More Kids, Less Stress?

On being a “good enough” mother.

A recent article on Today.com suggests that raising three children is the most stressful, but after that, with any additional children it actually gets easier. I don’t know who they interviewed but it certainly wasn’t me! How could it possibly be less stressful? Instead of three people that you wish to shape and nudge and help grow and control your anxiety about, there are now more! More people whose lives seem dependent on you and whose present and future happiness is to important to you that it keeps you awake at night.

Less stress? I don’t think so.

What is possible, though, is that there are certain neuroses that we let go. It is impossible (certainly without paid help) to have the house be perfectly neat when you have a large family, although why the parent quoted in the column offers “with her fourth child she didn’t bother with things like obsessively covering all the outlets with safety plugs” as an example of an area to be more relaxed about is beyond me. Perhaps obsessive sterilizing and organizing and a full schedule of Mommy and Me classes could, however, go by the wayside.

Perhaps, with more children, parents set more realistic limits – for themselves and for their offspring. One mother cited in the piece allowed her children to sign up for one sport only, a sport that did not have an intense travel schedule. Now that’s a mother with some sense of self-preservation!

The psychologist, Donald Winnicott, is famous for having coined the term, “good enough” mother. Parents of larger families perhaps set that more achievable goal for themselves.

But it’s still not easier (how can 4 or 7 or 9 possibly be easier than 2?) or less stressful. Those of us blessed with larger families, I think, have instead made a decision, actually two decisions. The first is that the stress is worth it. Jobs are stressful, relationships are stressful, anything worth doing involves stress. Accepting stress and coping with stress are facts of life. And, like many other challenges, I believe, they are affected by our expectations.

One thing that all parents have in common is exhaustion, a constant state of fatigue. We are just always tired. I have found that if I count the number of hours of sleep I got, if I feel I “need” more of “should have” more, I will always be frustrated (and sometimes resentful). But, if I accept that this is the price of living a full life, if I don’t expect to always be fresh and sharp (to ever be fresh and sharp!), then I’m okay.

I’m always quoting my favorite old kick boxing ad, “You’ll rest when you’re dead.”

I think the same attitude applies to stress. If we imagine that our lives should be stress-free, that our children should pose no challenges to us, that in other homes they are perfectly behaved and everything is working out magically for them, we will be very stressed – and frustrated as well. But if we just accept some level of stress as a reality in our lives – and the lives of everyone we know – then perhaps we can make peace with it.

We need to let go of any expectation that “it’s not supposed to be like this.” Yes, it is.

The second decision is one that should have been made at the beginning of the parenting journey but hits home more with the third child. With two children, we fool ourselves that we are in charge. With three we realize that we are outnumbered.

This is the moment, if you haven’t already, to turn to the Almighty and say “I can’t do this alone; I need your help.” Of course, we always needed His help, it’s just brought home to us much more clearly now. And, of course, this is also the only strategy that can possibly ease our stress. It’s not in our hands. He’s running the show. Big exhale.

Constantly recognizing this is also a challenge but we can try. This is the best coping tool of all. And it’s got the added benefit of being true.

It’s a lifetime’s work. Sometimes I’m calm; sometimes I’m over the edge. Sometimes I’m frustrated; sometimes I’ve made peace with the situation. Sometimes I give it over to the Almighty; sometimes I rail against my inability to effect change. We just have to stay in the game.

And when times get really tough, and it all seems too overwhelming, and my favorite kick boxing slogan just doesn’t do it, I turn to my favorite prayer:

“I am ready to fulfill the mitzvah of trusting in God, and of casting my load on Him. Master of the Universe, I am casting upon You my burden which is that I need….Help me to acquire/achieve it/bring it about, and as of now I remove this burden from myself. I no longer have any worry over it since I trust in You.”

