How to instill grit—in parents

We often talk about building resilience in kids. But what about grown-ups? As I struggled with the transition back to work after maternity leave, I was desperate to get some more grit for myself.

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I know it’s rude to stare. But when I was pregnant, I couldn’t stop myself: I was fascinated by parents of multiple kids. I shadowed them at the park, watching them push their older kids on the swings with their babies snuggled in carriers on their capable chests and effortlessly change diapers on the bench while directing their toddlers to a stash of granola bars.

I wanted in on their secret. I was petrified that I couldn’t handle two. That fascination turned to panic when my second son, Alex, arrived. I gave birth like a champ, but my life fell apart a month later when the doctors couldn’t figure out why he still had jaundice. Was there something wrong with his red blood cells? Or his liver?

I was catapulted into a frantic schedule of doctor visits and lab tests, scrambling to find care for my older son, Nate. I pretended to have it together, but I was deeply shaken. Even after Alex was given a clean bill of health months later, I was still messed up. I felt a surge of anxiety every time I buckled the kids into their car seats, and I froze every time my husband had to work nights. Each day was a struggle and, as I headed back to work, my worries only increased: How could I possibly add a job to the mix?

We talk a lot about how to build resilience in kids. But what about parents? There had to be a way I could learn how to cope effectively with adversity and stress. I wanted to be calm and capable—I wanted what those professional-looking parents at the park had.

“Although some people might be naturally more resilient, everyone can learn to be resilient,” says April de Voy, a retired social worker and early-childhood educator (ECE) who lives in Guelph, Ont. A program developed by Jennifer Pearson and Darlene Kordich Hall aims to teach those resilience skills to Canadian parents and caregivers. Over the past 15 years, their Reaching In…Reaching Out seminars have helped thousands of people across Canada. I hoped it could help me, too.

De Voy is encouraging (she was an ECE worker, after all), and she tells me that resilience starts with learning to be calm under pressure. The next level is learning to check your thought patterns and replace them with healthier coping skills—parents who cope well in the face of adversity have learned to see stressful situations as opportunities to learn. “It takes about 30 days to form a new habit,” explains Pearson, “but once you practise those skills, you’ll start to feel better right away. The more you practise, the faster those resilience skills become second nature.”

Pearson and Hall outlined five exercises for me try. While it sounded a bit jargony, I was ready to try anything.

1. Remember to breathe
It sounds so simple: pausing, taking a breath and letting it out. “Often in stressful situations, we hold our breath and don’t exhale, and that’s where we release tension,” says Pearson. “It’s easier to access inner strength when we are calm and grounded.” By stopping to breathe, explains Pearson, you can take yourself out of the immediacy of a stressful situation and give yourself an opportunity to do something differently or ask for help.

When I heard the old trope about pausing to breathe, I kind of rolled my eyes. But then I tried it. I have to admit that it helps—especially the exhaling part. The first day I dropped Alex off at daycare, my chest was tight and my brain was buzzing. But after a few exhalations, everything seemed like less of an emergency.

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2. Check what you’re telling yourself about the situation
Self-reflection is a huge part of building resilience, explains Pearson. When you step back and notice what you’re telling yourself, you start to put your stressors into perspective. I realized that I tend to focus on how I’m feeling, so checking my thought patterns was new for me. Right away, I noticed that I feel more stressed out when I’m thinking about what I should be doing, what other people should be doing or how the world should be.

After a few weeks back at work, I realized that my most common thought was “My life is nothing but work. I work all the time, either at my job or for the kids. Life should be more fun than this.” I was ready for the next exercise.

3. Check the accuracy of your thoughts
Hall suggested that I ask myselfWhat am I saying to myself right now? Is it really true?” Check if there’s another way of thinking about it or doing it. When I checked the accuracy of my thoughts about returning to my job, I had to admit that I do, in fact, have many moments where I’m just playing or relaxing. I reminded myself that, while it may be overwhelming at times, the stress of the back-to-work transition would be temporary.

I tried to think about my struggles with work-life balance in a new way. Being with my kids is work in that I can’t do whatever I feel like, but I also find a lot of pleasure in the way they slow me down and get me out of my head. I get to actually see the dragonflies and clovers. I get to wrestle with my kids, breathe in their glorious scent and catch their infectious laughter. It doesn’t take much to shift the angle just the slightest bit and take in the joy of being with my boys.

4. Ask for help
Pearson and Hall suggest having “10 minutes dedicated to self-care.” I have to tell you, I hate that kind of advice. As an introvert, 10 minutes a day isn’t nearly enough time for me to recharge. But what really resonated for me was when Pearson described the countless interviews she does with parents. “For every single one of them, no matter the situation,” she stresses, “the key piece was increasing their capacity to ask for help and allowing themselves to know that it’s OK—we all need help sometimes.”

No one can do it alone. The “reaching out” part of resilience is about creating bonds with your partner and friends and finding a sense of belonging in your community. Just like an ash tree or a honeybee, we all need a healthy support network to thrive.

I resolved to put this step into action. I called my boss and asked him if I could go back to work only three days a week for the first six months to help ease the transition. It took me three weeks to find the courage to pick up the phone. I didn’t want my boss to see me as weak, but I did it and the effort paid off—we came up with a solution that worked for both of us.

5. Make a change
“Change is so hard for so many people because we don’t like uncertainty,” says Pearson, “but even a small step in the direction of making changes can make a big difference.” I picked some small steps that would help me recharge. When I was at work, I took a lunch break every day. I went for a walk by the nearby stream in Toronto’s urban ravine network or wrote. When I was at home, I reminded myself to slow down and get down to the kids’ level—smell Alex’s head or play Lego with Nate. One Friday night, I went out dancing. It felt so good to leave it all on the dance floor. My body belonged to me again instead of to the baby. I was happy, sweaty and vibrantly alive.

Not every day is that good, of course. I still shout at my kids and fight with my husband, and there are days I wish I could stay in bed. There’s a little voice inside my head that whispers “You’re not living up to your resilience practice and you’re a failure.” Then I remember what Pearson told me. “Resilience isn’t a trait; it’s an ongoing process. It’s something we do. We practise these skills our whole lives.” So I took a deep breath, exhaled and tried again.

Read more:
Why the practice of mindfulness is so important for children
This is Canada: What parenting looks like from coast to coast

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