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Parenting a livewire is hard: Don't try to tough it out like I did

Back in the day, my husband and I used to love to watch The Eco-Challenge on the Discovery Channel, a five-day, 200-mile “race” where teams are required to navigate rough terrain on a dizzying ration of sleep and food with no GPS or phones, only a compass and a backpack.

Who in their right mind would sign up for something like this? Why would someone voluntarily agree to do something so incredibly difficult?

Then I realized that I had a lot more in common with these crazy people than I thought.

Back when my two livewires were little, parenting felt exactly like an endurance sport —except there was no map, no finish line, and no emergency helicopter to get me the heck out of the race when I simply could not take one more step.

I remember so many days when both children would awaken and were immediately more “fragile” than usual. Crying, crankiness, and sensitivity levels would all be at full blast. Their ability to navigate frustration or disappointment or transitions was all but gone, and I could tell it was going to be a day to batten the hatches for a bumpy road of meltdowns ahead.

In my house, normal days were hard and hard days were nearly impossible. As a rule, they required a lot from me. Engagement, interaction, calming, soothing. Their play was loud; their fights were even louder. Everything – happy or mad – was a big deal. There were no small events and even fewer quiet, peaceful moments.

The consistently high level of upheaval took a serious toll on my daily ration of emotional bandwidth. Trying to remain present and centered in the midst of all of the chaos was a massive lift. While every fiber of my being intended to be a calm, cool emotional anchor, that ability frequently eluded me. I would either expend tremendous amounts of energy trying to keep it together amidst the storm, or I simply couldn’t, and I’d get swept up in their emotional hurricane, and then we all were losing it. I just couldn’t keep up.

I didn’t seem to have whatever it took to be “more” for them, and lord knows they couldn’t (nor would I want them to) be “less”— less intense, less strong-willed, less, well...loud. It was up to me to grow and stretch FAR beyond what I thought I could do. I needed to go much farther, for much longer, and with much less sleep.

I frequently hated all this growing.

I’m not gonna lie: there were some very dark times when I thought for sure my body would crack open from fatigue and grief, and desperation. It was so much like labor, yet there was no beeping monitor or machine to tell me where I was in the process and there definitely was no foreseeable endpoint.

There were lots of days when my internal engine felt like it had run out of oil, and the parts began to grind and lock up and start to smoke. Everything felt difficult and grating. I knew I needed a break but could never figure out how to make things stop for a moment so I could recharge. Life just kept on going, and my kiddos kept needing the things that kiddos need from their mom.

What I didn’t know then is that there has to be oil in the engine. The Eco-Challenge athletes have to eat a granola bar now and then. A little oil or a small amount of food may not fill the tank completely, but it prevents complete breakdown.

I remember rejecting even the smallest break because it wasn’t enough (I thought at the time) to really help me. What I didn’t realize is that it would have helped a little, and not doing it would make things so, so much worse.

Here are a few things that, in retrospect, I wish I had considered when the road was long, steep and really, really rocky:

  • Get a little teeny break every day. I remember my husband would say, “Just go on a walk” and I would tearfully shoot back, “But I just have to come back to my life!” What I didn’t know is that, even though a walk wouldn’t be a cure-all, it could have been a cure-a-little. Many tiny breaks are so much better than no breaks…trust me.

  • Don’t wait until it’s too late. Don’t wait until the rough days to take a break. A little break each day, over time, may prevent total breakdowns because you keep your reserves from completely drying up. (I encourage parents to take 45 minutes every day and leave the house – or stay home and let their partner take the baby out for 45 minutes. We can all do 45 minutes.)

  • Actively cultivate a sense of self-compassion. Make sure you are taking time to bring awareness to how hard you are working and trying. It’s easy with livewires to feel like you’re constantly falling short of your goals. That goes with the territory of parenting a livewire. Actively give yourself props for working as hard as you are and know that you are getting it exactly right most of the time.

  • Actively seek out a supportive community. It really is impossible to parent without some kind of support; believe me, I tried to tough it out, and I would not recommend it. Do what it takes to find others who can support you. And when people offer to help, LET THEM.

This steeper, less well-marked path is not for the weak. Livewires demand a higher level of parenting skill and dedication, and they generally get it. Well done, you. You may feel a little like roadkill, and that’s also pretty normal. Do what you can to put a little gas in your own tank. Goodness knows you’re gonna need it.

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