Jamie Weiler remembers when her 4-year-old daughter wanted to climb into her lap to watch SpongeBob.
“I had a million other things to do and a meeting to prepare for at work, so my first reaction was to reject her. But I’m glad that I stopped myself and did it. My daughter is 9 now and she definitely doesn't hop into my lap anymore," Weiler adds.
Weiler’s lucky, psychologists says. Plenty of parents aren’t aware of how fleeting childhood can be and might simply slough off a child’s need for easy and relaxed mommy or daddy time again and again until the child stops requesting it. Those parents who have easy affections with their older kids? The ones who stroll arm in arm into the grocery store together? They’re the ones who took the time to be as affectionate as their kids wanted them to be when they were younger.
Plenty of current studies show that childhood puts a real strain on parents — to the extent that they actually stop having fun at the job.
“This shocks people when you tell them that,” says Daniel Gilbert, Ph.D., author of Stumbling on Happiness (Vintage; 2007). Happiness — a new area of study in the past decade — seems to be under siege in today’s go-go-go world.
“I’m exhausted and even borderline angry at the end of my work day,” says Nashville dad John Shenke. “If there’s too much pressure, I can really get edgy,” he admits. Then come the negative emotions.
Both dads and moms become torn when there’s “too much on them,” leading to negative emotions inside and a recording in the head that it’s not fair, it’s not fair, it’s not fair. When you have an infant, perhaps two or several younger than 5 years old for example, there’s a lot that can hinder a good mood. You may argue with your spouse more. You may stop having fun altogether, although being with your family’s supposed to be the best time of your day.
Meanwhile, there’s no question that you love your children. You love them immeasurably. And there are moments of pure joy with them. But there are many more moments of just plain old get ’er done.
Getting Serious About Play
The first step to being a happier parent is to value what you do, Gilbert says — to feel that it’s important. Next, is to find ways to make it more enjoyable. Not only will you be doing the best thing for yourself, but you’ll also become a more effective.
A scenario: You’re with your 2-year-old and you give him his juice in a green cup rather than in his favorite Sesame Street cup because that cup is lost. He begins to whimper, triggering your grumpiness. You may just quip, “Just drink the juice in the green cup! The Sesame cup is lost!” Only if you do that, you risk setting off tears. Instead, wouldn’t it be more fun to scoop him up and go on a quick Sesame Street cup hunt?
If there’s no time for that — if part of what’s keeping you from being a more positive and playful parent is a lack of time — then perhaps priorities need straightening out. After all, we value our children and families more than practically anything else.
In a 2014 Vanderbilt study examining success in mid life, both men and women overwhelmingly agreed that family was the most important factor required for a meaningful life. Sometimes we just need to be reminded of what matters most.
“Once you stop expecting parenthood to feel warm and fuzzy all of the time, life gets easier,” says Gretchen Rubin, author of the best-selling books, The Happiness Project (HarperCollins; 2012) and Happiness at Home (Harmony; 2013). Rubin says parents can benefit deeply (emotionally and psychologically) by getting serious about play.
“Many adults find it surprisingly hard to have fun,” Rubin says. “We think about what we ought to find fun, or what our kids or spouses find fun, and lose track of what’s actually fun for us. Ask yourself: What did you do for fun when you were 10? You’d probably enjoy that now. Walk in the woods with a friend, play with your dog, make things with your hands, take pictures, play ball or bake. Don’t wait until you have ‘free time,’ because you may never have any. Schedule it in your calendar like a dentist’s appointment,” she suggests.
For parents with a lot on their hands outside of family life, there may not be ample time to be silly, but you can always find moments for affection — or you should.
“Go out of your way to hug and kiss every family member each day,” Rubin says. “Give your loved ones a real welcome every time they walk through the door, and give them a real farewell when they leave,” she says. “These sound so simple, but they can make a big difference in the feel of warmth and connection in your home,” she adds.
It may sound simplistic, but one key to being in a more playful, positive mood is to structure your day so you do more things you enjoy. Life slows down when you’re doing what you enjoy, whether it’s playing with the baby or running laps.
“Try to take the time to actively notice things the way your child does,” says Gilbert. “That ant dragging around that big piece of bread, for instance.”
Bringing more of your best qualities — your positive, playful you — to the often humdrum task of child rearing can also help you feel more engaged, hence happier. “If one of your strengths is humor, use it,” Gilbert says. “Turn tasks into moments you can enjoy and it will grow on you.”
If the drudgery of your life gets to you more than you think it should, try this: think about life without children. That might straighten you out rather quickly. Always remember the wisdom of mothers who have come before you: “The days are long, the years are short.” One day you’ll look back at your hectic life with longing. Hopefully you’ll remember the laughter, too.