Avoid Parenting Burnout by Limiting Your Options


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A few years ago, when my husband came home from the store with a bottle of sunscreen for our toddler, I had a mild panic attack.

Me:“Wait, you just bought it? Did you even look at the reviews?

Husband: “Uh, no. But it says right here that it’s for kids. And it’s SPF 50, so …”

Me: “Well, what are the ingredients? Have you heard anything about it? Because Des told me about this mineral-based one she uses, so I wanted to try that, and then someone in my Facebook mom group shared this list of the best kids’ sunscreens of the year, and I’ve been meaning to read it. And then there’ve been all these stories about how some sunscreens are dangerous so I have to make sure it’s not one of those. Basically, I haven’t fully researched this topic yet, and was not ready to make that decision. Do you have the receipt?”

Husband: [Blank stare.]

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Decision fatigue has always been my trusted life partner, but ever since I got the two pink lines indicating I would be responsible for another human being—my daughter, who’s now five—it’s become even more paralyzing. Why is it that every choice I make for my kid seems to require a doctoral-level preliminary analysis? Author Bunmi Laditan captures the crisis brilliantly in her Facebook post about buying children’s vitamins:

Being a modern parent is terrible. I’d give my left kneecap to have parented in the 70s or 80s when all you had to do to be considered a good mom is to remember to wind down the windows when you smoke in the car.

I’m not cut out for this. Do you know what I’ve been doing this morning? VITAMIN SHOPPING. For 45 minutes I’ve been comparing children’s vitamins, reading online reviews, and, inflammatory blog posts backed by no science that I both fear and respect.

I own two good bras but I’m ready to spend upwards of $100 on children’s vitamins, probiotics (these look like finely pressed cocaine and tastes like nothing but if you don’t buy it your child dies), and supplements.

Do you know what vitamins I had growing up? NONE. DAYLIGHT WAS MY VITAMIN. Occasionally, once a year tops, my mom would get us those chalky Flinstones vitamins that looked liked kidney stones but we’d only have to eat them for a few days before she lost interest in our health.

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The paradox of choice isn’t a new concept—the sheer number of options we have today seems to be making everyone a little anxious. But psychologist and family counselor Dr. Sheryl Ziegler believes that parenthood—particularly motherhood—kicks up this belief that every decision is critical. In her new book Mommy Burnout, which comes out this month, Ziegler explains that the choices we make for our kids can feel overly personal. What we select feels like a representation of who we are, when in reality, it’s just a damn diaper cream. “The problem is that the choices are not about the products or programs themselves, but rather how these things reflect on us as a person and as a mother,” she writes. “I’ll be a bad mom if I don’t get the organic mattress for my toddler’s bed, you tell yourself as you pore over every organic mattress option you can find.”

Too many choices should make us happier and freer, but Ziegler explains that the opposite often occurs. When I was trying to decide on a stroller, I compared the specs of the top finalists, watched YouTube reviews and surveyed parent-friends. In the end, I had a stroller that was great! It transported my daughter from one side of the food court to the other with ease. But I still had major stroller FOMO—gosh, why didn’t I pick the one that’s lighter, the one with a gigantic canopy, the model that puts me face-to-face with my precious baby at all times? I should have done more research.

To stay sane, we need to limit our choices. When the only options are right in front of us, we can compare them, make a decision, feel satisfied with that decision, and move on with our lives. I’ve found some ways to do it.

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Define Your Core Values

Okay, so maybe you don’t need to tap into your deepest life values when you’re buying applesauce pouches, but bear with me here. When you establish a vision for your life, all decisions can be made more easily. (For a good starting point on this, check out Debbie Millman’s Ten-Year Plan exercise.) Once, my word of the year was “home,” and it strangely became a guiding force—I was able to turn down a lot of invitations with more confidence because those event wouldn’t push me toward my goal of spending quality time with my family at home. Figure out the big things, and the little ones will naturally fall into place.

Try Limiting Yourself to Three Options for a Whole Week

Ziegler shares an exercise where you must force yourself to choose from only three options (at most) for all decisions that come up in a week. “Note how this impacted the amount of time you spent researching and what this did to your overall stress level,” she writes. It sounds pretty easy, but it may not be. If, after a week, you felt a greater sense of control, try it again for another week. And then another. And another.

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Narrow Your Sources

I used to scroll through pages and pages of reviews when buying anything, but I don’t do that as much anymore. Instead, I’ll send a group text to some trusted friends and ask, “Hey, what face cream do you use?” Or “What’s that kids’ lunchbox that you have? Do you like it? Cool. [Places into shopping cart.]” Sticking with trusted sources (a favorite website, a small parenting group, or maybe your wise next door neighbor with three older kids) makes decision-making a lot more manageable than letting yourself get lost on the world wide web.

Automate Whatever You Can

Set up subscriptions. With Amazon Prime, you can save 20% on items like diapers, baby food and kids’ vitamins if you receive five or more products in a given month. Pick out your products just once instead of standing in the store aisles and reading through all the descriptions every single time.

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Buy and Make Things in Bulk

Have a children’s birthday gift that’s a winner every time? (Mine is this book.) Buy 12 of them so you’re not scrambling every time your kid gets invited to another party. Make freezer meals ahead of time for your lunches throughout the week. Buy a bunch of packs of the exact same socks. You get the idea.

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Give Up “What’s Best” and Focus on “What Works”

This year, my daughter will be starting kindergarten at the local school that’s five minutes away. It’s a great school. The other day, though, a mom friend was telling me about a school that her daughter will be going to, and it sounded amazing. I started doing all this research on it, reading about its philosophy and activities and student-teacher ratio, until I finally snapped out of it, wondering, “Why am I even thinking about this?” That school is 35 minutes away, has weird hours, costs much more than our school here that is free, and would be a logistical nightmare for us. As Ziegler writes, “the best” is not always feasible. So stop trying to aim for it in every single decision. (This is tough if you’re a parenting over-thinker like me.) What’s best for your family is simply what works for your family. Make “what works” the goal.

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