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Keeping Your Cool

Most days you can handle it all  -- the newborn who was up crying half the night and couldn't be comforted, the dog who got into the garbage, the toddler who smeared your only clean blouse with peanut butter right before you left (already late) for work. But there are days when one too many mini-disasters can push you right over the edge.

Have no fear: Mom meltdowns are standard fare, particularly in the first three years of your child's life. Kids are so demanding at this stage  -- they don't talk well, they're messy, they're devoid of the self-control it takes to do what you want them to do. Meanwhile, you're 100 percent responsible for them and their screwy antics.

For sure, a mom meltdown can occur for almost as many reasons as there are stains on your carpeting. Most commonly, however, they're inspired by one of four conditions:

? too many crises

? too much noise

? too little time

? too much baby talk

And any of these can be intensified by too little sleep! Know, though, that you're not alone  -- and that there are ways to prevent a mom meltdown, once you recognize the early signs.

Zany Mishaps

Meltdown Moment: A zany mishap put me in crisis mode (again)!
When you think you've got all you can deal with, you lock yourself out of the house just as it starts to rain  -- and your baby adds to the fun by throwing up on your shoes. Yes, you're officially in crisis mode. Marietta Kelly, a mother of four in Owings Mills, Maryland, can relate. Kelly recalls how she dropped off her preschooler, Henry, at a playgroup and drove home with her infant, Woody, and her dog, Lulu. As she turned into her driveway, she stopped and got out to get the mail, when disaster struck: "Lulu got all excited and started running around inside the car. Somehow she managed to push down the button on the driver's side, locking all of the doors so I couldn't get back in."

Trying to stay calm, Kelly remembered she had an extra set of car keys in the house. Unfortunately, the house keys were in her purse, which was locked in the car. Seeing a ladder left out, she used it to climb in through a second-story window, got the spare car keys, and returned to the car. The baby was still asleep, and the dog was fine. "All this had taken so long, it was almost time to go back and pick up Henry!"

To the rescue:
Laugh it off. See the humor in it all, and know that as awful as everything seems in that moment, later on you'll probably decide it was hysterical. And think of the stories you can tell! To this day, Denene Millner, a Parenting staffer and mom of Mari, 4, and Lila, 14 months, gets a kick out of telling the story of how Mari, then 23 months, got locked in the family's new car just four hours after they'd driven it off the lot. "It was climbing to ninety degrees, and all I could imagine was my baby suffocating to death in that hot car with all the windows rolled up," recalls Millner. "We were trying desperately to get her to push the button to unlock the door, but she was too busy dangling my keys and blowing kisses to the crowd that had gathered in the Home Depot parking lot. About forty minutes into the ordeal, the police broke the back window, just as Mari started to get whiny. I was frantic, of course, but we still laugh about it. I saved the window repair bill to show her first boyfriend, as a warning of what can happen to his car!"

Later on, your kids will crack up over the story, and you can make yourself sound like a superhero  -- even if you were really a blubbering mess when it all went down.

Tell a friend. Calling or e-mailing someone with the day's disasters is a fun, fast way to blow off steam. Plus, you'll usually get an encouraging note back. If your Mayday Moment was too traumatic or embarrassing to recount to others, try writing down the details in a journal. It's therapeutic, and if you don't want to show anyone else, you don't have to.

Find the lesson. Of course you didn't think you'd make it through that crisis. But you did. Learn from it. Think about what went wrong, and then make a point of changing your behavior the next time you're in a similar situation. Millner says she had a habit of throwing her car keys into the front seat, to free up both her hands while she loaded her purchases into the trunk  -- making it really easy for her to lock herself out accidentally. She doesn't do that anymore. "Now the keys go into my pocket or stay in my hand until I'm ready to start the ignition and drive away," she says.


Meltdown Moment: The noise level and mess in my house are driving me nuts!
In my house I have two loud trumpet players, a flutist, a 5-year-old opera diva, and a doggie that always barks and howls whenever anyone plays any of these instruments. I also have drawers of broken toys, roller skates in every size, scores of headless Barbie dolls, and a really impressive collection of mismatched plastic cups and plates.

You can't have children and not have mess and noise  -- but after a while, it gets to the best of us. You clean the house at 2 p.m., and by 5:00, the same toys, books, and laundry are all back out again. And your inability to reduce the noise level can make you feel like a total loser. My own mother used to collect giraffes, explaining that her love for them stemmed from the fact that they have no vocal cords. It wasn't until I became a mother myself that I actually saw her point and understood the meaning behind the expression "Silence is golden"!

To the rescue:
Outwit the noisemakers. Karin Wynn, a San Antonio mom of two, knows how to lower decibels and get some peace: "When the kids are screaming and crying and whining in the car, I turn up the music really loud until I can't hear them anymore," she says. "After a minute, I turn it down again. Usually, there's silence by then because the competition was just too tough!"

As for me, when the little party animals in my house start swinging from the chandeliers, I try to calm them down with a game called Sleeping Lions. All the children are supposed to lie down on the floor and pretend to be sleeping lions. I'm the hunter, and I look for any movement or noise. The child who lasts the longest wins. It may buy me only five minutes of peace, but that's often enough to prevent a breakdown.

