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How to Be Happy: Tips for Moms
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Happiness is basic. Just ask your kids.
Babies fuss when they don't eat and sleep at regular intervals. While humans learn to adapt to schedule snafus as they get older, this fundamental truth never changes: If you aren't sleeping enough, eating regular meals, or being active, you—like an infant—will get fussy.
The most basic things make children happy, but that doesn't make them insignificant. Margaret Owen, Ph.D., is the director of the Center for Children and Families at the University of Texas at Dallas and works predominantly in the field of child development and family relationships. I told Owen about the response I got when I asked my 4-year-old son what makes him happiest: “Chocolate milk.” It doesn't get any more basic than that.
Happiness changes over time.
“By their very nature, children are ever-changing and evolving,” says Dana Dorfman, Ph.D., a psychotherapist and lecturer in New York City who has done extensive research on parenting and working mothers in her 20-year career. “And human beings have a hard time with change.”
She adds, “With every stage of a child's development, something is lost, and it's okay to be sad. Parents need to understand that to have a sad feeling doesn't mean it's the only feeling.” So open the family photo album. The images—infants in hospital beanies, a preschooler's grin without incisors—will certainly inspire nostalgia. Now look at the empty slots without pictures. Imagine the great memories yet to come.
Happiness is contagious.
A number of studies over the past decade have made a case for “emotional contagion.” The theory: Positive and negative moods rub off on others, although negative moods are much more contagious.
“In a family, where everyone is in such close proximity, this can have a very big effect,” says Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun. It's a situation every parent has been in. It's 7:30 a.m. A sleep-deprived, grumpy father snaps at his son for a minor offense (spilled chocolate milk?). The boy begins to cry. The mother comforts the child while giving Dad the evil eye. What's the fix? Fake it until you make it.
Happiness can't be controlled.
What is obvious from the Mood of Mom survey is that mothers feel most satisfied with the things they believe to have the most control over: Moms are happiest with their relationship with their children, and their relationships with friends and family members. Conversely, moms are the least satisfied with the country's political and economic environments, both well beyond their influence.
Truth be told, this sense of control is an illusion. “It's a coping mechanism,” Dorfman explains. “To feel valued, we need to feel like we have a degree of control over our children, but relationships are a reciprocal exchange. It's like a law of physics: For every action, there's an equal and opposite reaction. No matter what you're imposing, it's not just you affecting the child.” The poet Kahlil Gibran put it this way: “Your children…come through you but not from you, and though they are with you yet they belong not to you.” The next time your child challenges a point you're making or debates a house rule, hear him out. It promotes independent thinking, and supports an open line of communication. Remember: Dictatorship is easy. Democracy is hard.
Happiness doesn't always make you happy.
It's a strange concept: The things you do to be fulfilled don't fulfill you. A parent's daily schedule is packed with piano lessons, soccer practice, playground playdates, and mommy-and-me classes. Individually, they are meant to bring joy and fulfillment, but collectively, doing them all can leave you frazzled and worn-out.
“Ask an emergency room doctor if he feels anxious and stressed out,” says Rubin. “He will say ‘Yes, and yes.’ But in the big picture, I bet that job makes the doctor feel happy and fulfilled.” So think macro, not micro: Driving your child all over town for piano lessons and soccer practice may not leave you content, but knowing that you're enriching your child's life in the long term should.
Happiness just happened...and you missed it.
“Days are long, but years are short,” Rubin says. “On some weekends, getting from Saturday afternoon to Sunday night just takes forever, but kindergarten flies by. It's important to memorialize what's happening, and embrace what you have right now.” So what's the answer? Teach and model gratitude.
Take the easy way out.
It’s true that being a happy mom sometimes means doing things the hard way. Maybe we cook from scratch because we enjoy it, or teach our kids to tie their shoes so we ultimately don’t have to do it for them five times a day. But any time something feels hard every time you do it, ask yourself whether it could be easier with a little thought. When we weed out energy-suckers (say, packing your kids gourmet lunches when they’d be happy with PB&J), we can focus on the things that really matter to us.
