Prepare yourself and your child. Get things in order ahead of time when you don’t have time pressure so when you do, you can just grab and go. I make sure her backpack is packed before bed and have a breakfast ready to assemble so that when my daughter sleeps in, I can just assemble breakfast and grab the backpack to get out the door. Save your future self as a wise friend once told me. Prepare your child was something I learned from Big Little Feelings. Tell your child early and often what is going to happen so that they can feel mentally and emotionally more prepared for the change when it does come.
With all that’s going on in our country, our economy, the world, and on social media, it feels like so many of us are under a great deal of stress. Parenting, in particular, can be stress-inducing. We know chronic stress can be as unhealthy as smoking a quarter of a pack a day. It is also challenging to be a present parent when your relationship is under stress. What are stress management strategies that parents use to become “Stress-Proof? What are some great tweaks, hacks, and tips that help reduce or even eliminate stress? In this interview series, we are talking to authors, parenting experts, business and civic leaders, and mental health experts who can share their strategies for reducing or eliminating stress. As a part of this series, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Jennifer Stalley.
Jennifer Stalley is a pandemic parent who genuinely wants to help a mother out! As the Founder and President of Meemzy Magic, a for moms, by a mom company, she has set out to bring sensory play to children around the world and help moms take a load off. Prior to becoming an entrepreneur, she spent 15 years in the entertainment industry marketing the biggest entertainment releases of the year, in theaters with Fox and Sony Pictures, streaming at home with Hulu, and in video games at PlayStation.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to know how you got from “there to here.” Inspire us with your backstory!
Thank you Savio. I’m a pandemic parent who was already struggling with the transition to balancing work and motherhood. Both my husband and I were working from home, navigating a once in a lifetime, black swan event, and watching our daughter get closer to walking each day as her 1-year birthday approached. My stress levels, like most parents at that point, were the highest of my life. To top it off, I started a new job at a new company. I was struggling to share my focus between my daughter and my amazing new career opportunity. The 5–6 pm hour was the absolute hardest for me. I was so tapped out mentally, emotionally, and physically by 5 pm, but that was my 1:1 time with my toddler and time to cook dinner. I found sensory toy kits were a great activity that really engaged my daughter in a meaningful way, they encouraged independent play, and I could cook dinner right around her at the same time. It was an awesome solution as both of us were able to get what we needed: engaging play and dinner cooked! As an introvert, it was wonderful to have some quiet time to recharge and I felt like a great mom because my child was so engaged, and I could see the wheels turning in her head as she dove into the sand or play dough. The more I learned about sensory play, the more I craved this win/win feeling. There were 2 small problems for me though. The existing kits out there included so much plastic that I just couldn’t buy anymore. And secondly, there was a real lack of diversity and representation in the sensory kits out there. It came to a head one day as I was reading the comments on a social post from one of my favorite brands. The comment was from an African-American grandmother who really wanted a diverse option of the mermaid kit for her granddaughter; she wouldn’t buy it as is and her granddaughter was so excited about the new Ariel from Disney. My heart broke reading that comment and I decided I had to jump in and do something! Thus, Meemzy Magic was born to create more sustainable and inclusive sensory kits to support moms and children looking for engaging, meaningful sensory play.
What lessons would you share with yourself if you had the opportunity to meet your younger self?
Oh that’s a really tough question. I have a great fondness for my younger self. My life has been a great adventure; not all of it was highs, but it’s made me who I am today. I am still working on advocating for myself as much as I do others, listening to what I need, and saying “no” so that I can put my energy into what I want. Along those lines, I have a hard time knowing when to quit, but that has been a really useful skill as an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs are so time strapped that you need to decide quickly where to invest your time for maximum return.
I really love people and making people happy, but younger me was too tolerant of toxic people. I’ve flourished whenever I was surrounded by the right people. In hindsight, I should have quit things sooner and moved on the instant I saw a red flag. I would have seen more success and happiness sooner.
