“You have only two hands! Just crossing the street and not being able to physically hold all their hands I find tremendously stressful,” writes Jill Smokler in her now famous “Scary Mommy” blog, on the stress of parenting three children. She was reflecting on a recent survey of American mothers which concluded that three is the most stressful number of children for a woman to have. The survey covered over 7,000 American mothers, who were asked to rate their stress level on a scale from 1 to 10, the latter being the highest. The average stress level was found to be 8.5. And, what did they stress out most about?- Of not having enough time to get everything done for all their children.
“Motherhood in itself is a challenging role,” says Malini Krishnan, psychologist at Inner Space Counselling Centre, Mumbai. “This is because it involves being physically and emotionally present for one’s children. So being a mother of three children is even more challenging as it involves tending to the needs of three.” The sheer role of ensuring that all children get adequate resources such as time, energy and guidance is one of the main reason for stress, she says. “Often, there is the anxiety of one child losing out while the mother gives attention to another child.”
Agrees Nina George, 30, who works as an HR manager at a PSU in Nagpur: “When you have three children, it is more like a crisis as you (as a couple) are two, and they have outnumbered you. It can be extremely stressful and for me I think it mostly comes
from the guilt that I am missing out on the relationship with my older child.” George, who has a 5-year-old boy and 6-month-old twins, wonders if the stress she goes through is only because of the “twin factor”. “I feel terrible and blame myself when I snap at my older child because I am stressed. This adds to my existing stress of dealing with my twin babies,” she says.
Although the anxiety of missing out is genuine, says Krishnan, it is not advisable to let such anxiety build, as it leads to emotional problems in the mother. “A healthy acceptance of one’s limitations goes a long way in preventing counterproductive stress,” she says. Mumbai-based clinical psychologist Saloni Sawnani illustrates with an example. “There are many limitations on the resources that are at your disposal as a mother and the moment you start experiencing a strain on these, you start feeling a pinch. For instance, you might have to settle for the second best school for your children when you have more children,” she says. “But, stop cribbing or bringing it up as an issue. Accept that there are compromises to be made in the course of life. Do not blame yourself or others for such things.”
Another factor that you have to accept is that you are not perfect. The fear of imperfection is one of the topmost reasons for stress in mothers, says George, echoing the words of many of the respondents in the American survey. “One wants to be perfect in everything when it comes to our babies,” she says. “We would want to give them a bath, feed them, teach them and do everything on our own. And, at some point it gets to us when we see things falling apart. We tend to blame ourselves rather than realizing the basic truth that no one is perfect.”
What matters more than the number of children is how women deal with motherhood, says Krishnan. “Often, in the process of being compassionate to their children, mothers are not compassionate enough to themselves,” she says. “Mostly, they are stubborn and avoid delegation of their tasks for fear that they won’t be done well. In the long run, this adds on to the mother’s workload, making her feel overwhelmed and angry. The willingness to delegate and an attitude of compassion towards one’s limits would help mothers cope with their stress.”
And this is exactly what sets a few mothers like bestselling author Anuja Chauhan, who is a mother of three, apart. Chauhan advises young mothers to “never be proud”. “It is foolish to think that you are capable of handling everything,” she says. “Humbly accept all the help you can get, from in-laws, parents, domestic help and relatives. You don’t have to do everything yourself.” Accepting this could be a reason, she says, that she does not feel stressed at all. “Three is not a stressing number. It is just perfect,” she says. “Three is a number that builds family unity. My children play teen-do-paanch together all the time and are totally bonded. Four would’ve made them break into smaller groups. And two of course, is too few.”
A comfortable age gap between the children can also help tone down the stress factor, feels Jancy Gibin, 38, Bangalore-based teacher and counsellor. Gibin has two boys aged 12 and 9 and a 6-year-old daughter. She says she doesn’t feel much stressed because her children were born after a comfortable age gap. “This ensures that your older ones become independent and learn to adjust to their surroundings. You can, thus, then pay attention to younger ones without feeling guilty,” she says. “Now my boys are quite independent and they set good models for their younger sister. They feel a sense of responsibility towards their sister and are also capable of taking care of her even when I am not around.”
Training your older ones to be independent is the best solution, agrees Sawnani. “This helps you delegate responsibilities to them thereby saving yourself some time and energy,” she says. One particularly challenging chore is to teach children table manners and eating habits, says Gibin. “If you train your older children to eat independently, more chances are that your younger ones will follow suit,” she says. “Or for some time, your older one can help the younger one eat.”
Taking care of their studies is another stress-triggering factor, says Chauhan. “Stay away from juggling between parenting and teaching your children,” says Sawnani. “Parents make lousy teachers and trying to teach your children will only lead to more strain in your relationship.” Chauhan says older children can prove to be excellent tutors. “Encourage your older child to teach his/her younger sibling lessons as a game,” suggests Sawnani. “It saves a lot of time and energy, and it also helps to create a bond between the siblings.”
George has a hearty laugh on hearing that the survey concluded saying that having four children are less stressful than having three. “Be it one, two, three or four, being a mother is stressful,” she says. “Maybe three is the breaking point and after three you just learn to live with the stress.” However, Chauhan seems to disagree. “I think three is easier than two. And, two is easier than one,” she says. “One is really very very stressful because the child has no playmates. I think babies get easier (to manage) the more you have. You have lots of hand-me-downs, babysitters and tutors and also lots of experience in coping.”
Ironically, the problem is that mothers already know the causes of their stress and how to deal with them, says Gibin. “It is just that they do not take out the time to think of it,” she says. This is a dangerous thing to commit yourself to, warns Sawnani. Do not zero your life just into your children. It is best for both mothers and children to let them be after a certain age. “Children, by nature, are more adjusting than you expect them to be,” she says. “Contrary to your belief, they do not need constant attention.”
The mantra is to let go, says Sawnani, of yourself and your kids. “Take out some time for yourself. Go for a massage or set up a date night with your husband, or a kitty party with your friends,” she suggests. “Finally, accept that it is a choice you make to have three children. So enjoy their childhood and your youth while it lasts.”
Box: Survey speak
Interesting snippets from the online survey of 7,164 American mothers by TODAYMOMS.com
• 46 per cent of mothers say their husbands/partners cause them more stress than their kids do.
• 72 per cent stress about how stressed they are.
• 60 per cent say lack of time to do everything is the main reason of stress.
• 60 per cent of mothers say raising girls is more stressful than raising boys.
• 9 out of 10 moms stress about staying fit and attractive.