Five killer stress busters that made me a better mother (At least I’d like to think they did)

Decades ago, when I was footloose and fancy-free, one lovely evening a man I was dating took me for a ride. In his small two-seater airplane. We were flying over the coastline, headed toward Old Orchard Beach. So magical. Until the sudden loud thump.

He turned to me and in a well-measured voice, said, “We either hit a bird or a cable snapped. Neither is a good thing.” I looked down and thought, “So this is how I’m going to die. How interesting.” I swear that is what I thought. I felt calm and unafraid, not the least bit stressed out.

Fast forward about five years. I was now married. Obviously, we had landed safely. I married another man, though. It takes more than piloting your own plane to impress this woman!

Diane and Stephanie's first night together

On Christmas day, 1983, my husband and I had our first child. If nothing much had stressed me out before, now that I was a mother, nearly everything did.

It began on my first night of motherhood, in the hospital. The nurse asked if I’d like to keep my daughter in the room with me or have her sleep in the nursery. To me, it was a ridiculous question. I wanted her right beside me.

We never slept. She tried to nurse (neither of us knew what we were doing), messed her diaper and cried and cried and cried. I cried.

Right out of the gate I decided I sucked as a mother. I was convinced it was my fault she wouldn’t settle down.

We walked. A painful walk because I had stitches. My belly hurt because I was constipated because I had stitches and no way was I going to push anything else out of my poor bruised body.

Early in the morning, an angel came into the room. A nurse named Ann. I will never forget her name. She lovingly told me that nothing was my fault. Babies cry and sometimes they can’t be soothed.

She took my now sleeping daughter and announced that she was taking her to the nursery and putting a do not disturb sign on the door. I was to get some sleep.

When I woke up, I felt better but I couldn’t put my arms down by my side. My milk had come in. My breasts were huge (for me) and hard-packed with milk. Seriously hard-packed.

Once we were home and into a routine, I discovered that I knew more about mothering than I realized. But, I also realized that I had become a worrier. What if this and what if that. I wasn’t footloose and fancy-free anymore. I had a child who depended on me. It would be a disaster if the plane went down.

In the beginning, the stress I felt was somewhat acute. There were lots of OMG moments. Like the morning I freaked out because my daughter wouldn’t take a bottle. I was returning to work in a few weeks. She had to learn how to drink from of bottle. It was a catastrophe!!

Over the years stress kind of settled in and became part of the norm. I’m not saying I traveled through motherhood in a constant state, but there was always something.

Sometimes we don’t realize the effect that stress can have on us or how it might affect our health. It can lead to heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity. In fact, stress can affect everything — mind, body and spirit.

Symptoms of stress

Take a look at this list. Recognize any of these symptoms of stress?

  • Headaches
  • Muscle tension
  • Chest pain
  • Decreased libido
  • Upset stomach
  • Sleep problems
  • Anxiety
  • Restlessness
  • Lack of motivation
  • Lack of focus
  • Irritability or anger
  • Sadness or depression
  • Under or overeating
  • Substance abuse
  • Lack of interest in things you usually enjoy
My daughters

A fun picture taken “upta camp” — a stress-free zone!

My five stress busters

We all have our own ways of dealing with stress. Let me share five things that continue to work for me. The first one I learned all those years ago when I was freaking out about my daughter rejecting the bottle. 

1) Find someone to talk to who understands

When my daughter refused the bottle, I called my obstetrician’s office (in tears.) The answer to bottle feeding turned out to be simple. The nurse said, “She smells your milk. Have your husband give her the bottle, you get out of the house. Go for a walk. Do something nice for yourself.”

Great advice. It worked. Sometimes you don’t need an answer, you just need someone’s ear or shoulder. Talking things out often takes the gravity out of what seemed to be a monumental issue.

2) Laugh, especially at yourself

In the summer of 1986, we had our second daughter. When they were about three and five, How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk was one of my go-to books. I had just read through some of it (again) when I heard them fighting.

I swooped into the room and knelt down between them, feeling confident and wise, because I knew exactly what to say. I opened my mouth and my mind went blank. I couldn’t recall one single word of the advice I’d just read.

I knelt there staring at them muttering to myself, “What the hell are those words I’m supposed to be using in this situation?” The fighting had stopped. I’d unwittingly used another successful tactic: Divert their attention. Who knew I could be so wise all on my own? It makes me chuckle every time I think of it.

3) Exercise

After my first pregnancy, I did a walk-jog program at USM and after my second, I learned to swim at the Y. I was fortunate to have easy childcare both times — a supportive husband and my mother nearby.

Getting back in shape boosted my self-confidence and my energy. It’s amazing how good even a little bit of exercise can do for you, including relieve stress. Even going for a short walk. Go alone, with a friend or with the whole family. All you need is 20 minutes to feel better.

4) Keep a gratitude journal 

I started a gratitude journal when my daughters were in high school. Every night before I fell asleep, I’d write down things I was grateful for that day. I still have the journal and like to flip through it every now and again.  Here are three entries:

  • I got a decent parking space at work
  • I learned the multiplication tables when I was a kid
  • Went sliding with the girls

Nothing earth shattering. It’s the little things that seem to generate the most gratitude.

5) Remind yourself that you don’t have to do it all or be it all 

We celebrate Christmas in our family and also our daughter’s birthday. We used to spend the entire day visiting people on both sides of the family. Bundling up first one, then two kids, piling all their stuff and birthday and Christmas presents into the car. We’d be wiped out before we left the driveway.

It finally dawned on us that what we were doing was ludicrous, so we announced that from then on we would celebrate Christmas morning at home with the girls and host a family dinner in the afternoon. The solution worked great for everyone and we have some wonderful memories.

The point is, if something you’re doing stresses you out, ask yourself if you really need to be doing it or if there a better or a different way. And remember, you’ll never be able to make everybody happy, so don’t even try.

My daughters are young women now and my husband and I ramble around the house with four cats instead of two kids. Although I suspect he could if he had to, he doesn’t know how to fly a plane. We’d much rather cruise around a peaceful lake in a kayak. You can add that to the list of stress relievers.

How do you relieve your stress?

I wrote this story as a guest post for Sarah Cottrell’s blog Housewife Plus. Even if your kids are all grown up like mine, you should check out her blog. She’s also a regular contributor to Scary Mommy.


Diane Atwood

About Diane Atwood

For more than 20 years, Diane was the health reporter on WCSH 6. Before that, a radiation therapist at Maine Medical Center and after, Manager of Marketing/PR at Mercy Hospital. She now hosts and produces the Catching Health podcast and writes the award-winning blog Catching Health with Diane Atwood.