One of the reasons motherhood was such a challenge for me was that I really didn’t practice these skills of self-care, self-acceptance, and saying “no” before this major life change. And so much of the current discussion around birth, childcare, parenting, etc is 100% focused on the baby or the child. Where is the acknowledgement that a healthy, happy mother, matters just as much as a healthy, happy little one? I was really tossed around post-partum, and then in the pandemic, with too much guilt and hyperfocus on my daughter at the detriment of myself. When I changed my focus to what keeps us both happiest, the stress level came way down.
None of us are able to experience success without support along the way. Is there a particular person for whom you are grateful because of the support they gave you to grow you from “there to here?” Can you share that story and why you are grateful for them?
Yes, my mom has been a life saver! She was our emergency support through the pandemic when we needed childcare, but didn’t want a ton of exposure to COVID and when we had a ton of struggles finding a good childcare solution as daycare spots were few and far between, nannies were in high demand, and then we were evacuated for the wildfire threat, she was always there for us. All of that additional time with “Meems” was a real silver lining for me. She made me feel so supported; I felt like the best mom in the world! I learned how to let down a bit and enjoy the sweet moments with my baby. It’s one of the reasons I’ve named my new company after her. I wanted that feeling for all the moms out there. I’m sending a little of Meems’ magic their way with each product.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think it might help people?
Yes, of course! I’m currently launching my new business Meemzy Magic. We help busy working parents engage meaningfully with their children through the magic of sensory play. Sensory play is proven to increase learning children experience through play by developing awareness of their senses through hands-on learning and reduces negative emotions like stress and anxiety by up to 65%1. The nerve connections in the brain are built through sensory engagement, creating more complex learning tasks. Sensory play also supports language development, cognitive growth, fine and gross motor skills, problem solving skills, and social interaction. My favorite part of sensory play though is that it encourages independent play. It was a real lifesaver for me as a working mom of a toddler in the early pandemic shelter in place days. I would put a sensory toy kit in the middle of my kitchen at 5 pm to catch my breath while I got dinner made and it was a screen-free solution: a win, win! I wanted to send that same support out to the parenting community because I know how tough the role can be and I know this is a great solution for the parents and the children.
Ok, thank you for sharing your inspired life. Let’s now talk about stress. How would you define stress?
Stress is a physical reaction to a situation, event, or factors that we can’t control and threaten our peace, happiness, and safety.
In the Western world, humans typically have their shelter, food, and survival needs met. So what has led to this chronic stress? Why are so many of us always stressed out?
In our modern society, there is a real push to constantly do as much as possible with our resources: time, money, energy, focus, etc. Looking at technological advancements through history, we often had the aspiration that this new technology would make things so much more efficient that we could do anything else with that time ie rest and relax more. In reality, we are just doing that much more because these former tasks don’t take so long and then using that time saved for MORE WORK. The washing machine for instance was a huge leap forward in household chores, but instead of saving all this time on laundry, now we just assume laundry should take hardly any time and filled that time with other work or chores. Until out mindset shifts and prioritizes this rest and relaxation, technology isn’t the answer to chronic stress.
The other piece of stress when looking at historical comparisons is the element of physical movement. For most of human history, stress came from a physical threat that we could solve by moving our bodies away so we evolved to have physical movement reduce the stress hormones experienced. In our modern society where stress largely comes from mental and emotional events, we are not required to physically move to reduce the threat and until the physical stress response is addressed to actively reduce the stress hormones, they will remain there continuing to drive these stress feelings and symptoms.
What are some of the physical manifestations of being under a lot of stress? How does the human body react to stress?
There are 3 ways to react to an emotion. 1. You can ignore it by numbing or distracting with an alternative like screens, alcohol, or something else that gives your brain a positive feeling. 2. You can suppress the feeling; this feels a lot like trying to push a beach ball down in the pool. You know eventually you will tire, and it will pop up to hit you in the face when you least need it. 3. You can process the feeling, acknowledge it, sit with it, analyze it, and then decide how you’d like to proceed.