Lower your expectations. Don't waste your five minutes of peace trying to clean up after the kids. When all else fails, embrace the mess.

"I remember coming into the bathroom where my two boys were in the tub. Half the water was out of the tub, along with bath toys, sticks, rocks, whatever they had brought in from the yard," recalls Wynn. "I walked away for a moment, but after that I had them get out and dry off, and then we made a game out of drying everything  -- the sticks, the rocks, the floor."

Concentrate on the parenting and relax your standards for the rest, says Elaine St. James, author of Simplify Your Life With Kids. "It's okay to say, 'I'm not going to make the beds today! I'm going to do a puzzle with my child.'"

Toss it. Live by the mantra "When in doubt, throw it out." Simply grab a trash bag and start getting rid of stuff. Keep toys simple and low tech. Remember: A cardboard box often provides more hours of fun than yet another toy.

Busy Bodies

Meltdown Moment: I'm too busy!
No surprise here: Life can get pretty hectic. Besides too many work hours, commutes, community activities, and more, we somehow manage to cram too many of our kids' activities into our schedule  -- in part to make up for the time we're not around, in part because we want to give our kids the best. "It seems that I can never finish any task I start," says Amy van der Velde, a mom of three in St. Louis.

"Everyone always needs me at the same time and I'm trying to do seven things at once and my husband is wondering why I'm not listening to him. I'm forever washing the laundry a second time because I forgot to move it to the dryer, and then it smells," she says.

Maryann Bucknum Brinley, a mom of two and coauthor of Are We Having Fun Yet? The 16 Secrets of Happy Parenting, says the clock is the big stress builder. "No matter where you are, you feel like you're supposed to be somewhere else," says Brinley. By the end of the day, you're exhausted, your brain is fried, and you can't possibly do another thing  -- until your kids suck you back into a Meltdown Moment!

To the rescue:
Just say no! Guard your family time like a pit bull does a porterhouse steak. The best way to do this? Set up a routine and stick to it. "Stay on track. Don't get distracted. If dinner is at six-thirty, go out of your way to make sure you don't pick up the phone at six-fifteen," says St. James.

And when folks do manage to get ahold of you to start asking for a piece of your time, say "no," loud, proud, and often, particularly to anything that isn't a priority. That means saving some of the volunteer work for when your kids are older. "Your most important job right now is the kids. The more you say no to people, the easier it gets," counsels St. James.

Give the kids  -- and yourself  -- a break. You can spend the preschool years driving kids to everything from ballet class to Suzuki violin lessons. Or you can relax and enjoy their childhood. "We tell ourselves it's important to our children's development to expose them to lots of new activities. But the truth is that young kids mostly need the kind of stimulation that comes from having fun, smiling, playing, and giggling," says Brinley. "They don't need tons of extra lessons and math flash cards. Just knowing that can be a great relief!"

Forgive and forget. If, at the end of the day, there are still 16 things you didn't get to do, so be it. Forgive yourself, and remember that the most significant work you do all day as a parent is intangible. "It's the time you took to kiss a boo-boo and make it better. It's the way you made separation easier for your child on that first day of school," says Brinley.

Call a lifeline. Take all the help you can get from relatives, friends, and neighbors. "Once when I was about ready to sell my daughter, Ryley, to the circus, a neighbor took her for me, gave her dinner and a bath, and returned her, ready for bed. Of course, I would do the same for her," says van der Velde.

Batty Baby Talk

Meltdown Moment: Baby talk is making me batty!
Maybe your saturation point is the 10th time you bend down to pick up the spoon your baby has thrown on the floor. Maybe it's the 20th game of peekaboo (amazingly, still funny to your toddler) or the 30th time you read Pat the Bunny. Whatever the method, it's brought you exactly one second away from losing it. Being around children all the time isn't good for the brain. At best, you might just start forgetting how wonderful it is to savor a cup of tea or curl up with a good book. At worst, you might just start to resent your husband for not helping enough or forget how to enjoy being a mom.

To the rescue:
Be a grown-up. Schedule time to play with other adults. Van der Velde and a few of her friends decided to get together one night a month to play a game called Bunko. "The dads stay at home with the kids. We drink some wine and play. It's a lot of laughs. We all have kids the same age, so we're all in the same boat," she says. If you don't have a network of family or friends, join an organization that helps young mothers.

Find time to be alone. Even if your husband has to guard the bathroom door while you sneak in to read the comics, take some "me" time  -- and make sure the rest of the family gets with the program. Schedule a standing weekly appointment at the local nail salon that everyone (your husband) knows you won't break. Or get up a few minutes earlier in the morning to savor a cup of coffee  -- before you have to warm the bottle, change the diaper, pack lunches, and head to the car for soccer, ballet, and karate practice. No matter what your day brings, remember that somewhere else in the world at that very moment, another mother is up to her elbows in the same sticky stuff. All of us in the parenting business face the same dirty diapers, whining, oatmeal-ed hair, and missed meetings. But as you mop up the mess and get yourself back on track, you have to admit: It really is a whole lot of fun  -- Meltdown Moments and all.

  Antonia van der Meer is editor-in-chief of Modern Bride and a mother of four children.