Andrew and I were talking a few weeks ago, probably while trading endlessly long shifts bouncing a certain baby on a certain yellow exercise ball, and one of us mentioned that so much of this season is about coping. Finding ways--creative, lazy, compromising, or otherwise--to get through, to do what needs to be done. It's so true. And I'm okay with that. I'm not a glowing picture of housewife-hood, or really even motherhood, right now. Most of the time, I'm coping.
And you know what? It's okay to cope. Whatever stage of life you happen to be in. There is so much pressure to be at the top of our game. So much pressure to do every single moment the best. So much pressure to have a set of parenting ideals, and then parent to those ideals (no big deal, right?). But sometimes, seasons are hard. Emotionally hard, or just plain physically hard. And in hard seasons, you do what you need to do. Because they're seasons. Stitches heal. Colic eventually goes away. Sleep training (hopefully, eventually, please please please) works, and sleep gets better. Potty training also works (someday). Parenting two tinies soon becomes parenting two not-so-tinies.
If there's anything I could tell new parents, or new parents-of-two, I think it would be simply this: It's okay to do what you have to do. It's okay, in this season, to lose the big picture in order to live as peacefully as possible in the now.
As with everything else, what coping looks like will be unique and different for each family, and for each new addition within a family. But here are the things that have been helpful to me over the last four months.
1.) Try to maintain something approximating a schedule. I am not a by-the-clock person, but I do have a toddler. Routine matters a lot to toddlers, and a ridiculous lot to my particular toddler. He is happier and feels safer when he knows the general flow of a day and a week. Also, by trying to orchestrate my day so that basic needs (think sleep, food, potty, etc) are met at certain specific times, the vast majority of the preventable toddler meltdowns don't happen. Not that I manage this all the time, but keeping it at the back of my mind makes everyone's days smoother. Also, having specific times of the day to connect, read, play, etc (even if only a little) are stabilizing and grounding and allow for bright spots, even if the rest of the day disintegrates.
2.) Make cooking simple, easy, and as much as possible, healthy. Cooking takes far too much time. But, when it comes down to it, it has to be done. So it's worth having a stash of recipes that are quick and easy. It's worth learning how to use a crock pot so that you have the option of cooking during morning nap instead of during crazy whiny meltdown hour. And it is worth prioritizing health. Not in the sense of making everything from scratch or eating all organic, all the time. But people are calmer and happier when they're eating good food, and calm and happy are worth their weight in gold. Usually it's simple decisions, like choosing a whole-wheat quesadilla over mac n cheese, or eating fruits and veggies with every meal. (And taking vitamin D, it's helping me a lot here in my sunless corner of the wintery world). I like cooking, usually, but I'm holding my meal plans lightly these days and being willing to just whip up something quick at the last minute. And, if that fails, remembering that prepared food is not the end of the world. In almost every dinner situation, food--even if said food is the third pizza of the week--is better than no food.
3.) Try to do something, however small, in order to feel pretty. This one is hard. But I do think it's important, at least for me. I'm the kind of person who always gets dressed, so if I spend the day in pajama pants (tempting though this often is), I feel like I'm getting over the flu or something and I act accordingly--lethargic, unmotivated, and annoyed at those who try to make me do things. I act better when I'm wearing clothes. Also, it has been worth spending a few dollars on a few pairs of thrift-store jeans in a much larger size than I would normally wear. It's worth not being down on my reflection every time I look in the mirror. Or, you know, being constantly unable to breathe in my tight pre-pregnancy clothes.
4.) Respect your partner's coping skills. Andrew's preferred method of baby-soothing is to turn on a television show (usually a semi-violent crime drama that his wife has no interest in) and watch it while bouncing, rocking, or otherwise putting-to-sleep the baby. It baffles me sometimes, because the baby is subjected to a whole lot of extra stimulation that makes going to sleep take much longer. But you know what? It works for him, and if he desperately minds the extra time, he'll figure out another way. Because we do expect to share parenting equally when he gets home from work, it's only fair that we allow each other to find our own rhythms with the kids.
5.) Discipline the toddler for actual misbehavior, not for inconvenience. This one is hard. So, so hard. Both parts of it. It is so tempting to just let Peregrine do what he wants, until he bothers me. But that is so unfair to him, and creates for him a very unsafe, unpredictable world. This is one area where I feel like I have to think big-picture and not just what works in the now. But having this rule stored away in my head is important, and I reference it often. Even just having it as a rule helps keep me from sleep-deprived knee-jerk reactions. When I'm consistent and fair with my expectations, and am not acting on my annoyance at innocent two-year-old behavior (like, say, dumping out his whole dresser, or peeing in his pants), he is calmer, I am calmer, and everyone is happier. I can't say I always do this well. But having the rule helps.
