When I had five children in five years, there were times when I was exposed to a grotesque symphony of noise and whining that penetrated my brain, causing an internal vibration. Well beyond the phase of yelling or crying, my eyes glazed over, as I stood frozen with my mind throbbing, "MALFUNCTION, MALFUNCTION," over and over again.
I created a term for this, complete with a catchy acronym: IFOM (pronounced eye-fom) - Interior Freak Out Moment. I spent a long time trying to figure out how I could avoid these incidents, being that it was the climax to the song...I Can't Do This! And after extensive personal research in childhood development, complete with a home study expanding just beyond a decade, I've come to the conclusion that there are seven effective ways to prevent the occurrence of an IFOM.
1. Drop the Personal Agenda. I used to try to "fit in" illustrating, writing, cleaning, business/important calls, etc., while the toddlers were playing nearby. I soon realized that this was the overture to my personal hell. The needs of the littles became deterrents to all I wanted to accomplish. My tone would resonate with annoyance and my patience became nonexistent. My short, exasperated responses to my children were mirrored by my impressionable babies and soon, they would become more irritable and would turn on each other, screaming and fighting (which would then take my splenetic state to new heights) - a perfect setting for an IFOM. When I laid aside my expectation of getting anything done while in the midst of a bambino bash, I was able to face the tasks of caring for them with grace and even joy... and if by some miracle I was able to get some work or personal items accomplished, I considered it a huge bonus and felt pretty good about it. Otherwise, I'd save the items on my personal agenda for nap times, showtimes (which was limited) or after the kids had finally been put down for the night.
2. Simplify Your Home - Strip it Down. Cast out the clutter. If you're like me, you might be affected by the state of cleanliness of your humble abode. My youngest children turn our home into some sort of bizarro world. Everything in the cupboards needs to be taken out, closed drawers need to be open (except if you're trying to put something in them, then they need to be pushed closed), food needs to be thrown on the floor, and floor lint needs to be put in your mouth, every single toy in the house needs to be displayed on the display mat (which is the floor), some toys go in the display cabinet (which is the toilet). Living in this sort of environment is expected with little ones (although child locks and gates can help a little), but it can push you to your personal limit and put you at high risk for an IFOM. So, simplify your decorum and strip down on excessive items. Limit the number of toys your children have access to at any given time. I used to have a shelf full of puzzles (silly, self-torturing parent). The clean up of a bunch of mixed up puzzle pieces all over the floor is downright cruelty to parents - as is trying to keep your little ones focused if you have them assist you in the tedious task. I now have only a few puzzles, hidden in an undisclosed location, and will pull out one for them from time to time. I'm trying to limit items in drawers and on surfaces, making for an easier clean up and keeping my sanity intact.
3. Simplify Your Life. We are in the midst of an over-scheduling crises of epidemic proportions! Stress and anxiety are at an all time high with the demands we place on ourselves. With children, we can easily fall prey to thinking we need to fill their lives to the brim with scheduled activities, especially those run outside the home. I think most parents can attest to the mental strain experienced when you are running from place to place, ensuring all the requirements and needs are met to engage in the various activities (bringing equipment, footwear, clothing, supplies), cleaning up surprise messes or outfits that were clean two minutes beforehand, squeezing in appointments, all the while dealing with surprise obstacles that often arise in life: sick kids, car breakdowns or empty tanks, needs of friends or extended family. All this puts parents into a fragile state and if you're tired, worn out or spread thin from trying to meet too many of those demands, you are priming yourself for a serious IFOM. Scale it down. Choose the activities that really matter to your family and invest in them, but learn to say no to the others. Resist comparing yourself to other families. You don't have to have your children in everything! Pope Francis recently advocated for fathers to "waste time" with their children, which is hard to do when your day is full of commitments outside the home, or chock full of extra curriculars! But he's right, children crave that time with their parents. And we desperately need it too!
4. Find the Humor in it. This! There have been moments when I could either cry out in desperation like Bastian trying to name the Child Empress in the NeverEnding Story (sorry for the total geek metaphor), or laugh. I'm really trying to choose the laugh option more and more. My two year old would have me in an asylum if I didn't appreciate the humor of her ways. Today was one of those days. She had been sneaking food all day. We had a lot of extra treats being the Feast of the Assumption. I was about to blow my top when I caught her for the umpteenth time. She had snuck a cupcake into the mud room and was looking at me in terror. But I stopped when I realized that she had made a banquet table out of the bench. She was using a shoe box as a chair and had a flip flop as her plate. A boot sitting on the bench served as a vase and she had stuck in a few fake flowers. She had even pulled in a step stool from the bathroom, as though she was ready for a guest to join her... sure enough her four year old brother walked in and said, "Oh, is this my party?" It was pretty cute. She still got a time out... and I was forced to eat the cupcake (it would have been wrong to let her have it). But I appreciated the humor of it all and it really helped me keep my cool. Oh, oh, oh, and I also laughed today when my two month old spat up a frothy, white ocean into my freshly-washed hair. For the WIN!
5. Give Yourself a Time Out. There were times when I felt like I was going to completely lose it. If my husband was around, I knew to enthusiastically hand off the torch and run straight for the shower or out the door. If I was on my own, sometimes it meant making sure everyone was safe in their cribs/rooms/pack n' play and taking a moment to either find a quiet area in the house to regroup, or perhaps to sit outside on the porch and sing the whole last act of Phantom of the Opera... it's a fun option. IFOM preventation time outs may also include scheduled weekly date nights and a monthly girl's night out. Where my girls at?
6. Eat, Sleep and Be Merry! We are much more likely to hit the cray button if we're sleep deprived, malnourished, or generally caught in blah mode. Want to prevent an IFOM? Find ways to make sure you're getting enough sleep (I know easier said than done), remember to eat (I remember too much), and fill your love tank. My love language is words of affirmation, so I rely on my husband and those close to me for encouragement to keep me going strong. If your language is touch, than you may need to cuddle up to your spouse. Whatever it is that sustains you, seek it out. Make sure your spouse is aware of what your love language is and find out his or her language too so you can help fill each other's tanks and thrive in spite of the chaos.
7. Pray. I'm convinced that parenting requires supernatural graces. The things we face are not for the faint of heart, so we need the strength of our faith. In the moments leading up to an IFOM, throw your head back and send up a prayer. Say it out loud - it might come out louder than you intend and it might just sound like, "HEEEEELP ME LORD!", but it may be good for your kids to see how you turn to God when you're struggling. Persevere in your daily prayer life to help equip you each day. My husband and I pray the rosary daily. When we made this commitment, my instances of IFOMs significantly decreased. His grace can sustain us through all things, if we just keep remembering to ask.
I haven't had an IFOM incident in years, which I'm really hoping means that God has been able to refine me to some extent. When I think back on my earlier years as a parent, I fully admit that nothing I had ever experienced beforehand was able to stretch me, try me and bring me to my knees quite like the encounters with the little beings sporting 50% of my DNA. - and thank God for that, because it was the perfect posture for much-needed humility and prayer.