This essay was originally published in Glennon's New York Times Bestseller CARRY ON, WARRIOR.
I have four hundred books about how to relieve stress in parenting. I haven’t read any of them, but I keep them on my shelf so visitors to my home will understand what a dedicated parent I am. Parenting is as conducive to reading as it is to meditation or knife juggling or a good chess game. I think the only people who have time to read parenting books are people with no children. We should ask them things. Or not, because you don’t need a book to fix to parenting stress -- you just need a paper bag.
Let me explain: Here’s what our evening looked like last night, after Craig and I suggested that everyone had to eat their dinners even though dinner was, admittedly, gross. One nanosecond before this moment, we were discussing Chase’s day at preschool and our upcoming weekend plans, laughing, and generally feeling like a lovely, well adjusted family. Then – this:
Now, the problem is that I am not good in these situations. There are mothers – my friend Gena comes to mind – who roll with these scenarios. When their kids tantrum, Gena’s facial expressions don’t change. Her eyes, weary smile, and demeanor suggest: “Oh well…kids will be kids,” and then she calmly does whatever needs to be done to diffuse the situation. This is not my first instinct.
My first instinct is to freak out. My first instinct is to remember that yes, this chaos is proof that I have ruined my life and the lives of everyone in my home and that we are a disaster of a family and that no mother, in the entire history of mothers, has ever been forced to endure the drama, decibels and general suffering of this moment. My instinct is to tear my clothes and throw myself on the floor and bawl and cry out worthless declarations like “I can’t TAKE this anymore!” My first instinct is to allow my anxiety and angst to pour out like gasoline on a raging fire and indulge in a full-on mommy meltdown.
This, Craig suggests, is not helpful.
So, after a few years of parenting, it became clear that I needed a strategy to help me regain my peace after I had already lost it. Because I am going to lose it, frequently. It is what it is and I am who I am. You say dramatic, I say passionate - tomato, tomato.
Enter Joan Didion.
In an essay called “Self-Respect” (part of her brilliant book Slouching Toward Bethlehem), Ms. Didion offers the only strategy that has ever consistently helped me regain my mommy peace once I’ve lost it:
“It was once suggested to me that as an antidote to crying, I put my head in a paper bag. As it happens, there is a sound physiological reason, something to do with oxygen, for doing exactly that, but the psychological effect alone is incalculable. It is difficult in the extreme to continue fancying oneself Cathy in Wuthering Heights with one’s head in a food fair bag. There is a similar case for all the small disciplines, unimportant in themselves; imagine maintaining any sort of swoon, commiserate or carnal, in a cold shower.”
Yes, Ms. Didion, yes. It’s the little things. The little disciplines that help us get through the day and regain peace. It’s not necessarily a different career or parenting philosophy or neighborhood or child or personality or spouse that we need. Sometimes it’s a deep breath, a bath, a glass of water, a walk outside, or a paper bag.
I now store paper bag hats on all three floors in my house. And when everyone starts losing their minds, I put on my bag and breathe and hide. Tada! Instant quiet time, oxygen, and a reminder that things are not necessarily as dramatic and horrible as my kids or jumpy head might suggest.
Here are a couple more pictures taken in phase two of the family tantrum, when we had moved things over to the couch for a change of scenery.
I draw smiley faces on my bags because I know that a large portion of my kids’ mommy memories will include these bags, and I’d like them to be smiley memories. Also, I love how the smiley face makes me look content, even though inside I am scowling and hyperventilation and ruing the day I was born. I think the thumbs up gesture really completes the effect. One piece of advice: if you decide to employ this strategy in your home, don’t be tempted to cut out eye holes. I tried it once, and it ruins everything because, well, eye holes mean you can still see the carnage, and the carnage can see your maniacal eyes.
No eye holes.
I’m just saying that it’s helpful to adopt “small disciplines” to remind oneself that parenting is much too important to be taken seriously all the time.
Carry On, Warriors.