Before having children, we may romanticize what it means to be a parent, picturing a montage of huge hugs, freshly baked cookies, games of catch and twirling across a crisp-cut lawn.
Once baby is born, reality hits.
While precious moments do exist, most of the time parenting is made up of mundane tasks, duty, sacrifice and lots and lots of work.
The sheer weight of responsibility and the drastic ways having children changes our lives is something we can’t really prepare for, and study after study has shown that parents are less happy than people without children, according to many measurable indicators.
Newborns and toddlers bring sleeplessness, loss of autonomy and identity, loneliness and depression. With adolescence comes arguing, worry and regret. At every stage, parents face endless chores, demands and sometimes – let’s face it – sheer, unrelenting boredom.
Yet the questions researchers ask to get to the heart of “happiness” don’t necessarily capture the deeper, more nuanced experiences of raising kids. Several studies show people with children are more likely to feel satisfied with their lives in the end. Emotions like meaning, purpose, awe, pride, warmth and unconditional love are harder to measure.
In her new book All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood – which has made waves and hit the New York Times Best Sellers list – author Jennifer Senior explores how children affect their parents. Through extensive research and interviews, she concludes that while they may render our days more difficult, they also make our lives more rewarding and fulfilling in the end.
Parenting may never be easy, but here, Senior shares some tips on making it more fun.
Change your definition
What is fun, anyway? Senior says changing our expectations of what raising children should be is a great place to start reclaiming the joy of parenting. “The 20th century ushered in this idea that we are entitled to fun and happiness and that if we don’t have it, something is the matter,” says Senior, a contributing editor at New York Magazine. “Already the expectation is very stressful.”
Find your flow
Studies have shown we are happiest when we are “in the zone,” engrossed in tasks we are good at. Flow is best achieved when we are uninterrupted, challenging the limits of our mastery, doing tasks that are clearly defined with rules and deadlines.
This is almost exactly the opposite of what it takes to be engaged with a young child. “They are living in the now and you are not,” Senior says.
Yet as children get older, it becomes easier to make plans and set up situations where every family member can indulge in something they enjoy. Create rituals, such as game nights or “crafternoons,” or organize outings in which each family member can find some fun. “Have something to do that you get lost in,” Senior suggests.
It’s difficult to work from home, and since research shows that the average parent is interrupted every three minutes by their children, it seems pointless to try. Senior says one key to happiness at home is to draw a clear line between work and play.
“The nature of work has changed so that we are now working all the time. There are no boundaries between our living room and our office, so it’s much harder to luxuriate in your children,” Senior says. “You are perversely perceiving your children as disruptive to checking your email instead of your email as disruptive to your time with your children.”
Establish a time to log off and focus on your family. “Setting up the expectation you are going to be answering emails all evening makes parenting less fun because your attention is fractured,” Senior says.
We’re so used to buttoning up and conforming to social norms, Senior says, but as every parent knows, little children have no such behavioral censors. Why not join them? Being a parent gives you the perfect excuse to lighten up. Sing silly songs. Make up crazy voices. Dance around. Tell jokes. Poke and tickle.
“The great thing about little kids is they really don’t judge and they don’t bear grudges,” Senior says. “They’re an uncorked streaming crazy id, and you’re allowed to be that too. How fun is that?”
Be wonder full
Children are brimming with questions. Some, like, “What is water?” we can Google. Others, like, “What is time?” are not so easily answered. Let your children inspire your curious side. It can be fun to wonder about the world and all of its mysteries. And don’t just wait for your children’s questions; pose some yourself.
“Introduce ideas that are bigger than they are, that they can try to wrap their minds around,” Senior suggests.
Children delight in exciting conversations and can blow your mind with their innocent musings on the way things work. Too often as adults we focus on utilitarian knowledge, Senior says, but with kids we can let our imaginations run wild like they did when we were younger.
“It’s really a joy to think like a philosopher again,” she says.
Make a chore chart
Okay, chores are never fun, but divvying them up ahead of time is one key to freeing up time for more pleasurable pursuits. A central cause of conflict between spouses, Senior says, is who does what around the house, and who perceives they are doing more. Senior suggests making a very clear contract, so no one is left feeling “slighted or gypped.”
“Instead of duking it out in real time or being passive-aggressive, work it out ahead of time,” she says. “By simply removing stress from the equation, you are more likely to enjoy your children.”
In the past, children worked and contributed to the family economy. Today, kids have lost their productive function, Senior says, so middle-class parents create things for their children to do in a somewhat random attempt to prepare them for an uncertain future. Enter baseball lessons, violin, chess club and an endless array of structured activities.
The result of all this running around, she says, is that parents are unhappy and children are no better off. “It is not clear to me that your child would suffer if you didn’t sign them up for baby Gymboree if that’s not fun for you,” Senior says.
Isolation is a symptom of parenting in a world of electronics and modern sprawl. This puts intense pressure on the nuclear family to be everything to children, entertaining them, taking care of them, stimulating them.
Senior suggests forging connections with neighbors as a way to add joy to your life. Go beyond Facebook and make an effort to meet people at your church or synagogue. Reach out and chat with other parents at school.
“Human connection makes people happier; that’s just tried and true,” Senior says. “The benefits to your mental and physical health have been borne out so many times. Having lots of friends and family is preventative.”
Snap more photos
One of the biggest ironies of parenting is that it can be super stressful in the moment, but joyous upon reflection. Studies have shown that parents who give low ratings to experiences while they unfold, see them in a more positive light looking back.
“Our remembering self loves parenting and thinks it’s one of the most amazing things we do,” Senior says.
Maximize this phenomenon by making videos, creating scrapbooks, framing photos and journaling about the funny things your toddler says or the awesome achievements of your teen.
“It’s a way to take pleasure in parenting,” Senior says. “We like to remember.”
Enjoy the ride
The latest parenting study, published in the January issue of the PNAS science journal by Arthur Stone and Angus Deaton, shows there is actually very little difference between the happiness and satisfaction levels of parents and non-parents. But the study, which reviewed nearly 1.8 million Gallup surveys, shows that having kids amplifies emotions, both good and bad. People with children may experience more anger, worry and stress, but they also feel joy, pride and yes, fun, more deeply. So strap in and enjoy the roller coaster. It is certain to be the ride of your life.
Parent Coach ‘Fun’ Tips
We spoke with three local Parent Coach Institute (PCI)-certified coaches to get their insights:
“Parents make the fun. A child isn’t going to make the fun for you. It’s a creative kind of thing on a daily basis – as you’re changing children, taking care of them, washing their hair. Think of ways to make it fun for them. If you’re thinking of them, the focus is on them, not yourself – and you find out ‘Wow, we can have fun together.'” – Julie Gale Sase, Royal Oak
“If we focus on what we don’t have, what we are dissatisfied and unhappy about, that’s all we’re going to find. If we look at what it is we do have, what we appreciate about our partner and having a child, that all by itself is an exercise. If we do it every day, it wills our mind on a path of appreciation of what we have instead of being focused on the negative.” – Talia Ziv, West Bloomfield
“If you think that taking your child to piano lessons or sports events is work, then it’s going to seem like work to you. Look at it as time you’re going to have with you child, to chat together, turn off the devices and talk about whatever topic they want to talk about. You can use the GLAD method to start conversations: something you’re Grateful for, something that made you Laugh, something that you Accomplished and something you Did or Delighted in. Kids will get a great kick out of sharing that with you.” – Barbara Bushey, South Lyon