Drowning in Chaos (4 Parenting Lifelines)

In this episode: A parent writes that she’s overwhelmed since the arrival of her third child. While she used to manage a reasonable schedule that allowed for chores, self-care, and one-on-one time with her kids, now the older ones whine and scream and demand her attention. Any semblance of order in her day “has completely gone out the window.” She says her household is in chaos, her kids are miserable, and that she’s simply burnt out. “I don’t enjoy being a mom right now.” She’s hoping Janet has some suggestions how to get through this very difficult period.

Transcript of “Drowning in Chaos (4 Parenting Lifelines)”

Hi. This is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today, I have an email from a mom. The subject line is “Dynamic Change — I’m Drowning.” She says her household has been absolute chaos since her third child was born. Her older children seem frustrated and miserable, and they’re very demanding, constantly fighting for her attention. She’s overwhelmed and definitely not enjoying being a mom right now.

Now, here’s the email I received from this parent:

“Dear, Janet. My house is pure chaos since having my third. He’s now 2.5 months. I’m home alone a lot because of my husband’s career. I used to have a set schedule that allowed for a house cleaning, self-care, and one-on-one time for both of my daughters. That has completely gone out the window. My almost six-year-old and two-year-old whine, scream, interrupt, et cetera, now. I’ve never had behavioral issues like this from them. They’re literally fighting for my attention.

My eldest voices that she needs me, and my two-year-old is extra whiny when I don’t hold her for a long period of time. They get very frustrated when I set boundaries and ask them to play alone for a while. I think it’s because they know they’ll never really get the quality time they need. I have very little time to give, and I’m so overwhelmed. I breastfeed, and baby has acid reflux, so my time is often consumed with him. I would love some suggestions of any kind because I’m burnt out and my girls are miserable. My house is chaotic, and I don’t enjoy being a mom right now. I feel guilty and responsible for their behavior change. Help.”

Okay, so wow, this family has a lot on their plate, and what I hope to do is to help reframe this situation for this mother a bit so that she feels less overwhelmed and maybe she even can find windows of enjoying being a parent right now. Since she’s feeling like she’s drowning in this situation, I want to frame my suggestions as lifelines.

The first one is 1) submit to this passage.

This family is in one of life’s passages. It’s a really tough, messy one, and that can be true with the first baby or the 10th baby. This is a different time of life. It sounds like this mother had a very organized life, and maybe she’s the kind of person that needs that or that thrives with a schedule that allowed for house cleaning, self-cleaning, and one-on-one time for both of her daughters. She says, “That’s completely gone out the window.” Yes, it has, and it needs to. It needs to shift. This mother will feel less overwhelmed if she can submit, let go, and allow herself to be in this passage.

It is a very difficult time, but it’s not forever. They will come out of this.

I can relate to this idea of submitting to a passage because, actually, I’ve just been in one with my third child, my baby graduating high school this past week. Please know that I’m not conflating this passage with the much, much more challenging passage that this family is in, but I had to realize that I wasn’t going to be able to keep up with my work. I was going to be leaving lots of unread, unanswered emails. At first, I was kind of holding on and feeling guilty about it and feeling bad about it.

Then I realized, you’re in a big, emotional passage here. Let go, and just allow yourself to be in this. Give yourself permission. Only then was I able to enjoy it and feel the sadness and the nostalgia and the excitement for my son and the whole mix of emotions, and accept this time of life. That’s what I would recommend that this mother and any family do.

This is true in any major transition that we go through, whether it’s moving houses, the end of the school year, having a baby, having a friend or relative that’s ill or maybe dying. Life’s passages. Different than what came before, and it’s different than what comes after. It’s important to let go and just be in this time of life.

The second lifeline that I’m offering is to 2) reframe expectations of herself and her children.

It sounds like this mother is expecting that she’s going to be able to keep all these things going that she had before the passage, like the house cleaning and the self-care and the one-on-one time for both of her daughters and is feeling guilty because she worries that her children are demanding those things and that she’s supposed to somehow be able to offer them when she can’t possibly.

What stood out for me in this note when I read it, what stood out the most is when she talks about that they’re getting frustrated when she sets boundaries and ask them to play alone. She says, “I think it’s because they know they’ll never really get the quality time they need.”

I want to strongly suggest that that is an untruth that this mother is telling herself. She’s definitely not responsible for any of the feelings her children have around this. They are reacting to this situation and the passage, not to something that’s lacking in this mother or some way that she might be neglecting them. She’s not.

Believing that we have to hold up everybody in the whole household and keep everyone content, never having another kind of emotion, and taking their demands so literally, “I want this, I want that,” and feeling that she’s letting them down when she can’t do that, that is where she’s drowning. Because what’s reasonable to expect for this passage is her children are going to have lots of emotions. The way young children express that often is through their behavior, through demanding, demanding, demanding.

