I recently spent four days with my favorite two little munchkins, my 4 1/2 year old niece and 2 1/2 year old nephew, while their Two little munchkins teach Aunt Kristin about chronic illnessparents traveled to New York City. With Grandma’s help, I earned my “mommy” badge after dealing with sniffles, ballet class, naps, and all the assorted adventures that come with taking care of two toddlers. Going from zero to two children is not for the faint of heart and I realized that nature has designed parenthood perfectly. There is a reason you incubate a baby for approximately nine months and babies are cute, little snuggly cupcakes in their first year to prepare you for all the challenging stages to come. Stepping in as a surrogate parent has it’s challenges–you don’t know their routine, you feel a lot more protective and possibly more neurotic about every little move they make. Nevertheless, I am grateful for these warm-up experiences for parenthood and for the role I play in their lives. I do believe it takes a village to raise a child and I’m thrilled to live closer to these two little people. They teach me as much as I teach them.

In fact, in the same vein of Robert Fulghum’s All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, everything I need to know about living with chronic illness I could learn from living with two toddlers. Here are some of the “gems” I learned from my four days.

  •  Ease into the day: My favorite part of each day was waking up with my niece. We shared a room and I loved waking up to her little stretching sounds. We had a little “girl talk” session each morning and it gave me a chance to warm up my joints with my heating pad, drink some water, and greet the day gently. After 20 minutes, we were both ready to say hello to Grandma and get some breakfast. Breakfast was leisurely and never rushed, but the morning was never lazy. It was a good mix of gentle playtime to warm up our bodies and nutrition to give us energy.
  • Nutrition and regular mealtimes: My niece recognized the importance of a balanced diet and made sure I ate my baby carrots at lunch. We strive to make sure our children eat a balanced meal at every mealtime, but we so often forget to do the same for ourselves. I ate on time and I ate well when I was hanging out with the kids. My energy was well sustained throughout the weekend and I was never hungry like I seem to be when I’m on my own.
  • Eat only when hungry: Kids eat only when they are hungry because they listen to their bodies. They tell you when they are hungry and they stop eating when they are full. Why? Because they need to play! Their bodies are working so hard to grow and develop and they seem to be so much more in tune with what they need. Somewhere along the way, we lose this inherent connection with our bodies and minds.
  • Water, water! As a surrogate parent for four days, I was hyper-vigilant about pushing fluids into my niece and nephew. There was no way I would let these kids become dehydrated on my watch! And yet, I let myself get dehydrated all the time. Last summer I struggled with heat exhaustion on multiple occasions and I always have to remind myself to drink more water. Since I was constantly carrying and keeping track of their water bottles, I naturally carried my water bottle around and drank from it more often. Pushing their fluids made me push my fluids more. It was a win-win. (I highly recommend buying a colorful Camelback water bottle with measurements on the side so you can track how much water you drink per day.)
  • Daily hugs and say “I love you”: Every day with a child is filled with spontaneous hugs and expressions of love. While I’ve spent a lot of time with my niece and nephew, spending this extended amount of time provided the luxury of receiving impromptu hugs and cuddles. Even if you don’t have children, pets and other loved ones can certainly provide and receive such spontaneous expressions of affection. It’s good for the soul and the joints! A hug makes you forget–momentarily–your aches and pains. You can’t focus on pain when you’re feeling love.
  • Playtime and nature: Kids seek out playtime like it’s crack. Even when their eyes are fluttering shut, if they spot their favorite truck, they will be drawn to it like a magnet. As adults, we forget to play and nurture our souls and bodies in this natural way. Do you ever consider what activities bring you the most joy in the same way a child plays? Do you love to play the piano? Do you love to ride your bike? Bring those activities into your life one at a time and see how they nurture you, ease away your aches and flood the endorphins back into your system. Kids also love to be outdoors. A rainy day is a big bummer. As adults with chronic illness, sometimes we like rainy days because it’s an excuse to stay indoors under the covers. We can hide from the world. But sometimes the very best medicine is a little sunshine, a little bit of movement, and a little bit of interaction with the outside world. I’m reminded of my favorite quote from “We Bought a Zoo” where Matt Damon’s character says, “All it takes is 20 seconds of insane courage and great things will happen. I promise.” If you are feeling depressed, sometimes it just takes 20 seconds of courage to pick up the paintbrush, put on your shoes and step outside, pick up the phone and dial a friend, or turn off the TV and read a book.
  • Pacing, naps and a little down time: Kids generally follow a schedule and thrive with discipline. When we are battling a chronic illness, discipline can be our best ally. Pacing ourselves with breaks, naps, and rest time enables us to sustain our “new normal” and carry out the tasks of daily living that are necessary. My niece no longer takes naps, but she does engage in quiet activities in the afternoon to decompress while her brother takes a nap. If you have a hard time taking naps, what if you take a 30-60 minute break for some quiet time? Giving your mind a break by reading a magazine, calling a friend, or doing some light stretching is often the best medicine when you are stressed.
  • Reading, learning, art & creativity: My niece and nephew love to read. I think I read The Gingerbread Man Golden Book ten times over the weekend. Reading, art activities and games leave little time for Facebook, Twitter and other tech-related activities. And I found this to be a good thing. A lot of us can remember a time before we were dependent on our gadgets for amusement and it was a good time in our lives. Too much tech can leave us feeling frazzled and stressed. Many of my mom friends have set limits to how much time they spend e-mailing or on Facebook. Their e-mails are shorter and to the point. I found myself doing the same when I was with the kids and I realized that I need to adopt the same discipline in my life. Could you trade some Facebook and e-mail time for more indulgent reading? Is Facebook stressing you out rather than making you happy? Ask yourself if your tech time is really helping you or hurting you. Chronic illness is already a huge stressor, so you don’t need to add to it. Enrich your life with reading, learning, art and creativity!
  • Bedtime routine and a good night’s sleep: Children thrive when they follow a bedtime routine and my niece and nephew are super at following their nightly ritual without any arguments. This predictable schedule is calming and gives them something to look forward to–snuggles and a nightly story. You too can construct a nightly ritual that brings calm to your body and soul. I’ve been incorporating more stretching, lighting my favorite candle, using new body creams for my itchy skin, and trying to add my own nightly stories to my routine.
  • Smiles, jokes and silly time: Toddlers think up the silliest ideas and tell very interesting stories. I was laughing every day, multiple times per day. Smiling is their default expression and it taught me a lot about how smiles heal the body. I was exhausted the entire four days that I took care of my niece and nephew, but I honestly thought a lot less about my aches and pains because I was more focused on laughing, taking care of them and their needs. I still took my meds, I stretched and I always had my heating pad (which they loved to hide from me) but laughter was the name of the game, not pain. In the absence of these silly little kids in my daily life, I am seeking out funny friends, funny shows, and trying to maintain a smile as my own default expression.

Wishing you smiles and laughter in the weeks ahead!