7 Primal Ways to Bridge the Parent Happiness Gap

7 Primal Ways to Bridge the Parent Happiness Gap in lineParticularly when you’re a parent, October can be a transitional month. I remember feeling like we’d just gotten the kids settled in school and suddenly we were knee deep in extracurricular activities, class projects, parent-teacher conferences—and the holidays. On my more exhausted days, I felt like we were navigating a two-month bender of parties and concerts, costumes and events. On the one hand, it was fun to see the kids’ excitement. It made for good memories, but it also exacted an extended toll. When every week is “special,” it’s wearing. These days life is simpler on the family front, but every once in a while I’ll remember those more frenetic patches. It’s easy to be nostalgic on the other side of the dogged years, but I haven’t forgotten the harder truth of parenting. Sometimes it’s a slog through overwhelm, and research reflects that much. But does it need to be as heavy as we often make it?

At issue is the so-called “happiness gap” observed by many studies when they compare parents and non-parents.

American parents, in particular, fare poorly with a 13% happiness “penalty” when juxtaposed with non-parents. Interestingly, researchers saw the gap shrink and even reverse for both mothers and fathers in countries that offered more advantageous parenting policies such as lower child care costs and added workday flexibility.

Other studies cite more family-oriented, nuanced factors involved in the happiness gap, such as the age of both parents and children. Older parents, for example, appear to be happier than parents younger than 25. Not surprising to anyone, parents of older children report greater happiness than those parenting kids under five. Authors of a meta-analysis of these studies cite the lack of sleep and additional housework reported by mothers in particular during these early years among the perceived influences.

Still, it’s not all bad news. A more recent study last year contradicted the notion of a static gap and found that American parents are increasingly trending happier compared to the general population, particularly parents in their later decades who may enjoy more social and economic support than non-parents. In other words, the work may be front loaded and the benefits shared along a longer arc of connection. As a parent of two young adults, I can see the truth here.

But how do we manage to more than just hold on during these intensive years? Can we close the happiness gap before the kids graduate from sippy cups, let alone high school ?

Are there ways to live with more ease and greater joy today, regardless of the latest developmental phase or logistical challenge?

While the answers may be numerous and decidedly personal, a Primal lens may have something to offer.

1. First things first: stop multitasking

It’s funny we’re as addicted to this practice as we are when research tells us we suffer as the result every time…parenting satisfaction included. A recent study found parents’ use of cell phones and other technology during parenting time fed not only their own emotional tension and information overload but increased their kids’ disruptive behavior.

But of course it’s not just about the technology. How many times do we attempt to do toggle back and forth through three different activities and two conversations? Who wouldn’t feel testy and spent after bookending the day with those kinds of hours?

There were plenty of days when my kids were young and my nerves were shot. I had to make the conscious choice to take in one thing at a time (often because I didn’t have the bandwidth to juggle any more). It sometimes meant redirecting the other child, letting him/her get into a small amount of trouble or letting the dishes sit. But I have to tell you, those dishes weren’t such a big hellish deal when I went back to them later after the kids were in bed and Carrie and I could talk for a bit while we finished them together. And the trouble? Rarely was there anything that required more than a couple minutes’ worth of effort.

2. When you feel the need to rush, slow down…way, way down

There were days when I let myself get caught in the frantic pace, when I thought I could harness speed to my advantage. The result left me harried and disconnected—not worth the presumed time savings.

When I got tired of feeling that time and again, I had to make a different choice. Maybe the to-do list wasn’t getting checked off as quickly, but I ended up accomplishing more overall and doing it better. There were fewer mistakes, fewer tantrums, more smiles, better sleep.

There’s also something pretty cool that happens with your kids when you drastically slow your own actions, talking and body language. Suddenly you’re moving at their tempo, and they know it. You’ll see their faces light up, their bodies relax. They’ll say and offer things they don’t normally do. The potential for connection gets charged in a whole new way.

And the whole household feels more relaxed.

3. Congratulate yourself on being an old-school parent

Living the Primal Blueprint offers its own incentive for viewing modern trappings with a healthy dose of skepticism. It doesn’t stop at parenting.

It used to be that kids ran the streets and trails the better part of the day and spent the rest raiding every cranny of the house to build elaborate forts, costumes and other constructions. They did so because that’s what instinct told them to do—to be active and creative…and because there was nothing else going on anyway. While these choices might not always be possible, most of us can probably stand to loosen the reins and back down from the management approach.

I caught a random article from the Washington Post today about a mother who decided to give up on elaborate fall festivals—you know, those overcrowded, elaborate events everyone drags their kids to for holiday card photo ops. Sometimes they’re fun, but most of the time they’re just not. And yet, as the author notes, they feel like a continual obligation to “good” parents who want to make memories with their kids. In the end, after years of growing fatigued by them, she gives up and spends the day at her sister’s carving pumpkins and making paper crafts at the kitchen table. Of course, the next year her kids vote for going to their aunt’s again for the same old school activities. It’s akin to giving your child an expensive present and watching the child play with a box for the next three hours.

