Like most new parents, Hillary Frank dove into parenting advice books after her daughter Sasha was born. “I was reading all these books about how to get her to sleep, how to soothe her, how to feed her, and they were all making me feel like I was failing,” she says. “And I was at the most vulnerable time in my life.”
Not only was Frank caring for a newborn, a difficult delivery and recovery had left her nearly confined to her living room for her daughter’s first two months.
The techniques she was reading about weren’t working for her, and she felt like either she was doing them wrong, or there was something wrong with her or her child. But after a couple of years of parenting, she discovered that what worked best for her didn’t come from books. Her parenting wins came through trial and error, or from moments of desperation.
Parenting well — or doing anything well, really — is almost impossible when you’re exhausted and stressed. Frank’s book includes two chapters, “The Art of Soothing a Screaming Child” and “The Art of Tricking Your Kid into Self-Babysitting” filled with tips for getting some sleep and quiet time in your day.
One of her favorites is this game from Maggie in Lynchburg VA:
Parenting is hardest when you’re sick and just need to lie down, but you have a toddler who hasn’t yet developed empathy and independence. My solution is to come up with games that require me to lie still with my eyes closed. My personal favorite is What’s on My Butt?, which involves the kid finding household objects and putting them on my butt while I lie facedown on the couch. I then have to close my eyes and guess what’s on my butt. It’s a hit: Kids love saying “butt,” and I love naps.
Others involve white lies, like the tip from one parent who has nap/quiet time every day from 1 to 3 p.m. If they are out past 1 p.m. she resets the bedroom clocks to 1 p.m. to guarantee herself two hours of quiet time in her own house every day.
And one parent discovered that the voice behind her car’s GPS soothed her baby to sleep, so she would ask the GPS to recite her contacts list.
My personal favorite is What’s on My Butt?, which involves the kid finding household objects and putting them on my butt while I lie face-down on the couch ... It’s a hit: Kids love saying “butt,” and I love naps.
Frank says that a key thread running through the ideas was that parents relied on their own creative instincts. “The ideas in the book encourage you to tap into your own creativity and to trust yourself as a parent,” she says.
A lot of parenting media falls into two camps, she points out. There’s the clean, Pinterest/Instagram version of parenthood, and then there’s the opposite — where parents get braggy about failing.
The ideas compiled in the book look for a third path. “Maybe your fail is actually a win,” she says. When parents find that nagging, yelling, and punishing aren’t working, they look for creative solutions.
One son called his mom out on hiding vegetables in his food and refused to eat them. So now she makes “fancy dinner,” with china dishes, crystal goblets, and of course, dim lighting — so her son can’t see the vegetables she’s mixed in with his food.
Another kid decided he only liked takeout, so his mom stocked up on Chinese takeout containers at a restaurant supply store and served homemade dinners in them.
And one mom feeds her 4-year-old daughter’s doll habit by finding a stock image of, say, Elsa, online, printing it on heavy paper and covering it in packing tape. She calls them “printouts” and her daughter loves them.
You can’t very well tap into creative solutions to parenting challenges if you’re on the edge of a meltdown yourself, so Frank devotes a chapter to “The Art of Keeping Your Cool.” Kids will push your buttons, and you have to figure out how to deal with your anger and frustration. “There are some tips that generally involve diversion toward laughter before things get too out of control,” Frank says. “That doesn’t work if you’re too far gone.”
One mom keeps what she calls “Demon Mommy” at bay during long afternoons. She piles her four young kids in her minivan, grabs everyone fast food at the nearest drive-through, and just drives. The kids are all strapped in and separated from each other, and sometimes after they eat they all fall asleep. “It definitely calms me down as I sit alone and untouched in the front seat, enjoying my coffee and a drive-through treat,” she says.
Other tips provide ways to stay centered. One parent plans ahead so she doesn’t get defensive when she hears to the inevitable “I hate you,” from a child. Instead, she replies, “Not as much as I love you.”
Parents also use mantras like, “My life will not always look this way,” to manage the stressful times. One parent suggested a time/age/struggle fill-in-the-blank strategy to gain perspective: “This is the last Thursday when my baby is six months, three weeks old and won’t nap because he is overtired.”
“Kids love to play,” Frank points out. That’s an advantage you have as a parent that you don’t always remember when things get intense. “If you catch yourself before you get too out of control and you remember your kids just want to play, you have a lot of options available to you,” she says.
Frank adapted an idea another parent had shared to squelch bickering during a playdate. “A mom wrote about doing a yoga handstand. I can’t do that, but I can still do a tripod headstand,” she says. She tried it, and the kids immediately stopped bickering and asked her to teach them how to do it.
One mom navigates the checkout line candy gauntlet by creating a matching game. Her children get to pick up the candy that’s in the wrong location and place it with its “friends” in the right spot. They were happy to play this game well into their elementary school years.
And one family came up with the rule that their daughter could apply as much lipstick as she wanted when they hiked together. She was happy to tag along, as long as she could smear her entire face bright red.
The moral? Whether it’s hacking potty training, getting a teenager to come home before curfew, or finding a quiet moment to connect with your partner, you’ll face parenting struggles. Stay calm and creative and you’ll figure it out. Trust yourself.