Gratitude for our families doesn’t mean we’re always happy. Moms routinely give up self-care (yes including sleep) for the perceived greater good. We break so many promises to ourselves, that the excuses sound hollow, even inside our minds. The consuming baby years, soon give way to demanding school-and-sport logistics. Finding free time feels like trying to breathe underwater. We grow distant from the passions that shaped our personalities. Over time, we forget how to have fun without our kids.
Most of us dwell in the land of never-done, a purgatory filled with managing email, picking up toys and cleaning the counters for the fifth time. It’s not surprising when, in most families, Moms are still responsible for all-things-children-and-household. Although it’s tempting to try to outsmart the to-do list, there’s a better way! I had the pleasure of speaking with KJ Dell’Antonia, Author and former Editor of the New York Times’ parenting blog, The Motherlode.
After writing about parenting, while raising four children of her own, she’s distilled practical wisdom about ‘How to Be a Happier Parent’ in her new book. Spoiler alert, carving out your happy is (not surprisingly) tied to embracing self-care…even amidst the beautiful chaos of motherhood.
Keep Your Other Loves
Self-care is a shield from life’s stressors. When I asked KJ about making space for it she said, “It’s so much more than getting a massage! Pick up or ‘re-pick up’ what you enjoy. If you can learn something new, put time and energy into something you’ve always craved.” I nodded my head in agreement. “Happier parents take their own needs into account when making decisions for the family. They are capable of making choices that allow them to survive.” We laughed. She gave a great example, “The 3-year old can roll a ball around on the opposite court when you play tennis with a friend. If you’ve spent the week going to work and driving the kids around, you need your tennis, you need a break!” Absolutely.
Taming The Kid-Activity-Monster
“Everything is full of Suzuki music or soccer. (Although) they may understand the worth of the activity itself… it isn’t about getting them into college and they’re (probably) not going pro.” She said. I smiled thinking about our activity schedule. She went onto explain, “Your kid doesn’t have to go to every practice. You may have never intended to be crazy over soccer, (but) saner options can be hard to find. It’s not your imagination, you’ve been gamed, but you can push back.” How? KJ said, “You can tell your kids ‘soccer doesn’t really work for me.’ Or ‘I can only take you there, we’d need to find another way (i.e. ask a friend) to get you home.’” Love it. KJ wisely pointed out, “It’s 50 minutes, on one hand, but (on the other) it’s really 2 ½ hours per week. Look at the total time.” I started to mentally calculate commuting to and from the activities, not to mention, responding to emails about them. The time adds up quickly. KJ also suggests we connect self-care activities with family activities. “If there’s a swim meet the next town over, with a bookstore you love in it, tell the kids ‘we’ll go to the bookstore afterwards.’” Wise!
Ritualize & Claim Your Productivity Time
“I do my writing in the mornings, usually between 8 and 10 or until noon. If I forgot I scheduled an orthodontist appointment at 8:30 am, or woke up 30 minutes later, then I adjust the time so I’m able to maintain my flow.” I wanted to understand how KJ makes space in her schedule (and life) for creative work. “I get up early and go to bed super early. I’m really resolute, it’s every day, even when I’m on vacation. My kids are older now…they can all be in the house with me, and may not be doing things I think are fantastic, but I can work because they’re more independent.” She said.
Step Away from The Screen!
Resisting screen time, is another superpower, in the battle over distractions. KJ shared, “At night when I turn my laptop off I also turn off Wi-Fi. I don’t turn it back on until after I’ve done my writing. I’m almost never looking at email before noon. When I do go in before then, it’s brief checks, to make sure an appointment I have is still on track and hasn’t been cancelled.” She also shared advice from Cal Newport’s book Deep Work, that, “A lot of people can get to you by email that 10 years ago couldn’t even reach you by physical mail!” So true. She focuses on 3 levels of email management:
- Once a day get through all of it
- Everything is dealt with by: a) being put on the to-do list, b) she answers it or c) it’s deleted.
“I tend to respond, but use some canned responses, (for frequent questions.) I’m also very ritualized about text messages and only text with my friends.”
Awareness of The Everyday Miracles
KJ said, “I tend to be happy even when things are not that hot and I’m happy with my daily routine… the book is mostly about the day to day.” How we spend most of our time affects how we feel. KJ explained, “A lot of that kind of happiness has to do with the story we tell ourselves about our lives. The research supports this. If the story is ‘I’m happy with my job, partner or lack of,’ it’s helpful for your brain. Happy people look back on the horrendous things and decide if it hadn’t happened, then this (other) positive thing, wouldn’t have happened.”
Reframe Your Experiences
Humans have survived by scanning the environment for threats. KJ said, “It’s important for our brain to look for the bad and focus on the bad.” Unfortunately, tricking our pre-historic brain, into doing what’s reasonable for modern threats isn’t easy.
KJ shared how she’s had to train herself to view things through this lens. “Even as a young parent… (I thought) he’s never napping, again, he will never sleep! I would go right down the worst possible path, I was ‘always and never.’ That spirals downward. It’s much easier to stop the spiral at the top. I had to learn I wasn’t helping myself and consciously choose.”
As KJ pointed out, “Most of us have a roof over our heads, and enough to eat…we have lovely modern lives. I think we can be happier if we see these things and value these things.”
Many thanks to the fabulous KJ Dell’Antonia for her time and sage advice!
For more wisdom about enjoying the parenting journey more, her new book How to Be a Happier Parent: Raising a Family, Having a Life and Loving (Almost) Every Minute comes out August 21, and if you order your copy now, you’ll get a code good for a free, happiness-inducing photobook from Chatbooks, a guide to Happier Mornings (plus a printable to hang in your kids’ bathroom: 10 Snuggly Reasons You Should Get More Sleep) For details, visit howtobeahappierparent.com.
Five years of editing the Motherlode column for the New York Times taught KJ this, family can be a source of joy, not stress. But for many of us, it’s not. Her reporting and research on parental happiness led to her new book, How to Be a Happier Parent. She writes regularly on the personal and policy aspects of parenthood for the New York Times and other publications and is the co-host of the #AmWriting podcast. KJ lives in New Hampshire with her husband, four children and assorted horses, chickens, dogs and cats.