If you tend to ignore or suppress big emotions, this can have a terrible effect on your health in the long-term with physical and mental manifestations. We also do ourselves a disservice to say that time will solve the stress too. We need to actively do something about the stress to remove it from our body and mind. One of the best things a parent can do when they feel their stress level rising is to go for a walk, ideally outside. Walking gently increases your heart rate, gets blood pumping, and produces endorphins that improve your mood. It can be the quiet moment you needed to process all the thoughts cramming into your mind so you can process and refocus on what matters most. Sunlight boosts Vitamin D production and being in nature has been shown to have calming effects on our mind and body, reducing stress and anxiety. The best part is, you don’t have to get your workout gear out or any special shoes. Just get out the door and walk for 10 minutes before you turn around to head back home.
Is stress necessarily a bad thing? Can stress ever be good for us?
Stress is an evolutionary adaptation. Stress gets us moving when we NEED to move. In modern parenting though, we have so many stressors that are not solved by running away! What many of us are looking for is flow or relaxed progress. Parenting flow looks like both you and your child having your needs met with activities which are fulfilling, rewarding, joyful for both of you. Sometimes that happens together and sometimes it happens in parallel. Unfortunately for many parents, the most stressful time of the day is the 5–6 pm hour when they return from work to meet an eager child ready to play, talk and engage when your energy is at its lowest in the day. After confessing how much I dreaded the 5 pm hour to a friend, she tried to help by assuring me 30 minutes of tv while I cooked dinner wouldn’t ruin my child; she certainly did it too and her daughter is a doctor now! I wasn’t quite satisfied with this solution though and I found an alternative way to thrive by using sensory kits. I would come home with one of sensory toy kits and set it up in the middle of my kitchen! This gave me a little breathing room to get dinner made and let my battery recharge a bit. And honestly, I felt like a terrific parent in these moments as I was able to revive my energy and cook dinner all while my daughter was meaningfully engaged in her play and not a little screen zombie.
Is there a difference between being in a short-term stressful situation versus an ongoing stress? Are there long-term ramifications to living in a constant state of stress?
Yes, to both of those questions. Ongoing stress can become a chronic condition and it can be quite addicting. People learn to crave the hormone increase from stress and then relief, but it’s so hard on your body to remain in that stress loop. It’s something I am trying really hard to break as a habit, particularly with my daughter. I want her to value peace, balance, harmony and relaxation in her life.
Let’s now focus more on the stress of parenting. This feels intuitive, but it is helpful to spell it out in order to address it. Can you help articulate why being a parent can be so stressful?
Because you always want to do the best for your little one! The stakes feel so high. And it’s incredibly isolated as a modern parent. For most of human history, kids were raised by a group. Their mom (and/or) wasn’t the sole source for everything from food, sleep, for discipline and entertainment and play historically. That’s a fairly recent expectation when you look across the span of human history. Our society isn’t built with kids and families in mind. Public transportation isn’t designed to be safe for children to use alone nonetheless with infant and child car seats. School and work calendars don’t align anymore; the school calendar was designed to align with an agrarian society. We don’t live in multi-generational homes like other societies do where extended family are available to keep an eye on the kids while you take 20 minutes to shower.
Can you help spell out some of the problems that come with being a stressed parent?
Stress robs you of so much joy and happiness! Stress makes you focus on the things that are or could go wrong. It’s a sad mindset to be in. Stress competes for your attention and directs you away from your children; special moments just zoom right by you while you are mentally in this dark place just worrying. It’s totally understandable too; parents can get in a rut and build a habit around stress. Once you “survive” a stressful situation, you can develop something called survivor’s guilt where you tell yourself that it was fine the last time, so it will be fine again. In reality, it could just be that you got lucky and it wasn’t the right decision in the first place.
Here is the main question of our interview: Can you share with our readers your “5 stress management strategies that parents can use to remove some of the stress of parenting?” Please share a story or example for each.
