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Find Your Happy Parent Place

smiling couple outside

Kate Powers

Welcome to a typical mom morning. It begins when your toddler dive-bombs into your bed at 5 a.m. You stumble through the dark for an eyes-half-open diaper change. Next comes breakfast. The daily recipe: spilled milk and fistfuls of Cheerios dumped on the floor. Then you do the dishes and get your child dressed, all before you drink your morning coffee. Are we having fun yet? The answer is not so simple.

Being a parent is inspiring and rewarding, but it's also demanding and thankless. A recent Princeton University survey found that typical childcare tasks are roughly as pleasurable as housework -- in other words, not very. But the fact is that our kids are our pride and joy. How can this be, when they're also a drag on our quality of life?

Happiness experts say it's because people have a natural tendency to forget about life's little annoyances and to hold on to the big-picture good stuff (like watching a kid take his first steps or say "I love you, Mommy"). "We don't have children because we expect them to make us happy all the time," says Daniel Gilbert, PhD, professor of psychology at Harvard University and author of the best-selling book Stumbling on Happiness. "We have them because they give our lives meaning."

If you're frustrated with being a parent sometimes, well, that's totally normal. So lose the guilt. Then clue in to some easy ways to make your frenetic family life seem manageable -- and feel a lot more satisfying.

The research is clear: Happy marriages produce happy kids. So while it's easy to get caught up in the demands of raising your children, you need to make time for your spouse too. Going out by yourselves at least once a month is a good start. But also look for ways to squeeze intimate moments into your day, even if it's just going to The Home Depot together or sharing a glass of wine after the kids are in bed.

Christy Jacob, a St. Paul, Minnesota, mother of five, says she and her husband, Abe, invite each other on "coffee dates" at the kitchen table on weekend mornings. "Sometimes we'll laugh because it's total chaos around us, but at other times the kids end up occupying themselves and we get a little time to hang out and talk about things that actually don't involve them," says Jacob. "The important thing is that we make a conscious effort to spend time together."

Kids are often a blast to be around, but they can't replace grown-up friends. Yet many moms, overwhelmed and exhausted from the daily grind, tend to drift away from their pals after they have children.

Don't let that happen to you. Friendship is an essential component of happiness. A study conducted at the University of Illinois in Champaign found that people who have strong ties to friends and family are the most likely to think of themselves as happy. Try making a lunch date with a good friend you haven't seen in weeks, and get back in touch with an acquaintance whom you haven't talked to in years. Even if you end up chatting about kids, it will seem fresh and fun.

Don't abandon your single friends either. They can give you a much-needed break from the endless talk about children. "If you take time to be with friends, you're going to be a lot more patient with your kids," says Toni Schutta, a licensed psychologist and author of On Overload?: 28 Solutions to Help Moms Achieve Work Family Balance!

Take a good, hard look at your family calendar. Is it totally marked up with kid commitments? If so, you should think about paring it back -- a lot. Overscheduling a child robs her of downtime (which is critical for her healthy development and for nurturing creativity), and shuttling her from place to place can seriously undercut your happiness too.

Your best bet is to figure out which commitments are really crucial, and drop everything else. That's exactly what Mari Jo Schlosser, of Edmond, Oklahoma, did. After talking things out in a family meeting, she decided to limit her kids to one sport or class per week. "I was spending most of my day driving Gregory, Caitlin, and Hayley from one thing to the next," she says. "They had no time to relax, and it was stressing all of us out."

Since starting a car pool, Schlosser no longer feels like a chauffeur. And her kids appreciate having the power to decide which activities to pursue. "Let your child figure out what she wants to do," advises Susan Newman, PhD, a social psychologist and author of The Book of No: 250 Ways to Say It -- and Mean It. "It'll make everyone happier in the end."

Getting the whole family involved with chores can lighten any mom's load (and mood). "My kids carry all the laundry down to the basement, feed the dogs, and keep their rooms clean," says Beth Burton, a mother of three from Fairview, Pennsylvania. "Just the sight of seeing them carrying that basket makes me really happy."

Doing chores is good for your kids too. A study at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis found that the most reliable predictor for a child's future success isn't his IQ, his social status, or his extracurricular involvement, but rather his participation in household tasks. The key is to get your children to learn about responsibility by pitching in at a young age -- and to stick with it. Try creating a chore chart with rewards for good performance and consequences for not completing tasks. Setting clear expectations will help head off protests and back talk.

"Even a 2- or 3-year-old can tear up lettuce for a salad," says Dr. Newman. "At first your children may balk, but once you get them involved, your whole family will feel closer."

In the midst of a toddler's "I-want-that-now" tantrum, it's normal to think that giving in will make things easier. But surprisingly, the opposite is true. Saying no helps teach your children about boundaries and lays the groundwork for them to accept the things they have -- and obey the rules -- rather than always demanding more.

There's solid science behind this idea. "Kids don't have a long-term view of things," says Dr. Gilbert. "They want what they want, and they want it now. But if they learn from an early age that you mean no, they'll stop resisting, and you'll be a more confident, contented parent."

Still, it's a good idea not to overuse the word. Say, for instance, you can't play a board game with your child when she asks because you need to make dinner. Instead of telling her, "No, I can't," say, "Yes, we can do it later." This will help you head off an argument and give your child something to look forward to. But make it clear that she can't nag you about it -- and be sure you keep your word.

Vanessa Paris isn't surprised to hear that studies show caring for kids is as much fun as mopping the floor. The mom from Mill Creek, Pennsylvania, has tough moments with her two young children every single day.

"Sometimes I think to myself, 'If I have to play one more game of I Spy, I might just go crazy,'" Paris says. "But then I realize that one day my kids won't want to play with me anymore. That helps me grin and bear it."

Experts say keeping challenging moments in perspective and looking at the positive side of things (such as that your kids need and want your company) can make all the difference in your outlook. "If you stop expecting to be happy all the time, you can find more joy in the good moments and cope better with the not-so-good ones," says Vicki Panaccione, PhD, a child psychologist in Melbourne, Florida.

Paris has her own little mommy trick for focusing on the bright side. She snaps dozens of photos of her kids enjoying themselves and writes down the cute and funny things they say. "That way, when I'm having a hard day, all I need to do is read back some of their quotes or look at a goofy picture, and I'm smiling again," she says.



Copyright © 2008. Used with permission from the January 2008 issue of Parents magazine.