The Secret to Happier Parenting

We're running ourselves ragged taking care of our children. But it's better -- for us and our kids -- if we're less hands-on.
mother and kids

Although I don't think of myself as a "hyper parent," the kind whose children -- with their daily obligations and social commitments -- have taken over her life, let's visit the evidence, shall we? Tonight my husband and I will trade car-pool duties to ice hockey for our 11-year-old and swim practice for our 8-year-old, on opposite sides of town, a hustle we repeat several times a week. After checking homework, signing permission slips, and setting up playdates, I'll confirm plans with the babysitter -- not for a date night, but to attend parent meetings at school. Our 2-year-old is too young for most activities, but there's no time anyway. Sometimes when I do have a quiet moment to reflect, say while sitting on a plastic mushroom in the playspace at the mall, I wonder, "Where did my life go?"

That's not to say I don't treasure my children or my time with them, which I do, immensely. It's just that, frankly, it's work being a parent in 2014. Our generation of parents is not only expending more mental energy on our kids -- from tallying their screen time to monitoring their sugar intake -- but we're with them more than ever too. In 1995, mothers spent an average of about 12 hours a week actively attending to their children, not including regular time "around" their kids (like at dinner or during solitary play), according to a University of California, San Diego study. By 2007, that number had risen to 21 hours. That's nine additional hours of hands-on parenting every week. (Fathers still trail moms in child care but in that same time period they too doubled their hours of hands-on parenting.)

On the surface, it's great that we're spending more time with our kids. Where things have gone wrong, however, is the pressure that parents feel to invest every morsel of energy into our children and their budding future -- and the guilt we feel when we can't be there because we're working, exhausted, or both. "Mothers used to send their children out to play and not expect to see them until dinnertime, so kids learned to amuse themselves, be self-sufficient, and solve their own problems," says Leslie Bennetts, a mother of two adult children and the author of The Feminine Mistake: Are We Giving Up Too Much?, a whole book about the dangers of women sacrificing their own life in the name of "good" parenting. "But women today feel incredible pressure to supervise every waking moment of their children's lives, micromanage every activity, and involve themselves in every challenge their kids might face."

I mull over Bennetts's take, and think ... "busted." I have a window open on my tablet about a parent-toddler swim class. I've been feeling mildly guilty that my youngest doesn't have her own thing, in part because I work full-time here at Parents. My friends likewise routinely talk about how they're "bad moms" because they missed the sign-up for peewee tennis lessons or couldn't attend the latest midday celebration at their kid's preschool.

How does a mother get to a place where she feels lesser-than because she hasn't signed up for Aqua-Tots? "The pressure to manage kids puts a ridiculous amount of stress on mothers and makes them feel horribly guilty for working or having an independent life," says Bennetts. "We shouldn't feel guilty at all."

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