- Automate automate automate. I’ve automated all of the most important things in my life because it prevents me from getting in my own way. Studies have shown that when it comes to investing, the people who are actively managing (aka moving investments around) actually do worse in the long run compared to those who set it and forget. Think about what you can put on auto pilot in your parenting to take more of the mental work off your plate so you can get straight to the fun! Are there subscriptions to activities you love to do with your kids so you are guaranteed some meaningful play on a regular basis? Decision fatigue is real, so automating leaves more mental energy for the time you are engaging with your kids.
- Prepare yourself and your child. Get things in order ahead of time when you don’t have time pressure so when you do, you can just grab and go. I make sure her backpack is packed before bed and have a breakfast ready to assemble so that when my daughter sleeps in, I can just assemble breakfast and grab the backpack to get out the door. Save your future self as a wise friend once told me. Prepare your child was something I learned from Big Little Feelings. Tell your child early and often what is going to happen so that they can feel mentally and emotionally more prepared for the change when it does come.
- Don’t sweat the small stuff, focus on the big wins. Not everything will be perfect all the time so just keep moving in the right direction and celebrate when you do have a big win. This is really helpful with regard to feeding your kids for example. If there’s a day when your toddler only wants to eat blueberries, try not to fret too much about it and make it a big deal (and therefore becomes a power struggle). You can get back to eating a variety of foods the next day. Generally speaking, if your kid eats a variety of foods over time, that is success! Perspective over battles.
- Offload! Think about what gets in your way or prevents you from being the best parenting version of yourself? Whenever something needs to get done or managed like when a kid is home sick from school, there are 3 answers to who needs to handle that: 1. You 2. Your spouse or 3. someone else. If you’re feeling a lot of stress about a situation, how can you get to a good outcome without putting more work on your own plate? Think about how to set up safety nets and back up solutions 2 or 3 layers deep so you have lots of options especially when you have short notice.
- Reduce the clutter around you to reduce the stress hormone cortisol. With kids, this can be such a task, particularly considering how many toys come with 1,000 tiny parts. Some of us are more responsive to being surrounded by beauty or clutter and there’s just something about cheap plastic toys being scattered about that really elevates the stress for everyone around. When possible, look for toys that spark joy and relaxation because they are beautiful, friendly to the planet, heirloom quality, and peaceful for the family.
Do you have any favorite books, podcasts, or resources that have inspired you to live with more joy in life?
I loved reading Marie Kondo’s book Spark Joy. I couldn’t listen to it without following along and tidying my house with her. I love listening to the ChooseFI podcast. They talk a lot about the power of financial independence and how it can unlock so much happiness for people to be freed up in time and money to do what they choose. It’s not a small task, but I love hearing about people who got out of debt and climbed their way to FI to live the life they choose instead of just punching a clock for decades. Travelling has given me so much perspective too in that I have seen have many different cultures live and sometimes I just have to laugh at myself when I get a little “too American” about something. For example, my now -husband and I were in Belize trying to convince the eco-lodge we loved to host our wedding, and they said, “no!” I came back with “ok, ok, how much though?” As if money would solve the situation… it didn’t, but we got to the bottom of the issue and convinced them in the end, thank goodness!
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would love to make sustainability in toys a movement. As a society, we have this perception that plastic toys are the only “safe” option, but are they really? Plastic toys break easily. Plastic comes at a huge cost to the environment. Without a healthy planet for our children to inherit, how can you say plastic was the better choice? There are 21,000 pieces of plastic in the ocean for EVERY PERSON ON EARTH right now. That’s insane to me! And knowing how fast kids go through toys, I just couldn’t start a toy business that contributed to the plastic accumulation on Earth. I couldn’t sleep at night knowing I was trying to scale an unsustainable solution. It’s made launching my business so much harder to be so eco-friendly. I had to create containers that did not exist and figuratively tear up the Internet to find bio friendly components for the Meemzy Magic sensory kits, but I know that it’s worth it and the more businesses who ask for these kinds of solutions, the easier it will be in the future.
What is the best way for our readers to continue to follow your work online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent on this. We wish you only continued success.