Being a Parent
Text by Jeanne Darling
Editor’s note: This article is from our Archive; The BCT Newsletter, “Parenting”, first published this piece in March 2020. We have condensed and edited this piece for the BCT blog.
Being a parent is not easy. Indeed, parenting, done well enough, is replete with demands –
There are schedules, interruptions, and a shortage of sleep, relaxation and predictability. The modern world is also fascinated with pushing organised exercise, proper diet, and rest.
Consequently, it is easy to imagine that some parents may feel they are falling short of meeting everyone’s needs, including their own.
Let’s face it, as parents, we can’t always get enough sleep, eat properly, or maintain a disciplined exercise regime.
“Being good to ourselves” may be as simple as feeling less guilty for not taking the “break we deserve today”.
Nonetheless, it’s not all bad –
Indeed, the good news is that despite the demands of raising children, parenting can add years to your life – if the statistics about who lives longer aren’t lying.
For instance, an article quoting research done in Sweden proclaimed: “Parents, take courage. If you survive the sleep deprivation, toddler tantrums and teenage angst, you may be rewarded with a longer life than your childless peers. … Men and women with at least one child had ‘lower death risks’ than childless ones…”
As with many studies on longevity, the findings are neither universal nor definitive, but it does raise an interesting question:
How is it possible to go through a demanding experience as parenting and come out better off than a non-parent?
The Blue Zone study may provide some insight. It lists four basic principles underpinning a lifestyle that fosters longevity: “Move; Right outlook; Eat Wisely, and Connect.”
They consist of the following:
1. Move Naturally
The world’s longest-lived people don’t pump iron, run marathons or join gyms. They live in environments that constantly nudge them into moving without thinking about it.
Knowing your sense of purpose is worth up to seven years of extra life expectancy.
3. Down Shift
Stress leads to chronic inflammation associated with every primary age-related disease. The world’s longest-lived people have routines to shed stress.
4. 80% Rule
Stop eating when your stomachs are 80% full. The 20% gap between not being hungry and feeling full could differ between losing weight or gaining it.
People in the blue zones eat their smallest meal in the late afternoon or early evening and stop afterwards.
5. Plant Slant
Beans and legumes (e.g. fava, black, soy and lentils) are the cornerstones of most centenarian diets. On average, this group consume meat only five times per month. And the serving sizes are 3-4 oz., about the size of a deck of cards.
6. Wine @5
Moderate drinkers outlive non-drinkers. The trick is to drink one to two glasses daily with friends and food.
Most centenarians belonged to some faith-based community. Attending faith-based services four times per month added 4-14 years of life expectancy.
8. Prioritise Loved Ones
Centenarians put their families first. They keep ageing parents and grandparents nearby or in the home. They commit to a life partner and invest in their children with time and love.
9. Right Tribe
The world’s longest-lived people chose–or were born into–social circles that supported healthy behaviours.
Research showed that smoking, obesity, happiness, and even loneliness are contagious. The social networks of these people favourably shaped their behaviours.
When I think back to my days as a parent of young children –
Despite the seeming chaos of raising children, balancing work and family, maintaining a social life, and striving to stay sane, I was probably unwittingly following many of the above practices.
1. I moved a lot, and it wasn’t because I was in an organised exercise program.
Having children meant moving a lot, plain and simple. Nobody sits around very long with toddlers in the house.
2. My life had (has) a purpose –
I didn’t have to think long and hard about this. It was defined from the minute the children stirred in their beds in the morning. Furthermore, it lasted until I tucked them in at night.
3. Down-shifting, I will admit, was more challenging –
My mother-in-law’s brilliant practice of “retiring” every day inspired me. From the time her six children were very young to her dying day, she retired every afternoon to her bedroom to read alone. Even on holidays, when she found herself among her adult kids and their partners, she would quietly excuse herself.
Before I had my children, I was surprised. My husband said, “It’s her quiet time.” When my children outgrew their afternoon nap times, I remembered and re-named them “quiet times”. I wasn’t perfect at taking the break and often used it to catch up on chores, but it was better than nothing. Similarly, when I returned to teaching, I brought the practice with me and a quiet time mid-day did all of us, teacher and students, a world of good.
4. The 80% rule was also relatively easy –
Mealtimes were usually short and sweet with my energetic children. Even more typically, my lunch was their leftovers. Rather than lament that I never seemed to have time to eat correctly, I now see it was a blessing in disguise.
5. Plants in our diet
I was a careful cook and wanted balanced meals for my family, but I have my son to thank for converting our diet when he unequivocally declared a vegetarian at ten.
Even though he remains the only vegetarian in our immediate family, it was a menu game-changer in our house that has stuck with us throughout the years.
6. With children in the house, my husband and I did not drink wine every evening –
Nonetheless, it was always available when we needed to sit and discuss any concerns.
Moreover, I have often suggested that parents take the time to discuss issues over a glass of wine once the children have been tucked away for the night —a simple but proven therapy.
7. Finding a community
When we uprooted from the US to come to Switzerland, I wondered where I would find a “community” of neighbours, friends, and family that we had enjoyed and sustained when our children were babies. Enrolling our children in the local schools, especially kindergarten, was the natural trigger to forming a new community. Also, organisations, such as the BCT, were helpful.
8. We had clear priorities
Our children came first – always.
Nevertheless, that does not mean that their needs and wants did. For instance, we never considered that running ourselves into the ground to meet their every wish or avoid their discontent was sustainable or healthy. But we felt, and hopefully demonstrated often, that our love for them was unconditional.
9. We found our tribe –
Indeed, we were lucky to have good friends and a network of family. They shared our values and, more importantly, helped sustain us through the ups and downs of raising children.
We are now grandparents.
I look back and wonder how we got through it all.
We unwittingly fulfilled many of the principles that may have added some extra years to our lives in our bumbling way. I do not mean to belittle the enormous sacrifices of nurturing a family – or the frustration, loneliness, and burn-out that can afflict any good parent.
Hidden benefits are those things that leave you
too busy to remember where you put the keys; force you to ignore the dust bunnies under the bed; sometimes define lunch as the leftover crusts of sandwiches; leave you so tired you fall asleep reading bedtime stories or even spark a good cry from time to time,
They are not simply the typical plight of most parents. Indeed, they may have an underbelly of hidden benefits.
Most of us survive as parents with a modicum of health and sanity intact.
There are anomalies, but in general, parents have the mental and physical capacity to meet the demands of rearing children. You are probably doing a lot better than you think you are – and, remember, the icing on the cake may well be some extra years to enjoy life once the children leave home.
The BCT Blog is incredibly grateful to Jeanne Darling for her generosity and ongoing support. You can find her other articles here (Confessions of a Grandmother).
Jeanne Darling is a retired educator, having taught children for over twenty-five years in Basel. She continues working with children, offering “Story Times” and workshops at several schools and libraries. She also wrote the children’s illustrated book “Basel’s Hidden Stories”.