About the Author: Emuna Braverman

Please check out Emuna’s new book A Diamond for Your Daughter – A Parent’s Guide to Navigating Shidduchim Effectively, available through Judaica Press

Emuna Braverman has a law degree from the University of Toronto and a Masters in in Clinical Psychology with an emphasis on Marriage and Family Therapy from Pepperdine University. She lives with her husband and nine children in Los Angeles where they both work for Aish HaTorah. When she isn”t writing for the Internet or taking care of her family, Emuna teaches classes on Judaism, organizes gourmet kosher cooking groups and hosts many Shabbos guests.

Telling Kids What to Do

Are parents afraid to teach their young kids values and proper behavior in a clear, unambiguous manner?

In “The Wrong Way to Speak to Children” (WSJ), Jennifer Lehr suggests that the way most of us address our young children is, for lack of a better word, wrong. Her theory is that most of our conversation is about control – “We use it to tell our kids what we want them say (“Say sorry!”); how we want them to feel (“You’re okay!”); what we want them to do (Behave yourself!”); and what will happen if they don’t (“Do you want a timeout?”) – and compliance.

Just as an aside, she seems to allege that most of speak with a lot of vehemence and emotion; hence her constant use of exclamation marks!!

She then cites what was in her mind a painful story that led to her epiphany in parenting theory – and, of course, a new book.

It was at the end of a play date and she asked her for-year-old daughter, Jules, to thank the other mom for having her over. After a little prodding and encouragement Jules mumbled a thank you. I’m sure we are all familiar with such a situation and response. What is new is Ms Lehr’s reaction: “My heart sank. My sparkling daughter seemed so kowtowed. It was like I was a ventriloquist and Jules, my dummy.” (I don’t mean to seem judgmental but the author seems prone to extreme emotional reactions to fairly mild situations!)

If Jennifer Lehr was dealing with teenagers then I would probably agree with her that control and compliance are not the best strategies or goals.

But she’s talking about four year olds. Four year olds are not just short adults. They’re children! (My turn to use exclamation marks!) They aren’t mature enough to deduce solely from our behavior how to act. And they aren’t disciplined enough or motivated enough to act on this information even if they have superior powers of deduction. Four year olds need their parents to tell them what to do and when to do it. And to ensure that they follow through.

This is the job of parents of four year olds, a job we can’t abdicate despite Ms. Lehr’s innovative theory and writings. I confess that I don’t really understand why Ms. Lehr’s “sparkling daughter seemed so kowtowed” by the simple request to say thank you. It doesn’t seem that onerous or demanding. Is Ms. Lehr just seeing what she wants to see? Is she projecting? Is she making a mountain out of a molehill?

Hard to say but even if the author is correct and her daughter was subdued by the admonition to express gratitude, so what? Maybe she didn’t like being told what to do. Maybe she was resentful. Maybe she didn’t want to do it. But expressing gratitude and appreciation is a basic positive character trait that parents need to instill in their children, whether they resist it or not, whether they sparkle with excitement at the discovery or not.

It is our responsibility to teach the lesson of gratitude in a clear and unambiguous way. A four year old may not be thrilled in the moment but she’s being shaped into a polite, appreciative adult. Parents need to look to the future and not get too caught up in a child’s fleeting reaction.

Ms. Lehr rails against the idea of this “parentspeak” but none of us would probably be who we are today without it. And I venture to say that the world would be full of a lot more spoiled brats.

I think the world needs a lot more expressions of gratitude, not less, from people of all ages – even if it’s not always expressed with superlatives and enthusiasm.

About the Author: Emuna Braverman

Please check out Emuna’s new book A Diamond for Your Daughter – A Parent’s Guide to Navigating Shidduchim Effectively, available through Judaica Press

Emuna Braverman has a law degree from the University of Toronto and a Masters in in Clinical Psychology with an emphasis on Marriage and Family Therapy from Pepperdine University. She lives with her husband and nine children in Los Angeles where they both work for Aish HaTorah. When she isn”t writing for the Internet or taking care of her family, Emuna teaches classes on Judaism, organizes gourmet kosher cooking groups and hosts many Shabbos guests.