and family therapist from Los Angeles. 


“You have to devote some time to yourself, whether that be just time for a bubble bath or taking an exercise class. If you don’t, you’ll become too exhausted and have no energy left. It’s about the quality of time you spend with kids—you can’t give and give without taking time for yourself,” Cucci explains. 


You may be thinking that this advice is all well and good, but you literally don’t have the resources to take a class, so you find yourself falling into bed after putting the kids down each night. I know—I’ve been there, too. Cucci suggests that you “ask for support, whether from a spouse, from children themselves if they are older, or from a friend in a similar situation whom you can swap babysitting with once a week.” When I had my first son, I was a member of a parenting group, and the other mothers and I often traded off babysitting nights for free. It was a great way to get a little work done or take a jog without incurring the added expense of childcare. 


Speaking of jogging, exercise is terribly important, as it helps mothers blow off steam and get their endorphins going. Plus, asking other moms or neighbors to work out with you is a great way to stay motivated—and decrease the likelihood that you’ll snap at your kids. 


For working moms whose colleagues expect them to be “on” all the time, thinking about putting in longer hours and about fulfilling clients’ demands for better-quality service can often continue to distract them when they finally get home from the office each day. Marcie Carson, principal of IE Design + Communications in Hermosa Beach, California, and coauthor of the book and blog Womoments, struggles with this dilemma regularly. For instance, preparing for a big client presentation recently, Marcie found herself working until 2 a.m. one night and getting up early the next day for a 7 a.m. meeting with her agent. This mom of two has to find creative ways to spend quality time with her sons, and that often means “going off the grid” when the workday ends. 


“When there is downtime and when I come home, I need to completely unplug. Friday is supposed to be my mommy day, so I’m not even going to pick up my phone, if possible. Otherwise, I’m distracted the whole time,” Marcie says. If you are able to carve out a workday a week to be with your kids, or even if you just have two hours in the evenings, make a point of turning off your computer and your iPhone and focusing all your attention on them—this goes for dads, too. “When you come home, envision leaving your bag of worries in the car. Leave the briefcase and phone and come in. You can get it two hours later [after the kids are in bed] if you need to,” says Cucci. In the end, she adds, it’s all about setting priorities: “It’s not about the amount of time. The quality of time you spend together is more important than actually being with them all the time. Think about what message you are sending them.” 


Marcie agrees with Cucci and says she’s devised a few strategies to help her live in the moment with her boys during her free time. “One way to make sure I’m completely focused on my kids is by creating a project. Whether that’s just baking cookies or doing something more elaborate, it helps me give them my undivided attention,” she explains. 


While parents can’t do projects with their kids all the time, if you find yourself completely distracted and stressed out by financial matters or added responsibility at work, it’s imperative to find outlets for your stress. If you’re snapping at your kids or trying to multitask by squeezing in a bit of work while you’re with them, give yourself a time-out. Perhaps you need to devise ways to get more help with your kids if your workload is overwhelming, or should explore counseling to help you better manage your time. Or maybe you need to join a moms’ group or take a class so you can socialize with other adults and release tension at the same time. 


The bottom line may be that you need to give yourself permission to not be perfect. Pushing yourself to do everything, and to do everything well, can leave you with a short fuse and make you feel resentful. “It’s okay to make mistakes. Be a ‘good enough mother.’ Perfection isn’t possible,” Cucci explains. 


While I worry about leaving my sons at home with a babysitter who doesn’t always engage them as much as I’d like her to, I have to sigh and remember that I need this time for me—whether it’s to work and keep my career intact, or just to jog and blow off steam. Either way, I wholeheartedly agree that no mother can do it all. We’re all going to make mistakes, but in the end, if we can look into our children’s eyes when we’re with them—sans smartphone in hand—and teach them that in that moment, they mean everything to us, it makes a huge difference.

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