Three years ago, New York magazine published a splashy cover story called "All Joy and No Fun: Why Parents Hate Parenting." I didn’t have kids then, but I knew I wanted some, and I read that article with a sense of bone-deep dread. The author, Jennifer Senior, referenced dour statistics like, in a survey of more than 900 Texas women, "child care ranked 16th in pleasurability out of 19 activities." In particular, Senior noted, studies have shown that mothers are unhappier than fathers, and parents of babies and toddlers have it rough. I cataloged all of this for future reference, and it came rushing back when I had a healthy baby girl late last year.
To have a new child is to have a rush of conflicting, high-pitched emotions: I am so full of love for this creature . . . but I’m so exhausted I want to die . . . look at her tiny, remarkable fingies! . . . good lord, I wish she would stop screaming. So I was pleased to notice that a chapter in Sonja Lyubomirsky’s new book, The Myths of Happiness: What Should Make You Happy, but Doesn’t, What Shouldn’t Make You Happy, but Does, seemed directly pitched to a new mom like me. It’s called "I’ll Be Happy When . . . I Have Kids," and it mentions some of the research the New York article bemoaned three years back. It also adds some more depressing tidbits, such as "when people are asked how happy they are before and after they bring home their first baby; the second report is significantly lower than the first." Ouch.
Lyubomirsky is a psychology professor who specializes in the complex topic of happiness. Her last book, The How Of Happiness, was a guide for people looking to get more of it. Lyubomirsky’s new book, I found, did something the bleak Senior piece avoids: It gives the reader concrete strategies for becoming a happier parent. So in the interest of journalism—and in the self-interest of getting through those 3 a.m. wake-up calls with a bit more élan—I decided to take Lyubomirksy’s advice and see if it made a difference. Here are four parental happiness tips inspired by The Myths of Happiness.
Lyubomirsky points out that sometimes the bad parenting moments can be more aggravating than major problems. For example, you’re more frustrated and pissy about your toddler’s supermarket temper tantrum than you are about a serious illness your baby is facing—because you rise to the occasion and get social support for the latter. No one is going to be particularly sympathetic when your son is throwing cookies from the grocery store shelf.
So Lyubomirsky suggests reframing or figuring out coping mechanisms for the small stuff. "If we resolve to focus our attention on the little bad things with respect to parenting," she explains, "we will recover from them more quickly, be happier and have the vitality and stamina to face another day." Our daughter is so young that—knock wood—all our parenting problems are the stuff of minor annoyances and we haven’t faced down those big scary problems just yet.
Unsurprisingly, the biggest irritation when you have a baby is the little dears don’t always sleep very well. Here, Lyubomirsky might suggest reframing the situation in a more positive light, which I attempted to do. Yes, our daughter still wakes up every night for an hour in which she needs to be fed, soothed, changed. Yes, we’re still very, very tired the next day. But, she does sleep better than many babies her age, and there’s something special and irreplaceable about being awake with her in the predawn quiet.
I wrote this down in a notebook—Lyubomirsky is a big fan of note-jotting (more on that in a second)—and the expression of positivity helped . . . a little. Frankly, prolonged newborn-related exhaustion is only really solved by two things: your kid learning to sleep and massive amounts of daytime caffeine. But pausing briefly each night that I was up to be mindful of the moment did make me mildly happier.
When you have a life with myriad personal and work obligations, sometimes inserting a baby into the picture feels overwhelming. As Lyubomirsky points out, there are a lot of conflicting emotions involved for parents when it comes to negotiating all of life’s responsibilities. They might feel guilty about not spending enough time with their kids, or pissed at their spouses for not pulling their weight. "The secret," she says, "is not necessarily in airing these feelings but rather in the actual writing about them—the words themselves . . . putting our emotional upheavals into words helps us make sense of them, accommodate to them, and begin to move past them."
She suggests keeping a parenting journal for at least three to five consecutive days, if not longer. I must confess I did the bare minimum, here, but I did find it soothing. One Friday, I was alone for 12 hours with the baby, and I began to feel trapped. It was too cold outside to go for a walk, and I thought I would jump out of my skin with boredom and loneliness. Then I felt guilty for being bored and lonely. "She’s only going to be a little baby for a short while," some Stepford voice in my head said—"Shouldn’t I enjoy every pwwwecious moment?"
But while the baby napped, I wrote down some of these feelings, and I found that it allowed some of that claustrophobia to dissipate. It gave me the same sense of relief as a deep exhale might have, and when the baby woke up I was able to be a little more present with her, rather than resentful that there wasn’t anything we could really do together. I even developed a written mantra that I’ve told myself several times since that journaling day: You don’t have to enjoy every second of this, you just have to do it. It helped me really let go of some of the guilt.
There have been a few days when our daughter has been inexplicably fussy. She’s not wet, she’s not hungry, but her screams still ring through the air. My husband would keep asking me, "What’s wrong with her? Is it gas?" To which I replied, somewhat testily, "I don’t know, I don’t speak baby." During these rough days, it’s hard to remember that her infancy is a finite period, but Lyubomirsky counsels us to "contemplate the ‘big picture’ perspective—why we chose to have children in the first place, how our parenting experience will shift and improve with time, and what we wish to contribute to society and to future generations."
Here, it’s helpful to observe my parents with the baby. She’s their first grandchild, and the look of satisfaction on their faces every moment they spend with her is truly and deeply heartwarming (of course, they get to go home at the end of the day to their blissfully baby-free household, but still). The amount of pleasure they get from spending time with the collected clan is truly unparalleled by anything else they’ve experienced, and they express this all the time.
They also helped my husband and me adhere to Lyubomirsky’s next tip . . .
"If we are burned-out and unhappy—or worse, depressed—we simply cannot be outstanding parents," she writes. "Taking a break from the daily grind can revitalize us, restore us, fortify us, and remind us which are the big rocks in our lives."
Two weekends ago, my parents came over for an evening and babysat so my husband and I could have dinner at a restaurant around the block and then go to a birthday party. Just a few hours away recharged us and after a respite in grown-up land, we were missing our little girl. That night, even waking up with her in those difficult predawn hours was a joy.
Am I the happiest mommy on the block after following Lyubomirsky’s dictates? Eh, I don’t know about that. But at least I am confident that the picture of parenting isn’t as unrelentingly grim as that New York magazine article made me fear it might be (child care must rank at least 15th in pleasurability for me!). And I do think her book helped me focus more on the fleeting moments of babyhood than I might have otherwise. That makes it worth the read.