The Happiest Mom, And How We Spend Our Time

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.

 

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6 thoughts on “The Happiest Mom, And How We Spend Our Time

  1. I’m intrigued by the continuing imbalance in time spent on chores. I know that is real- I’ve seen lots of data on it. My favorite one is a survey of academic professors. It is small but interesting, because it controls a bit for the type of career. The women clearly spend more time than the men on average doing housework- but the average number of hours on their career work is the same. So some of the guys are getting a free pass and more free time- and I suspect that it is not just the guys with stay at home wives.

    Anyway, I always wonder why women put up with it? I guess I sort of understand- it took me ages to convince my husband that we should pay the housecleaners twice a month instead of once- but really, if you’re bringing in money, you get a say in this, too. But am I really that unusual in that I feel no pressure to be a good housekeeper?

    I’ve got a post up now about how I “buy time”- i.e., use the money I make to free up time to do the things I like. Hint- that is not scrubbing toilets or going to big box stores for toiletries.

    On the happiness front, I think it is easy to get into a grind and forget to come up for air and think about what could be better.

    1. @Cloud – I saw that study of academics as well, and it struck me as odd, not only in what it found, but in the conclusions people drew. Someone suggested that academic departments that wished to keep women happy and focused on tenure should offer a housekeeper subsidy. Ok… but that assumes that there is a certain amount of housework, completely inelastic, that must be done. I think there’s a strong argument that this is as much a matter of taste as anything else. If a father, left to his own devices, would send his kids to school with lunch money while the mother insists on packing lunches, does that mean his non-interest in lunch packing is getting a free ride? If he sits and watches TV while the woman hustles around picking up toys from the floor — because he figures why bother, the kids are just going to get them out again — is this evidence that he’s lazy or has things he prefers to do with his off time than clean? Some work has to be done, for sure, but single men rarely die from the dirt in their apartments…

  2. Like so many of the things you write, Laura, I agree with reservations. Taking care of children is work–mostly enjoyable work, but still work. Perhaps people with full-time child care (paying others to do the work) feel a little differently about the time when the family is together, but I’m guessing many mothers do not. While the time may be spent in a fun/engaging/exciting fashion, at least with the under 7s or so, there is the constant understanding that you are responsible for their welfare and may at any moment be called to wipe/kiss/fix something. Just like when our doctor friends are “on call” they don’t fully own their time, neither do moms, even when the kids are watching Dora.
    Even though my husband works from home, he doesn’t feel that sense of “on call” unless I specifically place him as the point person. He’s a great husband and father, but even though I would say that as a tail-end of Gen-X dad he spends much more time with his kids than his father did, he certainly spends less time than I do with them. Are we perfectly balanced? No way. But at this point in our careers, we chose for me to be the primary care giver until the littlest one hits 2. It’s a choice I’m okay with, but it doesn’t make mothering any less work.

    Looking at the numbers, our kids are awake from 5am to 7:30pm and while I have part-time preschool and grandparent help so I can squeeze 15 hours of paying work in each week, I’m on the clock for roughly 15 hours a day. Do I get to read blog posts in the middle of putting away the dishes? Sure. But I also do it while handing kitchen utensils to the baby and repeating the scripted answers my daughter has arranged in whatever pretend play is ruling the moment. It’s exhausting for an introvert but there is an end in sight and I’m doing my best to enjoy this phase while it lasts.

    Thanks so much for the link to Megan Francis’s blog–great reading!

  3. @Calee, I agree with you. my working friends always loved bath time as a bonding time with their kids, but as a stay-at-home mom (a job I relish, and wanted) I saw bath time as the end of a 12-hour shift and often passed it off to my husband, so I could clean up after dinner in solitude.

  4. @Calee
    I agree. The other part is the NUMBER of children you have. (I have 2 year old twins and a 4 year old.) The number of dishes, amount of food on the floor, number of dirty clothes, number of socks/shoes to put on/take off, and number of diapers to change scales linearly with the number of children. The remaining time to interact with/supervise children proportionally decreases. I think messes are a little worse, overall, due to lack of supervision. (Ballpoint pen on the white rocking chair cushion while I was unloading the dishwasher, whoops.)

  5. I take issue with Bryan Caplan’s analysis in that it doesn’t seem to take into account the economics of raising children and the need for many women to work. My piece is called “The Breeders’ Cup:For Parents?” for Psychology Today magazine where I write about small families and only-child families under the blog called “Singletons.”

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