Why parents' happiness might matter more than their children's

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock 

On Monday, my daughter rushed home from school and made cupcakes with cinnamon icing (from scratch) to bring to her team, with clear instructions that I should bring them with me, properly chilled, when I picked her up from practice that night.

I forgot them in the fridge.

On Tuesday, I dropped my son at school amid a crowd of beautifully coiffed and delightfully dapper children, only to realise it's picture day. My son is wearing his gym uniform, which I laid out for him Monday night and, honestly, felt a little smug about it because: A) I remembered that Tuesdays are his gym day; and B) his uniform was clean.

Maybe we'll do retakes?

I probably need some sort of life coach or colour-coded Google calendar alert notification organiser app. Or both. But first I need someone to tell me I'm not doing my children irreparable harm by dropping the ball occasionally (frequently).

I see you, KJ Dell'Antonia.

Dell'Antonia is the former Motherlode blogger for The New York Times. She has a new book out, How To Be a Happier Parent: Raising a Family, Having a Life, and Loving (Almost) Every Minute, and it's delightful.

It's not really about why it's okay to drop the ball occasionally (frequently). But it is about giving yourself permission, as a parent, to prioritise and work toward your own happiness, even if that means your children don't get 100 percent of your attention and energy and money 100 percent of the time.

"Parents' happiness matters as much as kids' happiness," Dell'Antonia, a mum of four, told me. "Maybe even more. Because we make money and can buy groceries."


How do we prioritise it?

More sleep, for starters. Fewer youth sports and clubs and other activities, probably. Less internal pressure to fix all of our children's disappointments and defeats. Fewer things - meals, vacations, weekend outings, major purchases - built solely around what our kids want, more regard for our own distinct tastes.

The most radical notion she pushes, though, is this: "You can be happy when your children aren't."

I've read a lot of parenting books. This is not a common mantra.

"People are sort of blown away by that," she said. " 'I can't be any happier than my saddest child.' Isn't that the saying?"

But there are a million reasons to let ourselves be happy. Happy people, Dell'Antonia said, are better friends, more productive workers, better sleepers and donate more to charity.

"People are reluctant to say, 'I'm going to work on being happier just for me," she said. "But there's nothing to be gained in sacrificing your own happiness."

Besides, what sort of model does that set up for our kids?

"If we want to raise grown-ups (and we do)," she writes, "we have to make this grown-up thing look good - for their sakes, and for our own."

Find something fun, she writes, and give yourself permission to do it. See your friends. Join your own team sport. Take surfing lessons.

"Keep chickens," she writes. "Be a beekeeper. Invest less time worrying about whether your kids have found their passion and more time finding yours."

And invest even less time, she writes, softening the blow when your children stumble at their passions.

"Here is your activity and sport-specific mantra: It is not my job to do anything. In fact, it is my job to do nothing," she writes.

"Hug your child, let her feel her pain, don't try to push her past it, and, above all, don't try to 'fix' it - not if it's a team tryout and you might be able to change the result, not if you think there really might be room for one more in the recital, not if you've got video on your cellphone and you're sure you can convince the ref that that puck went in the net."

Your kids, she said, will benefit from a hands-off approach as much as you will.

"When we react as strongly to something going wrong for our kids as they do, it can have a lot of effects we're not expecting," she said.

"It causes this sort of subsequent reaction. 'If Dad is really unhappy if I don't make the team, either I shouldn't try out or I should hide if I don't make it.' 'I probably shouldn't tell Mum I didn't get invited to that birthday party because she'll be so upset.' 'Maybe this is a huge deal.' They don't get the benefit of adult perspective, which is, 'There will be other teams.' 'There will be other parties.' "

There will be other picture days.

"It's really important that we have an emotional life that's separate from our kids' emotional lives," she said.

"You can be happy even when your kid has a ton of homework and even when you've just grounded your kid and even when your kid can't find six manilla folders and a Mason jar and a pack of black pens for tomorrow."

This is truly the best news I've heard in months.

"I'm raising future adults, not perfect children," Dell'Antonia writes. "Embracing that narrative has made me happier about those seeming failures. It takes time to learn to be good at being a grown-up."

Chicago Tribune