Is this the secret to finally being a happier parent?

Skeptical but open-minded, writer Leah McLaren signed up for help with the hardest job she's ever done: parenting. The results surprised her.

Photo: iStockphoto

Years ago, before I’d had kids, I had dinner with a girlfriend who told me she’d started seeing a therapist.

I was surprised. Outwardly, her life seemed perfect. She had a loving stable marriage, a thriving career and two happy, healthy young children. What was driving her to spend fifty minutes on the counselling couch each week for fee of $130 a session?

“My kids,” she said. “They’re driving me nuts. Sometimes, when I’m with them all day, I don’t even recognize myself. I have to lock myself in the bathroom to avoid screaming at them and completely losing control.”

I remember marvelling at this disclosure and thinking how utterly at odds it was with the version of my girlfriend I saw both in person and on social media.

This, obviously, was before I had children myself.

6 ways to be a more consistent parent Little did I know then the havoc that becoming a parent can wreak on your mental and emotional health—even when everything goes to plan and you get the thing you’ve always most wanted (that is, a happy, seemingly “perfect” family).

It’s perhaps not surprising then that there’s been a stratospheric rise in counselling and coaching services for parents in recent years. I don’t just mean “parenting workshops” (where they teach you how to make a reward chart and set consistent boundaries in the home) but therapeutic professionals who specialise in intensive one-on-one counselling for new parents.

According to the New York Times, many of the big accountancy firms such as Ernst and Young and KPMG, as well as digital media giants like Twitter, have begun offering free coaching to employees going through the profound transition of new parenthood.

If you seek out help privately, the options are virtually endless, from intensive family therapy workshops, to the highly specific goal-oriented cognitive behavioural therapy for parents to transformational life coaching geared at specific child-rearing issues such as matrescence (a woman’s physical and emotional identity shift into motherhood) to the complexities of parenting an adolescent. Parenting therapy, it’s safe to say, is officially the new couples therapy.

And in many ways, “parent counselling” is much more sensible than “marriage counselling.” After all, you can always find a way to get out of a relationship with a spouse or a lover, but your kids? That’s one relationship you can’t quit.

It was with this in mind that I responded to an ad that came up in my local family group on Facebook from a transformative life coach named Arantxa De Dios. According to her website, she specializes in helping mothers in particular “find a balance between career, social life, relationship and family time.” Being a parent is a challenge, she writes, “and it is important to know your stress triggers and what you can do to relax.”

De Dios is a certified transformational life coach and hypnotherapist who works primarily with mothers in my very family-friendly neighbourhood in West London. Interestingly, she has never had a male client. “For some reason, it’s always the mothers who seek me out,” she says.

A small, fashionably dressed Spanish woman, she arrives at my house on time and accepts a glass of water at my kitchen table.

First, she tells me her story. After having children herself, she went through a difficult period of transition. She had immigrated from Spain to be with her British husband and was struggling to become fluent in English. Having kids, she says, “made me feel and experience parts of myself I didn’t even know were there.” Which is, of course, diplomatic therapy speak for “drove me nuts.”

After experiencing several “huge breakthroughs” through her own therapy, she retrained as parenting life coach and now helps other women, mostly new mothers, with what is arguably one of the most difficult transitions—outside of adolescence—in an average human life. “Being a mother is bloody hard,” she says. “We need to do our best to grow this little person into a good person and yet they push us to the very limit of what we can stand, mentally, physically, emotionally.”

(Preach it sister.)

I tell her a few of my parenting issues. It’s banal and yet brain-breaking stuff: I find it hard to focus on my still-preverbal toddler, who has now started having regular tantrums that make want to sit on the floor and cry and scream along with at him. My nearly-six-year-old is a delight—except when he’s being a total jerk. We have great communication—apart from when he doesn’t listen to a single word I say.

De Dios nods understandingly, as life coaches do, and then we talk a bit about how hard it is to focus, fully and completely, on toddlers—these wilful little beings who demand our entire attention but with whom we can’t have a reasonable conversation can be a supreme test of adult human patience. “A breakthrough for me,” she says, “was learning to be present. When I’m with my kids I’m with them and when I’m working, I’m working.”

As an inveterate smartphone checker, I know this is good advice and that learning to slow down and practice being consciously present with my child is what I need to do.

As for the nearly-six-year-old, De Dios gives me a couple of exercises to try when attempting to persuade him to do what I want/need him to do, whether it’s putting on his shoes or making his bed. These mainly involve cajoling him into doing what I need him to do by making a game of things.

We also talk about the importance of “naming the feeling” when inevitable meltdowns occur. (Instead of telling children not to feel negative emotions, getting them to talk about them while they are happening in an effort to boost self-awareness and impulse control.)

In the end, my session with De Dios is a helpful reminder of many of the good things I already know about parenting but had stopped putting into practice. The effect, in the days afterward, was like a parental tune up. I was the same mother I always was, just a little more self-aware and in control.

Do my kids still drive me nuts? Of course. But with a bit of professional help, I’m confident I’ve got the intellectual and emotional tools to do right by them.

Read more:
How to keep your marriage strong when you have kids
The way we talk about motherhood is deeply alienating

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