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I’D BEEN A PARENT FOR CLOSE TO 12 YEARS by the time it occurred to me to ask myself if the whole thing really had to feel this hard. As a journalist, I’d been writing about the cultural, societal, and political aspects of family life for a decade, and the one thing I knew, as I began to contemplate the question of why I wasn’t more satisfied with my life as a parent, was that I wasn’t alone. I interviewed hundreds of parents over the course of that decade. Most found happiness more elusive than they’d hoped.
At the same time, research was revealing a dismaying level of stress and dissatisfaction among my parenting peers, even those with a handle on the basics (food, shelter, health) and without any immediately obvious bonus challenges at any given moment. We tell researchers we’d rather make dinner than spend time with our children. We give up our own hobbies and pleasures in pursuit of our children’s betterment. We answer surveys about our satisfaction with our lives and families in ways that lead to headlines like “How Having Children Robs Parents of Their Happiness” and books like All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, and then we devour the results as vindication of our overwhelming sense of being caught up in a race we can’t win. Parenting, writes Judith Warner in her book Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, has become “poisoned” through “a choking cocktail of guilt and anxiety and resentment and regret.”
Sure, some moments, and even some days or weeks, are truly terrible. But many of us, most days, lead modern lives filled with convenience and possibility and abundance that we tend to fail to appreciate. Instead of a comfort and a refuge, our homes and families have become an additional source of anxiety.
Not everyone feels that way, of course. Even in the worst of the “children make people less happy” research, a solid chunk of parents disagreed. They’re the happier parents, the ones smiling through even the most painful soccer losses and looking utterly relaxed as they drop their kids off to take the PSAT. So what do they do that most of us don’t?
My own research and other studies suggest that happier parents in general do four things well. They shift from heavier involvement to fostering independence as their children become more capable. They don’t put their children’s everyday needs above their own. They look for the good in day to day experiences, and they can spot a child-threatening tiger at 50 paces. But more importantly, they know that most things that happen to our children, even the failures and the losses and the disappointments, are not tigers at all.
In a study of just under 1,000 parents that I conducted with Matthew Weinshenker, an associate professor of sociology at Fordham University, we looked for parents who qualified as “happier,” that is, they generally felt effective and had the sense that they’re pretty good at parenting, which is a common academic measure of parent satisfaction. Then we looked for patterns: What exactly did those parents do differently? When doing homework with children, for instance, happier parents tended to be more involved if they had younger children, while parents of older children were happier when their kids did homework independently. That pattern of involvement, decreasing as kids grew up, suggests that happier parents let their relationship with their children evolve.
Parents who reported being happier also considered their own needs. When making decisions ranging from the mundane (what to serve for dinner) to the complicated (where to go on vacation), they made choices that worked for the whole family rather than focusing wholly on their kids’ desires and preferences. They also maintained their own leisure interests, which they sometimes shared with their children and sometimes did not. In practice, that means parents schedule their own guitar lessons in addition to (or instead of) driving kids to violin, or train for Tough Mudder races — even as many of us claim to be “too busy” to indulge in our own passions. (We find plenty of time for our devices, though. Parents of children ages 8-18 report spending an average of more than 7½ hours a day on personal screen media use outside work. That probably doesn’t make us happier.)
Other research strongly supports what I found through interviews with parents who described themselves as happy — that they appreciate what’s good about their lives, and recognize that most of what we worry about daily won’t have as big an impact on that good stuff as we fear. This is harder than it sounds.
Rick Hanson, a neuropsychologist who wrote Resilient: How to Grow an Unshakable Core of Calm, Strength, and Happiness, describes our brains as “hard-wired” to take in the bad and ignore the good. For our ancestors, assuming every unknown bush could conceal a hungry tiger was a positive adaptation. Modern life may contain few tigers, but many of our brains react to present-day risks as if they were equally as threatening. Hanson’s work suggests that we can change that wiring by noticing and taking time to appreciate the moments when we feel confident, secure, and happy. In something of a tautology, happier parents are often those who consider themselves happier. In the stories they tell themselves about their lives, they focus on the meaning and excitement that comes from the adventure of raising a family, rather than the inevitable disappointments and hard moments.