6.) Use play as a filler. If quantity time isn't possible, go for quality. I don't play with either of my kids as much as I wish I did. And, honestly, I don't see much way around it. There's a lot of sentiment in the parenting world about kids being more important than housework and I love it, I get it, it's all true, but still, you have to feed them. You have to use the bathroom. You have to change the baby, and potty the toddler, and clean up messes, and arrange doctors' appointments, and that means a lot of turned-down opportunities to play. But? Connecting is important, and there are ways to connect other than intentionally sitting down and turning off all other priorities for a half an hour. A quick story read here and there, I Spy in the car, running a race to the mailbox--finding little ways to engage fills an always-looming need that can often feel like just another obligation. Toddlers don't need enormous efforts to make them feel valued and loved. Which brings me to:
7.) Include the toddler. Play is important, yes. But inclusion is more important. Most toddlers don't perceive much difference between a game of hide-and-seek and a game of drive-these-brooms-across-the-floor. Peregrine begs, daily, to make the bed, if only because he's always made the bed with me and he knows how that activity works. Sure, including a toddler makes everything take much, much longer. But it is a way to keep the toddler occupied, (mostly) out of mischief, and feeling noticed and loved.
8.) Babywear. If you and your baby can stand it, do it. Especially with a tiny infant. Like working with a toddler, it does take longer and is a bit more awkward. But it keeps the baby close, potentially sleeping, and usually happy. Even with Peregrine, who wasn't a huge fan of baby carriers, it was a better option than putting him down. And sometimes, work has to get done.
9.) Staying optimistic and having a good attitude can make all the difference in the world. If there is a small change in environment or activity that can facilitate a better frame of mind, by all means, go for it without guilt. I certainly don't mean putting on a smile-face all the time and pretending everything is rosy and perfect. But, here's what I've found: no matter how justified I am in feeling annoyed, apathetic, overtired, or any other number of things, if I act that way when I'm home alone with the kids, everyone suffers. Because, no matter how terrible I feel, my kids are neither going to sympathize with me or make things easier on me. So if something small--putting on music, making tea with extra cream, throwing the kids in the bath and going on Facebook--will improve my mood, it's worth doing. I often feel guilty for doing things like this (I mean, shouldn't I just be able to have a good attitude without giving myself a treat?), but here's where it's helpful to be able to forget the big picture for awhile. Yes, joy in all circumstances is worth striving for. But, as far as coping goes, and living gracefully in the reality I have--heavy cream and Hispanic pop music on Pandora are far, far better than snappiness and discontented children.
10.) Get out of the house. Preferably outside. Leaving the house gives everyone a reset. Fresh air, even when accompanied by cold and rain, is good for the soul. This one feels overwhelming, and it's one I often don't want to do, especially when cold and rain are involved. But everyone feels better afterwards, and it kills a lot of time. I've found that keeping a diaper bag stocked and by the door allows for quick getaways with very little preparation.
And, when all else fails, this is what I fall back on: in moments of chaos, find what really, truly needs to happen, and prioritize that. It's so easy to get frustrated with a day, or a week, or a season, or even just a moment, for falling apart. Or simply to let myself be swept away with the overwhelming task of trying to get everything done right, or even adequately. And if things are falling apart at the seams, sometimes I have to just step back and clarify--what needs to be done now? And then do what it takes to make that happen--just that, and nothing else. It sounds simple, but it helps me a lot. Because if I've identified we need to eat dinner, then I can focus on that, and if that means takeout, so be it. If I've decided Sylvia needs to sleep, then I can make that happen, even if it involves the Moby instead of her bed. My job is to do this well, not to do it right. Sometimes--a lot of times--that means coping. And coping, for now, is okay.
(And...three months later. It's easier. It really is. Peregrine is potty trained, pretty much completely, at least in the day time. The yellow exercise ball is no longer a daily part of my existence. (Thankfully. I got seasick on that thing. You know when you've been on a boat, and then you go to bed that night, and your brain thinks you're still on a boat? Yeah.) Sleep is...better, though Sylvia's not about to win any prizes. Or possibly even qualify for the finals. Or possibly even qualify for the competition at all. But, we've found our rhythm. We're a family of four, and we work. Sure, we're people, and two of us are very small people, and so we have chaos and meltdowns and miscommunications and all that. But it's not new anymore. I spend a lot less time coping these days.)