Then we set those limits. We say, “You want me to play? I can’t play now,” and they get to release and vent the feelings that they have that are not around us playing with them in that moment but around the situation. That is what tips it off, what helps them to vent. It can be hard for us as parents because everything feels so literal when our children are saying this, and then we conclude, “Oh, we’re not playing enough, and this is our fault.” I totally understand how we can get stuck in those weeds with our children.

So to have reasonable expectations here, I would expect that she’s going to be, quote, “making” her children unhappy a lot of the time, and I say that in quote, “making,” because she’s not really making, but she’s allowing. She’s making room for them to share, ideally, and she can only do that when she feels comfortable about their experience.

Both of them sound right on track, the six-year-old and the two-year-old whining, screaming, interrupting, fighting for attention, demanding to play, demanding to be held, behavior issues. Yep. That’s all exactly what I would expect from children in this passage, feeling this shift, feeling the loss of what they had. The more they can express, the better. It’s all good.

What they need is not more quality time each day the way this mother’s defining it, but to be able to be accepted in their misery right now. (I’m sure there are also bright spots right now, but what this parent wants more help with is the misery.) If she’s taking all that on as her responsibility, there’s no way she’s going to enjoy this. So a lot of acceptance is the key, and then feeling so good about that venting that’s going on that she sets her boundaries with confidence, not with guilt. She expects that she’s going to get the screaming and the demands and the whining when she says, “No, I can’t hold you right now. I see you really want me to hold you.” Knowing herself that this isn’t about being held in this moment, it’s about these waves of emotion that her child is having.

By setting reasonable boundaries… reasonable meaning she can’t stop and sit and hold her all the time, there’s moments that she can, but a lot of times, she can’t. I certainly wouldn’t be carrying a two-year-old around while she’s got to do other things. That’s just going to wear this parent down, and for what? Because she’s trying to be everything to all people and fix her daughters’ feelings. That’s not the need that children have here. The need is not being held for hours or being played with. It is acceptance of where they are, seeing them.

And that brings me to the next lifeline, 3) reimagine connection and quality time.

This mother is used to the quality time that’s playing together or they’re having an enjoyable experience together. That is one kind and may be of short supply for this mother right now because she’s in a passage. But what she can give is an even more profound type of quality time and connection, seeing and accepting her children. So, not getting frustrated when the demands are coming at her.

We feel frustrated when we feel here’s a reminder that I need to do something that I can’t do or that I’m not doing enough, beating ourselves up with that. Instead, I would see it as, She’s sharing some uncomfortable feelings with me. “Yeah, you want this, and you want that, and you want me to sit with you and hold you. I wish I could. I can’t do it right now,” and then feeling good about that “no” while welcoming her to share the feelings.

Same with the six-year-old, wanting her to play. “Yes. We don’t have much time to play these days. This is a really hard time. I see you wanting that, and you can scream at me. It’s okay if you need to yell.” That level of permission and understanding what these demands are about, again, that they’re not literal demands so much as needs to vent.

Now, this mother says, “They get very frustrated when I set boundaries and ask them to play alone for a while.” That’s where, to be clear, I would have the boundary be what you’re doing or not doing. “I am not available right now to play with you. I hear you wanting me to play,” and then while you’re saying that, you are showing them that you need to do something else. You’re willing, the whole time, to hear them sharing feelings about that with you. But I wouldn’t have your boundary be that they have to play. How they accept our boundary or don’t accept our boundary has to be up to them. We only have the power to do our part, which is be clear and confident about what we’re doing. What that will look like is they maybe scream and whine, “No, no, no. We need you. You never play with us.”

The older one knows how to say those guilty-trippy words, and it’s going to feel like, Oh, gosh. I’m doing something wrong, but we’re going to trust that we can be the leader here and we can take care of all these people that need us, and this baby that’s extra uncomfortable because he’s got reflux. And we allow them to vent for however long they need to, not sitting there waiting for them, but doing what we were going to do that meant that we couldn’t play with them, doing something with the baby, doing something in the house that needs to be done. Or just sitting there saying, “You guys want me to play. I’m just going to sit here right now and breathe,” knowing they’re going to do everything to try to pull you away with their emotions and their demands and their begging. And you’re comfortable because those emotions aren’t about you. They’re about them. They’re about them in this situation, letting go, and themselves submitting to this passage and all the feelings that are embedded in it.

Then there becomes a space for them to say, Okay, well, we’ve let go of our mother because she’s been clear, so we’ve been able to let go of her, and now they do find something to do, maybe, or maybe they just lay there venting. Either way, it’s positive.

Yes, it can feel easier for us if they go and play, and then we feel good about them, but what they really need is to be however they feel. That’s what quality time and connection is about, letting you be exactly who you are right now and feel exactly how you feel. It’s not about me, it’s about you, and I accept you. There’s no more powerful message we can give a child. It all comes from us taking care of ourselves in the relationship.

There’s a lot of connection and quality time to be had in these passages, but it looks different, maybe, than it does when we have more time and more emotional space for us to enjoy hanging out with them.

