Coping with the toddler years

With research suggesting stay-at-home mums are twice as likely to suffer depression as those who head off to work, Hannah Denton asks what you can do to spice up life at home with a toddler.

Auckland stay-at-home mum of three, Shannon Hayden, can pinpoint the exact moment she realised her feelings of frustration and boredom were more than a bad day or even a bad week. With three children under the age of five, she felt pulled in multiple different directions, constantly tired and running on empty. “I was pushing my two-year-old son on the swing at the park for the eighth day in a row, and I can remember thinking ‘there has to be more than this’. I honestly felt tearful at the thought of walking to the park again the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that. I felt trapped and I wasn’t enjoying my kids.”

Shannon had been aware she wasn’t feeling ‘up’ a lot of the time, but put her feelings down to lack of sleep and her closest friend moving to the UK.

“I think I needed a sounding board. I’d lost the one person, aside from my husband, I could complain to without it detracting from the love I have for my kids”, she says.

Shannon isn’t alone in experiencing feelings of helplessness. Parenting toddlers is an exhausting endeavour, often with little day-to-day reward. It’s not that you don’t love your toddler, it’s that everyday life with tantrums, toilet training and tears can leave you feeling as though the joy in your life is ebbing away, as you stoically tick off the hours until bedtime.

Home truths
In January 2014, The Huffington Post published a Gallup study of 60,000 mothers of children under the age of five. It found stay-at-home mums were twice as likely to experience feelings of depression, compared to their working counterparts.

While many mothers choose to stay home with their young children, for others the decision is made for them as the cost of childcare, transport and tax implications negate the financial return of working.

For parents and carers who choose (and those who are forced) to stay at home with their kids, there is an increasing risk of isolation and even depression while navigating the day-to-day toddler grind. In New Zealand there is no current research focused on the mental health of parents of toddlers, despite plenty of anecdotal evidence.

The crucial first year
Much has been written about the dangers and prevalence of post-natal depression directly following a child’s birth. The Mothers Matter website for the Postnatal Depression Family/Whanau Trust says 10-15% of women suffer depression after having a baby.

During those early weeks, when the risk of post-natal depression is high, you’ll probably fi nd your level of support reasonably high as well. Neighbours, extended family and friends might make meals. They may offer to look after your older children and even to fold your washing. Eventually though, it is assumed you are coping with your bundle of joy and life moves on.

One year after having baby, you’ll not only have less help with dinners and laundry, but the time period for gaining publicly-funded treatment for mental health issues will have ended. Unfortunately, the financial barrier to seeing a trained professional often prohibits those women who are at risk of developing depression outside the first year of parenting from seeking help.

Psychologist, and mum of three, Natalie Flynn says, “If a woman doesn’t realise she is suffering from PND and is not seen within the public health care system in that first year, crucial time is lost for diagnosis and recovery”.

But Dr Flynn says the decision to work or stay at home with your children has to be made based on each woman’s needs and values.

There are plenty of theories around whether a child is better off in daycare or at home. What Dr Flynn stresses is that “to thrive, children need to be free from verbal, physical and sexual abuse, but other than that, each family situation is different”.

Radical acceptance
She suggests women stop basing their decisions on what they think they ‘should’ do. “Mothers need to be honest with themselves about what they want to do”, says Dr Flynn, “and once they have made their decision, they shouldn’t have to justify it to anyone else”.

It’s a process she terms ‘radical acceptance’. It makes sense. Part of identifying that you aren’t completely satisfied with your situation is figuring out what exactly it is that you want, and understanding the necessary steps you must take to get there.

Mum-of-four Jo Grogan agrees with this sentiment of acceptance. While she would have loved to return to work after the birth of her youngest, family circumstances prevented it. “I wanted to go back to work when my son turned one, but sleep deprivation due to my baby’s tongue-tie and eczema put an end to that. My husband and I discussed other options, such as looking after other people’s children in our home, but I didn’t think I would cope with more kids! I guess the decision to stay home was made for me by the situation.”

Having accepted that staying home with her children was the best scenario, Jo has been able to start her own website to help other families struggling with lip and tongue-ties. Despite striking a balance between working from home and raising young children, Jo acknowledges the relentlessness of parenting toddlers.

“There’s not a minute to yourself and if you do actually manage a moment then it probably revolves around tidying up the cyclonic mess the kids have created, washing, or preparing meals for when they arrive home.”

Reality check
To get to a place where you can recognise the joy in parenting a toddler, it first helps to know exactly what you are dealing with. Exactly what is a toddler?

Other than that pint-sized force of nature currently using your couch as a canvas, between the ages of 18 and 36 months, your jubilant infant will turn into an inquisitive, loud and demanding little person. Believe it or not, your child is behaving normally. He is testing boundaries, learning about relationships with parents and siblings, learning to speak and even mastering the art of assertiveness. “NO!” for the eightieth time today, anyone?

Dr Flynn believes this is where a lot of parents struggle. It can be easy in public to assume your child is behaving worse than other children. You simply notice their tantrum above all the others.

Secondly, fellow mums can adopt an air of smugness with their compliant child in tow. Dr Flynn suggests not placing too much stock in what other mums say about their own kids.

“No one really knows what is going on for everyone else. Their child could be an absolute terror at home, who knows?”

“What we need to do is stop judging and competing and just get on with parenting. It’s a hard enough job without adding the working/not working debate.”

If you are struggling with the toddler grind, Dr Flynn suggests a few practical tips for pushing through this challenging time. “No one is giving points away for doing it all without support”, she says.

Talk to your partner and tell them how you are feeling. Get them on board and ask them to pick up a few responsibilities such as cooking dinner two nights a week so you can go for a walk.

To escape from the bubble of toddler babble and Wiggles’ songs, try reading a challenging book.

Dr Flynn also recommends looking outside the home for services and groups that can help. Finding an activity your child really enjoys, such as a Little Kickers soccer class or story-time at the library, will link your child up with like-minded kids and help you form new friendships with other parents.

It is a sentiment that Shannon Hayden says has worked well for h er. “Once I ventured further than the park to entertain my kids, my life felt a bit less repetitive. By the time my youngest was two, my coffee group had split up, with the majority returning to work. I needed a new source of adult conversation.”

When you are in the toddler phase, it can be easy to forget it will pass all too quickly and you will be left longing for their cute mispronunciations. Until that day, it is easier to change your reactions to the challenges your toddler gives you, rather than expect toddler behaviour to change.

If you suspect your frustrations and low moods are persistent, speak to your GP or health professional. Here are some signs to watch out for:
●Feelings of helplessness and hopelessness
●Loss of interest in daily activities
●Appetite or weight changes
●Sleep changes
●Anger or irritability
●Loss of energy
●Reckless behaviour

These websites offer help and more information: 


Hannah is a former news reporter who lives in Auckland with her husband and two young sons. She escapes the highs and lows of the toddler grind with freelance writing and her love of the outdoors.


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