Positive thought is powerful, but you cannot bring about more joyful mornings or less stressful evenings just by wishing it so (sadly, that is not The Secret to happier parenting). We need to make changes in our day-to-day lives that reflect the changes in our attitude.
This morning, my almost-13-year-old needed to meet someone at the library at 10:30. Her father and I could get her there, conveniently, at 10 — or at a small sacrifice to one of us at 10:30. Not surprisingly, she didn’t want to be early. As parents, these low-level questions of priority surface regularly. Maybe you’ve reserved the next hour to read, and you’ve been working toward it all day, but now your son wants a ride to a friend’s house. We all know our children come first in a crisis. But many of us habitually put our child’s needs (or desires, or preferences) first in all of those extremely noncritical situations. Somewhere along the way, we classified their stuff as “have to” and our stuff as “want to,” and we all know how that turns out.
Always putting kids first leaves us as parents feeling unsatisfied, and it isn’t good for our children, either. Kids feel more secure when the adults around them set reasonable limits on their behavior and demands, and putting our own preferences first is more than reasonable. As adults, we’re uniquely able to do the things that allow our families to function. We earn the money, pay the rent, cook the food. We are allowed to consider our own happiness. We need to consider our own happiness.
Happier people make better employees. They volunteer more. They’re more creative, healthier, and more productive. They spread their happiness to the people around them, and they have stronger relationships — and children who have better relationships with their parents are happier, too. As parents, we’re doing too much for our kids and not enough with them, or for ourselves. Spending an extra half-hour at the library — or, in our case, dealing with a child who was pretty unhappy about it — isn’t a tiger. It isn’t even poison ivy. It’s just a bump in a road on which ultimately, we all had a pretty good day trip.
Which brings me to another important point. This whole happier thing isn’t a destination. You don’t become a happier parent and then put a finish coat on it and call it done. If, on any given day, things feel better, go more smoothly, leave us putting our heads on our pillows with a sense of pleasant expectation for tomorrow, then we lick the back of a gold star and keep going. Because while there is an end goal of parenting — raising functional adults — being a happier parent isn’t about getting there. Just the opposite. It’s about not wanting to rush to the end, because you’re right in the middle of everything you love.
BEFORE WE GO ANY FURTHER, I’ll go ahead and reveal the ending, at least for me: It really is possible to be a much happier parent. Maybe you’re at max happiness already, but I wasn’t, and I don’t think most of us are. When I started to apply what I’ve learned, things changed. My children get along better, and I handle it better when they don’t. Mornings aren’t ultra-stress sprints anymore, and while homework is scarcely making anyone in the house happy, it’s not a big drain on my personal resources at the end of a long day. That leaves me with more to give at bedtime, and more ability to do things for myself as the evening winds down. So much of what shifted for me wasn’t in what I did, but in how I thought about it. I was like Dorothy with her sparkly red shoes: I had what I needed to get where I wanted to go all along.
All along, I found that I kept coming back to a few fundamental rules that applied again and again, and those came to form the guiding principles of my own life as a happier parent. When I’m uncertain, reaching for my next move, or about to lose my mind over a seeming “crisis,” these are words I come back to. I hope they’ll work that way for you, too.
1. What you want now isn’t always what you want later. So many times, I would rather just take the easy way out. I can clear a child’s dishes off the table. I can tell her the answer to that math problem. I can e-mail his teacher to get him out of a jam. But doing those things now doesn’t teach my kids to do them later. In the short run, it means I’ll spend a lot of time doing their work, and in the long run, it will mean I haven’t given them what they need to grow up. In parenting, you mostly have to go the long way.