Aim low, and go slow.
Most of the time we could stand to scale back our expectations: of our kids, our spouses, other moms, and perhaps most of all, ourselves. Instead of aiming for perfection (a spotless house, gorgeous meals, and squeaky-clean kids), try aiming low (a house that’s not condemned by the health board, box-o-noodles with frozen peas on the side, and kids who can remember their last bath). That way, you might end up pleasantly surprised by a perfect day rather than unpleasantly surprised by a normal one.
Go with the flow.
Having kids means our lives are always a little bit out of control. We have a choice: stick to the itinerary and be in a constant state of panties-in-a-twist, or refuse to let that sort of metaphoric underwear malfunction happen. Calmly steering into motherhood’s ever-changing current (instead of gripping the raft in terror and frantically trying to paddle away) is a lot easier when you set up your life to allow for last-minute changes and crises. Staying calm and flexible will allow you to react with something resembling poise instead of panic.
Trust your gut.
What do your mother, your best friend, your pediatrician, your boss, and the parenting-book author on the Today show have in common? None of them knows your child better than you. Their insights can be helpful, but no one else—except maybe for Dad—gets the nuances of your child’s needs the way you do. A child’s parents are the best people to make the final call about what’s right for him. You’re putting in the time, and every day you’re learning more and more about what makes your child tick. So believe in yourself.
Keep it real.
Don’t jettison all your favorite aspects of your pre-mom self. Having kids doesn’t suddenly change your DNA. It won’t magically make you love leading little plastic people on a tour of the Lollipop Woods, but it also doesn’t mean you’re now too grown-up to play Ms. Pac-Man. Rather than trying to live up to your own—or anyone else’s—idea of what a “good mom” is, embrace the mom you are. She’s even better!
Ted & Debbie
Find your tribe.
All moms need some peeps. It’s vital to your happiness, and can even make you healthier. Yes, it may be intimidating to try to make new friends, but you can do it. Put aside your fears, walk up to that gaggle of moms on the playground, say “hello,” and introduce yourself. And if you find they aren’t receptive, create your own clan, one buddy at a time. Before you know it, you’ll have gathered your own group to lean on through ups and downs—and, in turn, be that friend that every other mother needs, too.
Make your bed.
Figure out how clean and neat you need your surroundings to be in order to feel good in them. Get your family on board and start somewhere, preferably with whatever mess or disorder bugs you the most. Soon you’ll figure out what housekeeping tasks have the most impact on your mood with the least amount of effort (say, making your bed each day so you’re pulling back smooth covers each evening instead of climbing into a rumpled mess of sheets). Once you make doing those a habit, you’ll enjoy your home sweet home even more.
Have a plan.
When you have a good idea of what you hope to accomplish in the short term, and how you more or less expect to get there, you feel more in control of your life. With more control comes more confidence, and that confidence translates into less worry and more happiness. So try to figure out when to do all your gotta-dos each day. Knowing what direction you’re supposed to be going in makes life less stressful—plus, it feels extra great when a day does go according to plan.
Look out for #1.
Being selfish can be good. By putting “me” time on the priority list—whether it’s through exercising or spending hours painting—you’ll help your kids see you as a whole person. They’ll learn how important it is to take care of themselves, too. It also shields them from the pressure of being everything to you. So ditch your guilt and line up some support so you can pursue some of your own interests and ambitions. You’ll feel more energetic, you’ll be more fun to be around, and you’ll love being a mom even more.
Love your love life.
The stronger your relationship with your partner, the happier you’ll be. Try your best to keep on track, even during the rough times. Realize that most of us are basically good people, paired with basically good people, who make mistakes and misunderstand each other. So learn to ask for what you need, as well as the fine arts of apologizing and forgiving. And above all, be willing to keep trying.