In the backlash against materialism, we can sometimes get snagged in the equally fraught endeavor of gracing our children with extravagant experiences when they’d rather be home playing in the dirt.

There’s nothing wrong with going out, but it’s a matter of checking our motivations as parents. Are we doing something out of a sense of obligation or enjoyment? Who’s benefiting from our so-called enlightened, effortful parenting? Are we offering experiences or directing them?

Of course, anytime we go against the cultural grain this way we can feel like we’re not living up to expectations, that somehow our kids are missing out, that we’re getting a little too much out of the reduced effort. If the kids are healthy and happy (they might end up being much more so), derail the guilt train. Decide to embrace the countercultural identity, and give yourself a pat on the back for living your intention.

4. Apply the go-to question: “How can I make this work for me?”

It’s one of those life-changing questions that takes root first at the day-to-day level: How can I make this situation work for me? I ask myself this numerous times a week and sometimes a few times a day. I only wish I could’ve applied it as a parent, and I heard it from another parent a while back.

When faced with an outing, a chore, a tantrum, a project, what can make this endeavor easier to take? Maybe I can figure out a simplified version, create a little more enjoyable ambiance, find additional help or set desirable boundaries around it. Apply this principle to everything from the small daily tasks or to the big life questions.

On the daily level, that parent friend explained it was so: “If I have to do something I’m too tired to do or too worn out to enjoy or that will likely impose its own degree of stress or discomfort, I can in almost every case find something that will make it more palatable. If I have to bathe my 3-year-old at the end of a long, cranky day, I can make it more pleasant for myself by dimming the lights or plugging in Christmas lights. I can put in some bubble bath to give her a distraction. When I’m putting the kids to bed, I can take my time, change up a small part of the routine like doing something in a different room or have music going. I can have my favorite tea while we do bedtime stories so I feel like I don’t wait until 9:30 to begin the self-indulgent part of my evening.”

There were definitely times I did this, but I’ll admit it was more accidental tactic than continual intention. The result for her and as I apply it today is more joy. The funny thing is, the more we set the scene for our own pleasure and contentment, the more relaxed we are and the more positive another person’s response can be. We don’t even stop to think that what we want may be just the ticket for the four-year-old who had a bad day.

5. Loosen 50% of your standards

Of course, this isn’t an excuse to let a child’s basic needs and fundamental comfort be sacrificed. It just means most of us can safely (and even productively) push back on the perfectionist tendencies that often direct modern parenting.

Those of us in the elder generations, I think, are often grateful we didn’t parent in the days of Facebook comparison, not to mention Pinterest crafting hell. Carrie and I raised our kids certainly beyond the days when kids rode around in the back of a truck, but we did manage to dodge some of the escalation in social pressure that parents take in today.

When I talk with people about giving themselves a break (parents or non-parents for that matter), many of them concede one or two points. The only way you’ll gain appreciable sanity is to cut out uncomfortable shares of expectations you have for yourself and others. I’m not going to tell you what those should be, but take an inventory of every rule, standard and expectation you have. Now start hacking away.

6. Frequently ask, “What have you done for yourself today?”

Pleasure, rest, stillness, entertainment, euphoria. As a parent, you likely won’t get all of those in a day, but you can make one happen.

Five minutes—five intentional minutes. On a good day, you might have fifteen. If your kids are older or they have grandparents who like to get involved, maybe it’s an hour or two. An overnight is the jackpot. But start with five minutes because we all have that. If you ruin it with morbid reflection and chatty guilt, you’ve squandered the opportunity. Don’t take it as a sign that five minutes can’t count for anything.

Make a list because in the haze of parenting you may not remember what makes you feel good anymore. That’s okay. We all get a cheat sheet. In those five minutes, do one of those things on your list. Meditate, listen to a favorite song while you stretch out a bit. Read three pages of a good book. Eat a square of dark chocolate. Ask your partner to massage your neck. Whatever.

Now go back to parenting, but look for another break time. Then take advantage of it. Let it happen. Another five minutes. I recently heard a friend use the term “interval parenting” this way. I think that might be another PB runner-up principle.

7. Accept this as a season of your life

Finally, know that this phase, too, shall pass. You truly will get a decent night’s sleep again someday. You really will go on a couple’s vacation again. You’ll be able to reinvest in a hobby. Personal time and mental focus will eventually return. Until then, feel good about what you’re doing. Immerse yourself in the joys of it, and cultivate detachment for the rest. Build resilience and have faith in the bigger picture you’ll enjoy one day. Trust me, time softens the rough edges of all memories.

Thanks for reading today, everyone. What suggestions would you have for parents who are looking to regain some happiness ground? Share your experience (and hope), and enjoy the rest of your week.

Primal Kitchen Ketchup

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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