Working parent stress? Try doing more (not less)
I don’t know about you but when I’m stressed, it is usually interactions with my family that make me realise I have a problem. I find myself excessively haranguing my son about his untidy bedroom (and by ‘excessively haranguing’ I mean shouting in a faux low volume). Or I end up in spiralling discussions about social politics with my husband (in which my real agenda is offloading my anger rather than changing the world).
It’s at those times when I am overcome with the drudgery of work-plus-parenting that I feel most stress. The sheer repetitiveness of it all wears me down and I start to feel claustrophobic. I want to scream, “I want more from life than this!“.
Kids take up so much time and space. It’s easy to push ourselves to one side, again and again, until we come screaming back for some attention. Because, in the middle of all the incessant demands of working parenthood, there is still a you – a person with strengths, needs, dreams, values, talents.
I talk a lot in my book about managing working parent stress. Partly, that’s because stressed-out parents over-react and under-connect. Managing your stress well will definitely help you be a better parent.
But it’s also because you matter. We matter. Putting yourself on hold (while running at full tilt) for 18 years is not an option.
Now, the traditional antidote to working parent stress is to do less. There are thousands of articles on how working parents should prioritise ruthlessly – or outsource or delegate – and gazillions of apps to help us do it. And yes, doing less important is in many ways (see Are you doing too much for your children?). But I’m coming to realise that managing stress is also about doing more, not less. Doing more of the things that make your spirits soar, that help you feel alive and that bring a sense of meaning and purpose and joy to your life.
When you step back and look at your weeks and months, which are the bits that bring you energy? Can you think of an activity that energises you (rather than depletes you)? Yes? Then please do more of it! If is something that connects with your personal strengths, exercises your talents, makes you feel good and leaves you elevated and inspired, then it will undoubtedly increase your wellbeing and is 100% worth the time. If it hits the sweet spot of also involving exercise and kindness and helps you feel like yourself again (and feel happy with who you are), even better.
Whether it’s volunteering or campaigning or painting or dancing or coaching the Under-7s football team that lights your fire, keep doing it as much as possible. If you need to prioritise to fit everything in, then stop hoovering. Or mow the lawn less often. But keep the good stuff. Because those things that make our hearts sing and our spirits soar are essential. They build happiness and make all the gruelling bits worthwhile.
And, if you can’t think of an activity that energises you like this, then it is absolutely not too late to start looking.
Like most working parents, over the years my own happiness has tended to sink to the bottom of my To Do list, jostled off by children’s needs. This year, probably for the first time, I have given myself permission to prioritise me. (And so ingrained is our image of self-sacrificing parenthood that even as I write that, I feel a pang of guilt that you will judge me for it….)
And it turns out that, right now, my happy place is in or on or next to water. Even the sight of my wetsuit hanging on its hook brings a smile to my face (as those of you who follow me on Instagram will have seen!).
This genuinely wasn’t something I expected. I didn’t know I was going to love cold water – and I’m very aware that open water swimming is not to everyone’s taste! But I have learned to love cold water because, for me, everything else disappears for a few precious moments. And I am just me. In the moment.
So much of being a working parent can feel like rush and drudgery – all those predictable routines and hurrying from one demand to the next. And with work, as well, it can feel like we are constantly on, permanently hyped up and drained at the same time, always focused on the next moment, the next task. When we connect with something that takes us off that relentless conveyor belt for a few moments and makes us feel like ourselves again, that’s truly precious.
We all need to do more things like that. And, maybe, in doing a bit more of what make us happy, we’ll also be gifting our children a precious lesson on how to be happy, too.