Before you have a baby, it's impossible to imagine the highs you'll feel -- what can match seeing that big, toothless grin or watching him take those first wobbly steps? But it's just as hard to conceive of how stressful raising kids can be -- the worry, the fatigue, and the occasional pang over your lost freedom. The truth is, staying in good spirits with a little one at home can take some effort. But it's well worth it: Your happiness is not only vital for your own body and soul, but for your baby's too. In fact, one of the best ways to raise happy children is to model happiness ourselves, says Christine Carter, Ph.D., sociologist and author of Raising Happiness. So how do you find your bliss amid diapers and dirty dishes? First, try to recognize the humor in the ridiculousness. Research shows that laughter can relieve stress by "resetting" your nervous systems. And employ a few (or all!) of these proven pick-me-ups to stay on the sunny side of mommyhood.
Wake up to chocolate
"I eat a few small, rich pieces right after breakfast. And I feel more cheerful and energetic afterward."
--Annie Pryor; Bellbrook, Ohio Mom to a 2-month-old, 3-, and 6-year-old
Peace out in the shower
"My little sanity saver is a warm shower every night after the kids are asleep. It helps to ease the stress and muscle strain of chasing around a toddler and carrying an infant."
--Bola Ajumobi; Highland, California Mom to a 4-month-old and 3-year-old
Pimp your LazyBoy
"When I start to feel stressed, I sit in the recliner with a large electric massage mat underneath me. It's also convenient when the baby is acting fussy -- I put her on my lap, and I turn into a giant bouncy seat!"
--Robyn Buie; Perry, Oklahoma Mom to a 1-, 2-, 6-, and 12-year-old
Splurge just a smidge
"I don't have the money to go on a shopping spree, but every couple of weeks, I'll pop into Walgreen's after work and buy something for myself, like a new nail polish."
--Kelsey Klein; Imperial, Missouri Mom to a 17-month-old
Fire up the oven
"I bake -- cookies, cakes, pies, you name it! It's downright impossible to be in a bad mood when your house smells like a bakery."
--Kelly Frank, Pittsburgh Mom to a 3-month-old and a 5-year-old
Feed your brain while feeding baby
"My Kindle allows me to read one-handed and nurse at the same time. It also distracts me from focusing on my peacefully sleeping husband and feeling resentful!"
--Maya Gurantz; Irvine, California Mom to a 6-week-old
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Pound the pavement
"My kids love the jogging stroller, and I enjoy being outdoors and doing something for myself. I'm proud to say that I completed a marathon eight months after my baby was born. I even pumped at the starting line!"
--Micaela Birmingham, New York City Mom to a 16-month-old and 3-year-old
Chip in for a night out
"In our weekly playgroup, each mom brings $5 to save up for a girls' night out while the husbands stay home! I so look forward to getting dressed up and hitting the town with friends."
--Lindsay Pinchuk, Chicago Mom to a 6-week-old
Spy on your sweetie
"I like to watch my daughter do what she does best -- sing, dance, talk, play. I feel such joy realizing that, wow, I have an awesome girl and I had something to do with that."
--Gina Engler, San Diego Mom to a 3-year-old
Practice your Downward Dog
"When things get hectic, it's even more important that I carve out time for myself by doing a few yoga moves before going to bed."
--Megan McGuire Wilkie; Havre, Montana Mom to an 11-month-old, 10-, and 13-year-old
Cherish the snuggles
"The best part of my day is 'cuddle hour,' when I come home from work and my son climbs on my lap to read books. It?s hard to describe how wonderful it is. These moments bring me such a sense of peace and love."
--Hillary Bates; Columbus, Ohio Mom to a 2-month-old and 3-year-old
"When I need a lift, I put on a nice outfit, a bit of makeup, and head out, even if it's only to run errands. We both benefit: I feel attractive, and my baby loves to socialize!"
--Erica Daniels; Salina, Kansas Mom to a 1-, 7-, 9-, and 12-year-old
Enlist baby-free buddies to babysit
"A friend of mine takes my daughter for an 'adventure' once a week, giving me time to catch up on e-mail or go to appointments. It's a great change of scenery for Tabitha, and it's fun for my friend who loves children!"
--Michelle Tattenbaum, Brooklyn Mom to a 15-month-old
"At my new-moms' group we bounce ideas off one another and share advice about issues like feeding, sleeping, and babysitters. We're all in the same boat so I feel less alone."
--Kate Cheston, Chicago Mom to an 8-week-old
Date your mate
"While I practically live in sweats, it's really nice to primp and have a leisurely dinner and a beer together. On these dates I don't feel as if we've been together 13 years! Taking the time to connect puts me in a better mood, which means we argue less."
--Veronica Sandoval; Downey, California Mom to a 10-month-old and 3-year-old
Hire a high schooler
"I asked a teenage neighbor to come watch my son once a week for a few hours. Finally, I can take a walk, run out to the store, or simply curl up with a magazine. Plus, it gets my son used to other caregivers."
--Carly Fauth; Milford, Massachusetts Mom to a 20-month-old
Be a spin doctor
"It sounds clich?, but focusing on the bright side helps! So when my toddler won't leave the tub until every single toy has been put away, I try to remind myself that his thoroughness is actually something of an asset!"
--Susan Sikora; Apex, North Carolina Mom to a 1-, 6-, 7- and 9-year-old
Remember: You're more than a mom
"Doing work I really enjoy -- writing cookbooks and teaching cooking -- is my own way to revive and refresh. Having this identity separate from being someone's mom makes me appreciate being a mother even more."
--Rebecca Lang; Athens, Georgia Mom to a 13-month-old and 5-year-old
Rant, ramble, record
"I take time at least once a week to write about our life. This reminds me to focus on all the little things that are happening every day (a new tooth, a favorite new toy). By the time I finish writing, the chaos and stress have slowly melted away and I'm reminded of how lucky I am to have such precious gifts."
--Erika Trevathan; Tarboro, North Carolina Mom to a 6-month-old, 5-, and 9-year-old
"A glass of wine is simply divine. When consumed in moderation, it helps me unwind, release the day, and think a bit more positively."
--Heather Newton; Costa Mesa, California Mom to a 5-month-old and 20-month-old
Connect with a click
"Find other moms you can talk with, even if it's online. Two sites I really like: MommyGoggles.com and MomDot.com. When the subject is our children, I find people are surprisingly eager to open up and share."
--Jenna Goodwin; Nevada, Iowa Mom to a 2- and 3-year-old
Leave Gram and Gramps in charge
"We're lucky that our relatives live nearby and often volunteer to babysit. Taking them up on their generous offers lets us go out to dinner or simply do some shopping. Plus, I trust them completely."
--Kristi Kovich, Chicago Mom to a 12-week-old
Resist sizing yourself up
"To stop myself from constant comparisons with others, I remember this: Every mom is different, and so is every baby. Each child's development and behavior are unique."
--Cori Treisa; Indiahoma, Oklahoma Mom to a 3-month-old
Take a step back and look at the big picture
"I'm a stay-at-home mother of three kids under 3 years old. When I feel myself getting overwhelmed and frustrated, I try to stop, take a deep breath, and remember that children are only little once. In fact, they will be all grown up in the blink of an eye. Thinking about this gives me needed perspective. Should I really get upset over spilled milk? No!"
--Stephanie Arcell; E. Rutherford, New Jersey Mom to a 3-month-old and 2-year-old twins
Originally published in the May 2011 issue of American Baby magazine.