I would share with them in a calm moment: “Wow, this is really different, isn’t it? This is really hard for all of us. We used to have this time when we could do this or that, and we just don’t right now. Changes like this are hard. It will get better though. There will be more time, but there just isn’t right now. I’m sorry. I understand you have a lot of feelings about that, and I want you to share them,” coming from a place of perceiving the situation as it is, not through a lens of over-responsibility and guilt.

One other detail… if you aren’t already in the habit of connecting with your baby verbally, I would do so. That way, you can always respond immediately to your baby, but not necessarily physically. You can be finishing up some moment of quality time with your older children, brushing their teeth, reading a book at night, putting a bandaid on, brushing their hair. When you’re available to do that, I would take those moments (they can be very brief sometimes) with gusto. And then in the middle of that, the baby cries… You can go towards the baby and say, “Oh, I hear you. I will be with you in a moment. Sounds like you need me. I’m attending to your sister, and then I’ll be right with you.”

I realize that a two-month-old does not understand all those words, but they will feel your intention, they will feel your response. Then you can take that 30 seconds or a minute to show your daughters they do come first sometimes, that the baby doesn’t interrupt everything.

So taking those moments when you can, but not pressuring yourself that you should and you have to and you’re not doing enough. There’ll be days when you don’t connect at all with the older children. That’s okay. Give yourself permission to be in this passage. Reimagining connection and quality time.

Then the fourth lifeline I’d like to offer is 4) taking baby steps.

That means you understand you’re at a passage right now and that you are looking towards what you want to bring into your life or bring back into your life.

Self-care for this mom, really important, a time that she can be with herself, think her own thoughts. For me, that’s jogging. Of course, I couldn’t do it right away with each of my three children being babies. It took a while. But I was looking towards that. And then before that could happen, maybe there was a moment that I could be the one to get in the car and go do an errand, and actually, for me, sitting in a car alone was good for me. Starting to plan for those opportunities with the understanding that this is a process, and it’s going to take time, but starting to see where you could open up those places to do things.

And then quality time with your daughters… Maybe in the beginning that’s with both of them together, once a week, that you have a little outing with them. Again, this will be easier as the baby develops and doesn’t need to breastfeed quite as often. But not putting pressure on yourself, just looking towards what you want, within reason, how you want your day to look.

And then taking those moments as they come, being aware that it’s not about long periods of time, it’s about 100% connection for short periods. It’s the quality that counts. Again, it can be the most mundane activities.

With your six-year-old, also, you can discuss and she can articulate feelings about things, so that will help, too, if you let her know, if you let both your children know that it’s normal for them to feel like this and to feel like they just need their mom all the time and that everything’s hard and they don’t want to play and nothing feels right. All of that is really, really normal for this situation and this passage. I would tell them that, and it will be a good reminder for you as well to be expressing that to them.

Maybe your six-year-old or even your two-year-old will be able to share back some of their experience, but mostly, they will share it through these other behaviors, unfortunately. It’d be easier if they shared everything just talking about it and telling us. That would be a lot easier, but no.

Those are my suggestions. Oh, and I have one more important one. A psychiatrist follower of my podcast, who’s also a father, reached out to me after my previous podcast, “Dear Parent: You Are Not Failing,” and he had a wonderful suggestion that I want to add here. He suggested that the parent may have postpartum depression.  And I would offer that as a possibility to this parent as well, or any parent who is feeling overwhelmed after having a baby. There is treatment for that.

I really hope some of this is helpful.

Also, please check out some of the other podcasts on my website JanetLansbury.com. They’re all indexed by subject and category, so you should be able to find whatever topic you might be interested in. And both of my books are available on audio, No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting. You can find them through my website or on audible.com, and you can also get them in paperback at Amazon and in ebook at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Apple.com.

Thanks for listening. We can do this.


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Janet
    As always..I love what you write here. I would like to add a physical first aid tool
    Tapping on the collar bone and deep breathing…helps greatly to calm the fight or flight feelings
    Also drink water.
    The children see you tapping to calm ….they can join
    Thank you Janet!

  2. I know it overwhelming and it feels like we are treading water in a storm while trying get away from face eating monkeys! What has helped me is to break it down and make list. Have a tentative plan to conquer makes it real and it gives me something to check off. It is soooo cathartic when you check on one thing off your list. It may not be the whole list of things but it makes you feel like you are accomplishing something.

  3. Hi Janet,
    I’m hoping for some clarification on this response. I definitely value letting them feel their feelings and letting them pass naturally but I can’t imagine letting my three kids scream at me every time if they are upset. As it is they mostly are in a dispute with one or the other (which feels like I am constantly putting out fires) and it is often over stimulating for my own brain. And with all three of my kids, the big feelings come with strong physical reactions also. I’ve been doing my best to keep them from hitting/punching/biting/ kicking the other and myself when they are triggered but I’m concerned that this is not sustainable (especially for my older two) as they are only getting older and stronger (5 and 7). I feel the talks we have after they are calm on how they could manage that situation differently just go right out the door and I still feel i am unable to do tasks that are in another room (which is also unsustainable) Your insight would be tremendously appreciated.

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