KJ Dell’Antonia had been a mom for 12 years — and a journalist covering parenting for nearly as long — when she decided that parenting didn’t need to “suck as much as it seemed to most days.”
So the main editor for the New York Times’ Motherlode blog decided to write a book. “How to Be a Happier Parent: Raising a Family, Having a Life, and Loving (Almost) Every Minute” was recently published. We talked to Dell’Antonia about her happy mantras, “catastrophizing” and how parents can learn to live with what they can’t control.
Q: So many of us want to be happier. Why does it seem like it’s harder for parents?
A: I think we feel like happiness is a pie, a family pie, and if we get happiness, we’re not putting our time into giving our kids happiness. I think of it as a circle. A happier parent typically leads to happier kids, which leads to a happier family, which leads to a happier parent. It sort of keeps going around and around.
Q: How can we recognize the happy moments?
A: A lot of things that were once really challenging for humans are no longer such a challenge. It’s almost like we seek out other challenges. We feel afraid to be happy or content with what we’ve got. So just pause.
I struggle with the line between this, and “Woo, woo! Let’s be grateful all the time.” That’s not really what I’m talking about. Gratitude is great and there’s a lot of research behind it, but I’m really talking about more of a basic, “Hey, I’m safe. I’m secure. My family is safe, in a no-tigers-coming-into-the-cave kind of a way.” That feels good, at an elemental, root level.
To find that elemental root level in yourself can really lead to a sense of solidity and comfort that is part of being happier.
Q: You write about 10 mantras, or fundamental rules, for being happier. Was there one that stood out for you?
A: The one that’s most important for me right this minute is, “You don’t have to go in there.”
It comes from one of my children who used to have temper tantrums in a closet, so we would talk about whether or not we were going to go in there. But really, the question is whether you are going to go “in there” emotionally.
You can meet the emotion with emotion, or you can just sort of lie down, and let that kid’s emotion just wash right over you. Because you don’t have to go in there. You really don’t. You’re better off just letting the kid spout it out, and pour out all this stuff without either taking it in or giving it back to them worse.
Q: How can parents stop anxiety from eating away at their happiness?
A: A lot of it depends on what you’re being anxious about. I talked to neuropsychologist Ken Ginsburg about how most of the things that we are worried about for our kids, they’re not “tigers.” Even the worst thing — not getting into a college, getting arrested for underage drinking, failing out of a class — these are not life-threatening.
Bad things do happen, but a lot of what interferes with our happiness and causes anxiety is ramping the little bad things up into huge bad things. When you have a little kid, I think that the learning curve for the physical anxiety of loving something so much that you can’t control is a tiny bit different. You kind of have to just get used to the existential horror of not being able to bubble wrap them.
Q: What about all the things parents can’t change, like the cost of child care?
A: That’s the other book that I could have written.
We can’t change what time school starts. We can’t change the fact that it ends at friggin 3 p.m. We can’t change summer, I mean, we love summer, but it [child care during summer] is a universal problem. And really, don’t even get me started on family leave.
But what I wanted to do was write something that would help us to be happier with the cards that we’ve got, right now.
Q: What was the most important thing you learned while writing your book?
A: It’s a cross between learning to actually get more sleep, and learning not to catastrophize. Learning to keep that adult perspective.