No book, mentor or well-meaning friend could have fully prepared us for it. No manual, advice or class could have made us fully ready.
We had five kids in less than eight years. Our first was born one year and four days after our wedding date.
As much as I would love to tell you our parenting journey has been filled with unending joy, it hasn't. Stress has been a present reality.
It has shown up in small ways like forgetting to move the dumb elf or in potty-training mishaps. And it's been present in big ways like four looming weddings to fund or broken hearts over friendships.
We're learning to fight for increased joy in our family. And put stress in its place. Where it belongs.
Here are seven ways to reclaim joy in your parenting journey:
1. Choose It.
Easy to read, harder to live. But in the midst of the chaos, uncertainty or frustration, stress is the easy answer. Imagine the scene we all know too well. We wake up tired after hitting the snooze button a few times. We rush the kids downstairs for a hurried breakfast. Already late for a meeting, we load the car for school only to find out bags weren't packed, lunches weren't made, teeth weren't brushed, hair wasn't done, clothes don't match, feelings are hurt, and tempers were flared. Stress leads to anger and words we later regret. This is a minor example of a much deeper reality. We allow stress to consume and define us, but it's a choice every bit as much as joy is. Circumstances may not change, but your attitude sure can. Choose joy.
2. Quit Trying to be Superman or Superwoman.
No one has it all figured out. Or has it all together. We often set unrealistic expectations for ourselves as parents. The right school, the ideal friends, the perfectly-coordinated schedule, well-adjusted kids. Stop. Our family has learned to embrace not having it all together. Real life is happening there anyway, and we don't want to miss it.
3. Be Present: They Want You.
This truth hit me hard at the park one day. My sweet seven-year-old, on a beautiful fall day, said to me, "Dad, put your stupid phone away." Ouch. Point taken. How often do we exchange the physical for the virtual? The meaningful for the perceived urgent? The memory for the fleeting? Our kids want us. The engaged, present, emotionally connected us.
4. Buy a Cat. I despised cats. Until my family begged to bring a kitten home from their cousins' farm. I blamed allergies, but really I didn't want the stress and burden of another living thing in our home. We already had seven humans, a dog, and a bearded dragon lizard thing. But you know what, the cat increased the joy in our home. She's hilarious. And I take selfies with her now. It may not be a cat for you, but find something that will increase the amount of joy around the house. And buy it. Don't restrain out of selfishness.
5. Build Community.
In isolation, stress grows like a cancer. Worry overtakes you when you're alone. Lock arms with other parents. None of us have all the right answers, but we're all in this together. And guess what? If you're open to sharing your struggles and shortcomings, you'll get a lot more "me too, thanks for sharing" than you will get judging.
6. Stop Comparing.
We've all done it. It starts innocently enough. A quick scroll through Instagram. Then the comparison seeps in and starts to sound like, "If only I had that vacation, that car, that wife, that house, that boyfriend, that kid, that job, that opportunity, that career, that friend, that life." The edited, non-messy lives we view on a screen look more put-together than our unedited, messy real lives. Comparison fuels the flames of stress and robs you of joy.
7. Lighten Up. Among many more significant things, in 11 years as a dad, I have: caught throw up in my hands, stepped in poop barefooted, been pooped on, peed on, punched in the you know whats, head-butted while not looking, bitten, woken up at least 200,000 times in the night, and farted on. The pre-dad version of me would have been terrified of this list. The 11 years in dad version of me can't wait for this list to grow.
A wise man once said, "the days are long, but the years are short."
We're 11 years into this parenting journey. In another 11 years, our oldest will be wrapping up college and our baby will be a teenager.
We're refusing to allow this season, as short and sweet as it is, to be defined by stress, anxiety and worry.
Instead we're choosing joy. It's worth it.