Tell me if any of this sounds familiar:
It’s been a long, loooooong, stressful day at work. Driving home, maybe with kids prattling and arguing in the back seat, all you can think about is how much your feet and back ache, how hungry you are, how tired you are, and how you’re Just. So. Done. You pull into your driveway and then drag yourself into the house, kids trailing behind. As you pass through the kitchen, you fling open the pantry door, grab whatever junk food can be opened and consumed quickly, barely slowing your pace as you make a beeline for the couch. Then you throw yourself down (maybe sending your high heels cartwheeling through the air for that satisfying effect; bonus points if they hit the ceiling!). When you finally manage to get up, you head to your bedroom to change out of your work clothes, draping them over a chair or leaving them in a heap on the floor. Then reality sets in: you have nothing ready for dinner. Looking around, you see the messy trail that you’ve left behind and experience a surge of guilt for the garbage you ate quickly when you walked in. And the kids? That dumb, low-budget cartoon you put on TV upon entering the house (just so you could have five minutes – FIVE MINUTES – of quiet) is now over, and they’re tearing around the house and relentlessly pestering you for dinner.
As you resentfully pull out your cell phone to speed-dial the pizza joint that delivers to your house, you think, Welcome home, indeed.
All right, so the above scenario may be a little exaggerated (I hope!), but you get the point: After coming home from a stressful day, some or most of the things you do to relax might not be relaxing at all, and might instead counterproductively add to your overall stress levels. And yet there are days when you’re tired of making responsible choices, tired of non-stop adulting. What feels good at the moment you get home – your space where finally you can do whatever your impulsive id wants – results in your making the worst possible choices: eating unhealthy junk, ignoring the kids, throwing your clothes aside. If this all seems familiar, then it’s not so much a matter of understanding what you should do – that’s obvious enough, right? – but having the right mindset to prevent blowing off steam in self-destructive ways in the first place. Read on for a few strategies that just might save the day – or, evening.
Strategy #1: Reset your attitude before you start the engine.
Okay, let’s rewind the tape and go back to that car ride home from work, when you felt your stress levels rapidly going up instead of down. Now let’s go back a little further to the moment when you first got in the car after that long day at work and took off with all your stress and frustration in tow. Imagine that instead, before you even began driving, you devoted five minutes in your car to finding comfort and peace. Here’s what that might look like.
First, you reach into the backseat for a drawstring shoe bag that contains a pair of soft shoes (such as ballet flats or driving moccasins; there are even slippers with hard soles that you can drive in!), enabling you to swap out those torturous heels for blissful comfort in a heartbeat. (Put the heels in the bag and have them ready to bring inside with you when you get home.) Now that your poor feet are happy again, pull out a water bottle and a travel-size portion of a satisfying snack – a small bag of almonds, a granola bar, a piece of fruit – and take a few minutes to resolve your thirst and hunger.
Next, close your eyes and take five deep breaths with the intention of clearing your mind. Try not to think about anything – just feel your breath move through your body, and find reconnection to your self in that space of quiet in your car. Now take five more, and this time, dedicate each breath to something for which you would like to acknowledge gratitude; for example, your first breath might invoke your gratitude for your family and friends, your second breath for the health of your loved ones and yourself, your third for the job that helps you provide for your needs, your fourth for the beautiful home you live in, and your fifth for living a life of happiness and connection. Or maybe your five breaths could be dedicated to five things that you enjoy and appreciate about your job, helping to neutralize whatever stress it causes you. Whatever is meaningful to you about your life is something to acknowledge gratitude for, and you can decide from day to day what you most want or need to acknowledge. On your last breath, open your eyes slowly and allow peacefulness and gratitude to settle in.
Now, with your body comforted and mind renewed, you’re ready to head home.
Strategy #2: The kids are all right. Really.
Following strategy #1 first will make all the difference if you’re picking up kids on the way home. Exchanging your physical hunger and overwhelming stress for a sense of comfort and gratitude makes it easier to listen and engage with their chatter. Are they fussy and hungry? Dole out their portions of a healthy snack (pass ‘round the granola bars!) and small water bottles, and if they’re young enough to enjoy it, sing a couple of verses of their favorite songs together to help them blow off some steam, as well. (Older kids might enjoy your comically sincere renditions of classic songs; I like to treat my crew to “Sweet Caroline,” which you really can’t listen to without singing along.)
Are the kids trying to talk over each other to you, escalating into a shouting match? See that for what it is – two or more children competing for your attention and your love. Handle squabbles calmly, understanding that kids, too, feel stress from daycare or school. (And if you can’t be even-tempered, how can they?) Ask each one about her or his day, and really engage. It won’t always be perfect, but try to use your time in the car as an opportunity to reconnect as a family after a long day apart.
Strategy #3: Blow off steam without blowing up your evening.
Now, when you walk through the door, you should be in a better frame of mind. Keep the positive mindset going! If your kids immediately start bouncing off the walls, send them outside to play or, if the weather’s inclement, clear the family room furniture and set up a dance party. Conversely, some overstimulated kids might need a little quiet in their room to read or might want a calming activity, such as play-doh or coloring books (play relaxing music to match). And if all else fails, yes, put on a TV show to settle them down, and don’t judge yourself for it. (And if you’re like me, and you’ll judge yourself anyway, then try to find something that’s both entertaining and educational, like the children’s shows that play in the late afternoon on PBS.)
With the kids quickly settled, change out of your work outfit and put the clothes away (laundry hamper or hung up) immediately. If your impulse to undermine your good habits strikes, remind yourself that a clean floor = a calm mind. Put on after-work clothes that make you happy, like your favorite jeans and a t-shirt in a color that suits your mood. If you like, do a quick 30-second aromatherapy with a rollerball or hand cream in a relaxing scent, such as lavender or sandalwood.
It’s now time to assess the dinner situation. For the absolute best outcome to your afternoon and evening, you’ll have planned your meal in advance and have prepped some of the ingredients already, either the night before or earlier that morning; super bonus points for having everything already good to go in a slow cooker. Having pre- or partially-cooked homemade meals ready to pull out of the freezer and heat up in the oven will keep the pizza delivery guy out of your driveway, too. So get your dinner started, and once the main and side dishes are cooking, take a few minutes to sit down and put up your feet. Close your eyes for a bit (set a timer if you need to, though!). Or you could read a magazine, sip some tea, call a friend – whatever makes you relaxed and content.
Strategy #4: Good habits = great routines.
Hopefully your positivity and happiness have continued through the evening routine – dinnertime, homework time, children’s baths and bedtime routines, or whatever else your evenings typically include. Just don’t forget to set yourself up for a successful day tomorrow by doing whatever you can tonight to reduce potential stress. Place your comfy shoes back in the drawstring bag, then set them along with your travel snacks and water in the car, as well as anything else you need to have ready in the morning. Set out your outfit and the kids’ outfits for tomorrow, make lunches, maybe do a little meal planning and prepping for tomorrow’s dinner. Even if you’re dead tired, tell yourself that you’ll just do 20-30 minutes of prepping – then observe how even that limited amount of time makes all the difference from morning ‘til night tomorrow.
All that said, it’s not easy – and maybe it’s impossible – to make the best choices every day. I still have days where my self-destructive impulses overtake the good choices I know I should make. But if you begin to employ a few positive strategies as you decompress after work, you’ll bring your downtime up to a whole new level.
“If you begin to employ a few positive strategies as you decompress after work, you’ll bring your downtime up to a whole new level.”