It’s difficult for me to chime in on the sleep deprivation stories other parents share. Their experiences are sometimes humorous or slightly strange, and they’re typically caused by appropriate reasons like energized toddlers or crib climbers. My sleep deprivation stories are ugly and painful. They involve smashing my husband’s coffee pot and blowing through a red light. My sleep deprivation stories are filled with impatience, overreaction, and raised voices.
The most unhappy period of my life was when I deprived myself of sleep to tackle multiple page to-do lists and appear to have it “all together” to the outside world. In reality, my life’s goodness was buried beneath too many commitments, too many screens, and too many self-induced pressures to be all and do all.
Getting only four or five hours of sleep a night contributed to my transformation from a positive person to a critical one. Each day, I woke up the same way I went to bed: irritable, ungrateful, exhausted, and joyless.
Neglecting to give myself proper rest and self-care brought out the worst in me and contaminated the lives of everyone in my house. Thankfully, there was an unforgettable moment in time that allowed me to see the damage I was doing and provided a powerful motivator for change.
My older daughter had gotten a stool and was reaching for a snack on the top shelf of the pantry when she accidentally knocked over an entire bag of rice. As hundreds of tiny grains scattered in countless directions across the hardwood floor, I saw a look in my child’s eyes that took my breath away. She held the unmistakable look of fear.
What has become of me? I thought. My child made an innocent mistake, and she is terrified of my reaction.
That was not how I wanted my children to grow up. That was not the person I wanted to be. That was not how I wanted to be remembered after I was gone.
It was time to face the truth about why I stayed up so late every night to do far more than was necessary and at an unrealistic standard of perfection. I’d allowed my inner bully to dictate my thoughts and actions. That critical voice in my head was the one that pushed me to keep working, keep people pleasing, keep "never-enoughing" myself. It was the same voice that wracked me with guilt whenever I nurtured myself. Through daily prayer and restorative daily walks, I was given a three-word mantra to silence the negative dialogue and practice self-care: Only love today.
Whenever a critical thought came to my mind or my mouth, I would cut it off with the words: “Stop! Only love today.” Sometimes I said it 1,000 times a day, but it worked. Only love today became a voice of grace in my head, in my heart, and in my home. Only love today inspired me to lovingly connect with my children every night at bedtime. No matter how many mistakes we’d made during the day, we were able to end the day on a positive, peaceful note. This time of connection was important to them, but it was absolutely critical for me. It became my signal to turn off my brain and body and give myself the rest and sleep it needed to thrive.
I may not be able to chime in on funny sleep deprivation stories with other parents, but I’m grateful to be able to share these eight strategies for end-of-the-day peace and connection. Unlike regrets and broken glass, love and forgiveness offer us a soft place to lay our heads at night.
8 Ways to End the Day in Peace & Connection:
1. Have “Talk Time”
Although my older daughter coined this term when she was a toddler, it is just as important to her 12-year-old heart now as it was then. It means for a handful of minutes, I push away my distractions, my to-do’s, my worries and regrets to be offer my undivided presence to my child. No matter how tired, stressed, or distracted I am going in, I come out feeling connected, peaceful, and renewed. It costs me about ten minutes, but the pay off is huge. I get to hear the topics on my child’s heart and mind. Although I am grateful for this nightly ritual today, something tells me I will be even more grateful in ten years when I see the beautiful results of this daily investment.
2. Have “Question Time”
My younger daughter loves Question Time. For ten whole minutes she is free to ask the questions she ponders and for ten minutes she has a totally focused, undistracted parent ready to explore and answer the questions of her heart. Sometimes the topics are light-hearted. Where do magic bunnies live? Other times they are heavy: What is heaven like? I always answer them to the best of my ability with the hopes that she may continue to turn to me for answers.
Isn't that what all kids truly long for—to have the freedom to ask the questions of life? Is there any better gift we can offer our children at the end of the day than to allow them to ask questions without fear of judgment, without fear of being hurried along, without fear of being ignored?
3. Do a Heartbeat Check
My children love when I lay my head on their chests and tell them what I hear. While one girl’s heartbeat check brings laughter so intense that hiccups result, the other child’s heartbeat check inspires solemn talks of surgery, kidnapping, and terrorists. Yet, there is one commonality: The Heartbeat Check offers solace. No matter how crazy the day … no matter how discouraged I feel … no matter how dismal the state of our nation, the heartbeat check offers refuge. I am certain there is nothing more hopeful than the sound of the human heart.
4. Offer an Apology
Several years ago a reader of my blog wrote to me and said, “Our family was ripped apart by the inability of a man to say, ‘I'm sorry’ and ‘I was wrong.’” Her story helped me face a painful truth: I needed to apologize more. The nightly tuck in offered me this chance. Although it was difficult for me to apologize directly after I acted poorly, it wasn’t too late to apologize later. I began apologizing for things that happened earlier that day and things that happened in the past. Admitting my wrongdoing and asking for forgiveness lifted a weight—not only for me, but also for my children. It is not uncommon for them to apologize to me in the sanctity of their darkened room because I have modeled it. An added bonus is that we are better able to talk about about how we plan to do things differently in the future when we are both calm and open to suggestions.
5. Name Twenty Things
One night my younger daughter asked me to say twenty things I love about her. Although I had dishes in the sink, work to do, and an aching back, I did it. And I watched her smile widen with each positive word. It took less than two minutes, but something tells me she will remember this list for a long time. I have made it a tradition every few months or so to do “twenty things” out loud as my children grow. The reaction is always the same: pure joy.
6. Remember the Power of Presence
Maybe the connection between you and your loved one is strained. Maybe nothing on this list feels right. In that case, remember the power of presence. R emember you don’t have to have all the answers or the ability to “fix” a troubled heart. Sometimes our mere presence is enough. Simply say, “Can I sit with you? I love you and want you to know I’m here for you.” Our mere presence has the power to change a dismal situation into one of hope.
7. Offer Soul-Building Words
Perhaps time is running short and you only have a few seconds to say goodnight. Make it count by speaking words that nourish the human heart and foster growth and acceptance:
- You make my life better.
- I love spending time with you.
- Seeing your face makes me happy.
- I am amazed at how much you are handling right now.
- I see your light & will do all I can to protect it.
8. Count to 50 in Your Head
Early on in my journey to slow down and be fully present in my life, I found it difficult to oblige when my daughter said, “Stay a little longer.” That is when I would count. I would count to 50 or 100 in my head. Every time I mustered that little extra time, my child would say something important, funny, or simply whisper, “I love you.” I would be thankful I stayed. I would be thankful I didn’t miss that moment to accomplish things that don’t really matter in the end.
Rachel Macy Stafford is the founder of handsfreemama.com, where she provides simple ways to let go of daily distraction and grasp what matters most in life. She is the New York Times bestselling author of HANDS FREE MAMA. Rachel's latest book, HANDS FREE LIFE, describes how she finally started living life, instead of managing, stressing, screaming, and barely getting through life. Through truthful story-telling and life-giving Habit Builders, Rachel shows us how to respond to our loved ones and ourselves with more love, more presence, and more grace.