I spent some time this past week reading Megan Francis’s new book, The Happiest Mom. Meagan is a long-time friend of 168 Hours, and writes a great blog about how to be a happier parent. Why is such a blog needed? Happiness research continues to find that parents are less happy than non-parents on a moment-by-moment basis. Our overall life satisfaction is higher (and if you’re married, rises with the number of children!) but at any given moment, our subjective well-being is slightly lower. If you think about it, this makes sense. Changing diapers is less pleasant than watching TV.
But Meagan maintains that parenthood doesn’t have to be miserable either. Her book focuses on several concrete steps for having more fun: taking the easy way out, finding your tribe (that is, other people who will help you and support you), making plenty of time for yourself, and nurturing your love life, among other things. She advises people to plan for weeks, not days (168 hours!) and not to do things (like making your own party favors) just because someone tells you that’s what a good mom does. “Happy mothering goes hand in hand with the knowledge that we can’t take everyone’s advice and that, even if we make mistakes (which we will), our kids will most likely turn out healthy, happy, and wise. Or at least smart enough to stop eating paste by, say, third or fourth grade. Or fifth,” she writes.
The book reads a bit like a magazine — full of quizzes — though that makes sense, given that it’s produced in conjunction with Parenting magazine. Overall, though, I believe it conveys a necessary sentiment, one that doesn’t seem to have trickled into the broader discussion of how women spend their time. Yesterday, I participated in a great panel discussion sponsored by MomCorps’s NYC office. I mentioned that the so-called time crunch isn’t really reflected in the number of hours women work, and that the most important thing for “balance” isn’t the number of hours at a paid job, but how much control you have over them. One of my fellow panelists said that I was missing the reality that for women, home time is also work. Men could just kick up their feet.
I didn’t get a chance to respond there, but I will here. Is that true? For starters, young fathers (Gen Y) actually spend more time with their kids than Gen X mothers these days (see page 16, figure 14), so that suggests that the old image of dad coming home and reading the paper while mom slaves away is fading fast. But my larger point would be that if home is nothing but work for you, then you’re not doing it right.
I’ve been intrigued lately by Bryan Caplan’s analysis of twin studies finding just how little we do as parents really matters in the long run. In the US, at least, educated, well-off parents tend to produce educated, well-off offspring. Whether you drive the kids to violin lessons once or twice a week doesn’t matter. The flash cards don’t matter. The baked kale foisted upon the children for breakfast? It could work, or it could backfire. Caplan’s message is to have more kids, and spend less time worrying about each of them. It’s a bit cheeky, but the larger point — that as long as you’re raising your kids within a range of norms, you’re best off doing whatever you all enjoy — is a good one. One I think Meagan (mom of five) would agree with.
So around here, we don’t have a set bathing schedule. If no one feels like a bath, there isn’t one. On the other hand, if the kids want to get in there and splash for 45 minutes, I am perfectly content to sit there and read the newspaper. Housework is pretty low down the list of priorities. I don’t really stress out too much about what’s for dinner. We haven’t starved yet. And (as long time readers of this blog know), I try to maintain space for a personal life. Last night I met some friends at a bar while Michael decided to take the kids on a pajama-clad stroller ride through Manhattan. The goal is to make sure that “home” is generally enjoyable, just as “work” should be enjoyable. In life, there is usually no bonus virtue gained by being miserable. No matter what kind of work you’re doing.