Wow, these last two years, huh? If only I'd known to write a book on Pandemics and Parenting. Unfortunately, I'm stumbling like everyone else - hoping I'm doing the right things to ensure my kids grow into kind, compassionate adults. I know they aren't in my care forever; I can't wrap them in cotton wool; they have to fail sometimes; and they're not going to get everything they want. This is one of the many hard things about being a parent.
Even though I know disappointment and failure can build resilience, I don't like it – for myself or my kids. And, there's so much pressure - to give our kids the best of everything and make sure they're happy. Guilt and a feeling of not enough can feel like constant companions.
Donald Winnicott, a pediatrician and psychotherapist, coined the term 'good enough mother' (because it was 1953 and dads didn't play an active role). Unfortunately, many of us equate 'good enough' to not enough. We worry that good enough doesn't meet the high standards we set for ourselves. But Winnicott was really onto something. His theory was that children actually benefit from imperfect parenting. Failing our kids in ways they can manage also teaches them to tolerate and manage discomfort. Once their emotional and physical needs are met: food, shelter, a safe space to express their feelings and ensuring we keep them from serious physical harm - letting them experience disappointment and discomfort here and there is actually healthy.
Consumerism tells us the best way to care for our kids is to give them everything they want. And to be fair, some 'stuff' does bring joy - for a time. But what our kids really want; the thing that grows them into kind and compassionate adults; what keeps them healthy; and what they remember most, is more of our precious time and undivided/undistracted attention.
That's a big ask in the midst of COVID. We're all stressed and tired of this pandemic. Giving more of yourself might seem like the last thing you feel able to do. But that overused cliché of putting on your own oxygen mask first holds true. When you look after your own mental health, you're able to show up more fully for the people around you. With that in mind, here are some tips to keep you and your whānau well and sustainable these holidays.
- Remember, less is more. Truly, it is.
- Do a Secret Santa exchange. This saves money and time as you're only buying for one or two adults, nieces, nephews or cousins.
- Gift your time with an activity voucher. A trip to the pool, a picnic in the gardens, one on one time, doing some art, or baking. Babies won't remember any of it except the care you're already giving them.
- Stockings can be filled with things kids need anyway like toothpaste, toothbrushes, underwear, socks, etc. I thought it was weird when my mother did it, but I do it for my kids now.
- Give to charity in lieu of giving material items. There's loads of ideas in last year's blog post, Happy Green Christmas – More Pleasure and Less Stress. Research shows that giving to others is not only good for the receiver but also increases feelings of nurturing and compassion for the giver – which is good for mental health.
- Consider yourself an equal priority.
- We know we should put ourselves first but that seems impossible with babies and little ones. How about putting yourself at equal priority? You deserve your own love and care as much as anyone else. And when you're filled up, you're able to show up more fully for the people around you.
- Make sure you're treating yourself with as much kindness as you'd treat your best friend (this includes the things you say to yourself).
- If you're trying to pull off the 'perfect' Christmas, don't even worry about it. Perfection is an arbitrary standard that's always out of reach. Lowering your standards means you have more time and energy for self-care.
- Plan Ahead/Think about what's likely to be stressful ahead of time.
- If you know things will get tense, make an exit plan. Create a code word or signal with your partner that means it's time to go. Escape outside or to another room if you need some space. It's fine to do that.
- Connect with someone that gets it. This may be your partner, or a friend or relative. You're not complaining, you're shoring up support. Who knows, they might need it too.
- If you worry about overdoing it with alcohol, set some limits beforehand. Ask for support. There is no shame in cutting back or not drinking at all. If alcohol is an issue for someone you love, have the courage to look after yourself and the compassion to support them. It's not an easy balance.
- Set and Maintain Boundaries.
- Boundaries are not to shut others out. They help minimise distress and resentment, and clarify expectations in order to avoid confusion. In the words of Brene' Brown, “clear is kind”.
- If topics come up during the holidays that are likely to create conflict, how do you want to handle it? Sometimes silence is wisdom. Sometimes you need to stand up for what you believe in. Have an idea of what works for you.
- If you're having house guests, set limits and assign roles and responsibilities. Have a courageous conversation and set your expectations. Who's cooking? Who's cleaning up? Who's used to not doing those things and how can that be approached? You're not being bossy or demanding or “too much”. You're being clear with your guests and compassionate to yourself.
- Cancelled Plans and Traditions
- Lots of people will be mourning not being able to see their families and not sure of the next time they'll be together. Allow yourself to be sad about that. Just because you're grateful about one thing doesn't mean you can't be sad about another.
- Find relief in the simple things. There have been beautiful examples throughout these last two years of people providing joy for each other: connecting via Zoom, singing from balconies in lockdown, Tik Tok dances that have gone viral. These are connection too.
- Stay active. When we feel down, it's easy to get in a rut. It's okay to rest, but when you're ready to move your body, make sure you do.
As we continue to navigate these strange times, I'm heartened by the words of The Grinch. When he found that taking away all the gifts didn't cancel Christmas, and Cindy Lou Who was still kind enough to invite him to dinner, he realised: Maybe Christmas doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas perhaps means a little bit more. Happy holidays.
Written by our wonderful friend Sonia Voldseth, a former lawyer turned mental health counsellor. She seeks to normalise being human. Sign up for her 10 Page Mini Guide: How To Manage Your Anxiety Like A Boss. You can find her on Instagram @sonia.voldseth.