2. There is nothing wrong. This came from a book I read years ago with a very Buddhist slant (Sarah Susanka’s The Not-So-Big Life). In her usage, there never was anything wrong, and there never could be anything wrong, because whatever had happened had already happened and was therefore the way it was, and not wrong. I can’t take it that far (which is why I am not a Buddhist), but I find this a comforting place to return to when things are going wrong. Child tantrum, job troubles, teenager in crisis, sickness, broken bones . . . fundamentally, nearly always, things are still OK. As Michel de Montaigne put it, “My life has been full of terrible misfortunes, most of which never happened.” And most of the time, it’s exactly true. There is nothing wrong.
3. People, including children — especially children — change. I’m a first-class catastrophizer. If something isn’t going well, I tend to think it never will. He will never like school. She will never eat yogurt. Those two will never get along. I’m almost always wrong. Picky eaters evolve. Lazy students get motivated. Kids learn. That’s kind of the point. But it’s very important that we let them, instead of getting in their way by assuming they’ll stay where they are.
4. You don’t have to go in there . This is my shorthand for reminding myself not to be infected by my family’s moods, from my daughters’ dramas to my husband’s occasional grumps. It comes from the tendency of one child to go into her closet and slam the door when she’s upset. While it’s true that sometimes I need to literally “go in there” to be with her, I don’t need to go into her mood, and it won’t help either of us if I do.
5. Sometimes, if you see something, don’t say anything. I don’t have to leap into every sibling battle or correct every minor infraction, especially if a child is having a bad day. Many things go better if I don’t intervene, and it’s possible to learn even the lessons that need the most repetition while occasionally getting a pass.
6. You do you. I have friends who do a lot of great things with their children. They take them on hundred-mile-long cross-country ski camping trips. They spend a year in Madrid. They build a treehouse, volunteer at a soup kitchen, jam on their guitars, build a stone wall, rescue endangered turtles, have board game tournaments, take their crepe cart to farmers markets.
We do not do anything of those things. Importantly, I do not want to do any of those things. We do our things, some of which sound just as fantastic and some of which don’t, and that’s OK. I can’t raise my kids as traveling circus acrobats because I am not a traveling circus acrobat, even if that would make a fantastic college application essay. A corollary to this is you can’t do everything. You can’t.
7. You can be happy when your children aren’t. Our kids will have disappointments. They will make terrible decisions. Other people will screw them over. Luck won’t always fall their way. Sometimes we will ache for them. Sometimes we will be struggling not to say “I told you so.”
Either way, we can keep our own inner equilibrium. Sympathy and empathy don’t have to mean that our worlds come crashing down around us when that’s how it feels to our kids. Usually, we have something our children don’t: perspective. We know what’s big, and what isn’t. Understand your child’s feelings from the security of your own, and give your child the distance she needs to experience her own emotions without a sense of being responsible for yours.
8. Decide what to do, then do it. Being a parent can mean doing a lot of waffling. TV or no? Candy? Snack? Scary movie? Concert? We weigh alternatives. We reconsider. We think, sometimes too much. Decide what to do, then do it reminds me that most of these choices aren’t life altering. It also reminds me to actively decide and then stick with it, instead of answering thoughtlessly and then giving in to begging later.
9. You don’t have to get it right every time. You’re not even supposed to. No one does. You’ll get another chance tomorrow.
10. Soak up the good. In his book Hardwiring Happiness, Rick Hanson describes the way humans are wired to put more weight on negative experiences than on positive ones. We can be happier, he says, if we train our brain to revel in the positive. According to his research, noticing when things are good and making an effort to soak that in feeds dopamine (a positive, calming neurotransmitter) to our amygdala, helping it to want and seek out more dopamine. Thanks to Hanson, I’ve been pausing to absorb even the simplest of good moments. We’re all in the car talking and no one is squabbling. The sun is shining and my kid is excitedly sharing plans for the afternoon. It even works when things aren’t obviously going well — when one of my kids comes to me with a problem or a disappointment — even while I sit holding that child, a part of me takes in the pleasure of being there. Soak up the good builds a reservoir of happiness for when things feel bad. Fill that reservoir, and you have happiness that stays with you.