For anyone who needs to hear this: We didn’t stop being human when we became parents.
But somewhere along the way, we tend to lose ourselves a bit. It’s like the Where’s Waldo version of existence, trying to find ourselves amongst the colorful and busy pages of life with kids.
The more animated the pages become, the harder it is for us to see ourselves. The foreground becomes so bright that we fade further and further into the background until only bits of us are visible and recognizable.
Our focus, time, and effort surround these little humans, and for good reason. They depend on us to survive. No pressure, right?! It is often a thankless job, one that we wouldn’t trade for the moon and the stars.
All this AND it is hard as hell. We become so dialed into their needs, wants, and desires that we forget our own. The simple luxuries of eating at an enjoyable pace or peeing alone seem like a rainbow - beautiful and always out of reach.
Nothing fills you and drains you quite like being a parent. I think that in our deep, dedicated love for our children, we lose sight of self-love, or at least it moves down on the priority list.
Of course, when our children are babies they require more of our time, even during toddlerhood too, but that mentality seems to stick and stack. Too often, we shelf our needs, wants, and desires way back in the pantry on the top shelf no one can reach, far behind everyone else’s. Sometimes we even forget they are there.
I am here to say, it is time to dust them off.
As with all relationships, which parenting most certainly is, there must be some sort of balance. When we neglect ourselves in this way, we think we are doing our kids a service, but I dare to say that when we take ourselves out of the race completely, ongoingly, our children actually suffer. It leaves us feeling burnt out, tapped out, resentful, and on edge. When our overwhelm becomes so big that it engulfs us like a blue whale (which, fun fact, is the biggest whale of the sea), we become parents we don’t want to be.
We aren’t angry parents. We are just parents with unmet needs, lagging skills, and lots of overwhelm - both sensorially and emotionally.
When We Feel Overwhelmed
Just like our children, we can experience emotional overwhelm where our emotions hijack our ability to think and act rationally. We all have triggers that tantalize us down the rabbit hole of reactivity. And while most of us want to be calm, patient, and responsive, many of us lack the skills.
We weren’t taught how to be mad as children, we were taught not to be. We weren’t taught what to do with unpleasant emotions like sadness, disappointment, and frustration beyond suppressing them. So you can only imagine how tricky it is to practice it now that we have a tantruming toddler or teen. Their immaturity provokes ours and before you know it, the whole dang house is acting absurd.
Also, just like our children, we have unmet needs. Lots of them. Here are a few things we often lack:
- Adequate food/water
- Mental and physical rest
- Social connections
- Support systems
- Opportunities for movement
- Time for hobbies
- Creative outlets
Parents can also experience sensory overwhelm. Many of us don’t know this about ourselves, and even more of us overlook the significance of sensory overwhelm in our everyday lives, but it greatly impacts our parenting.
The laundry is piled up, there are toys everywhere, my kids are turned up to ten with screaming and running, the TV is on, my toddler is tugging on my shirt, and I’m cooking dinner all while helping my oldest with her homework.
In these moments, it feels like everything is coming at me like a hurricane. My body is screaming HELP! What happens instead is that I end up yelling at my kids and partner and then crying in the bathroom because I feel like a monster. What is wrong with me?!
Nothing. This is overwhelm.
According to research professor and author Brené Brown, overwhelm is what happens when life comes at us at a pace that is too quick for our nervous system. Our perception of how we are coping with what is happening sends us into a state of extreme stress where we can no longer function.
Brown says that the only real solution to overwhelm is nothingness. When you feel overwhelmed, commit yourself to stop what you are doing and take a break, because then, neurobiologically, your body knows what to do - shut down. This gives your nervous system time to reset.
“True overwhelm,” says Brown, “is such that you are unable to even maintain the capacity to tell those around you what you need.” Her solution is to come up with a simple phrase to signal those around you of your need for a mental, emotional, and physical break. Instead of snapping, say, “I’m blown” and then step away. Let everyone else pick up the slack for a bit.
When your brain has shifted and you can think more clearly, then reflect on what you want, need, and desire. Get clear on these things within yourself. Ask, “What do I need to feel safe enough to be my best self?”
Being loved by yourself and others is about being seen and understood. When we understand ourselves it is then that we can translate it to those around us. This requires us to notice and put language to our emotions, needs, and wants. When we can do that, we move into connection not only with ourselves but with the system that surrounds us.
The best time to communicate with your circle of support is when you (and they) are regulated and can clearly share how you feel. Brown says, “Instead of finding ways to cope with stress, create a life that needs less coping.” This may involve setting boundaries, delegating, and knowing when to say no.
When it comes to saying no, Brown encourages us to ask, “What do I want to be accountable for?” Oftentimes, we want the control but not the accountability. Evaluate if you are offering yes responses because it brings you joy or if it is because of other factors like guilt, fear, or the desire to prove that you can do it.
While we may feel fragmented at times, we are still whole humans who have a birthright to feel what we feel and ask for what we need, and speak up for what we desire. That doesn’t go away when we become parents. It is so deeply ours - in our cells, our marrow, our fibers - that is part of who we are. We have just forgotten.
** For all the parents out there who don't have anyone to pass the baton to, the ones with limited resources, and the ones who live in a society built against them, read our follow-up to this article here: I Am Not An Angry Mom. I'm An Overwhelmed, Single Mom. Now What?