By Robert Barnett
Ask a mom if she's happier now that she has a child, and she'll usually say yes. But psychologists who study happiness often report a different picture. Being the mom of a young child (especially one under 3) is rewarding, but also a real strain on your mood.
Kids bring joy, says happiness expert Daniel Gilbert, but they don't increase your average daily enjoyment.
"Moment to moment, you may be exhausted, frustrated, sometimes angry," says Peter Ubel, M.D., a professor of medicine and psychology at the University of Michigan. In fact, on their list of pleasurable activities, moms rank child care lower than eating, exercising, or watching TV, according to a University of Michigan study. And kid care rates only slightly higher than housework, working, or commuting!
"Kids do bring joy," says Daniel Gilbert, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Harvard University and author of "Stumbling on Happiness." "They bring transcendent moments that outweigh all the hard work. It's just that children do not increase your average daily enjoyment."
The happiness paradox
One reason for the discrepancy between moms and experts: selective memory. When psychologists ask moms in a general way if they like spending time with their kids, the overwhelming majority say they do because they're thinking of fun activities like reading a book or playing in the park. When they're specifically asked to describe their actual daily routine, they remember the hours they spent struggling to get their child dressed or ready for bed. Maybe, though, the cold calculus of psychological science is missing the intensity of joy that time spent with your child can bring. "There are little moments that are grand-slam home runs," says Gilbert. Luckily, those moments can overcome your daily frustrations. "Happiness is more than just that smiley feeling," says Karen Reivich, Ph.D., a research associate in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. "It's also feeling a connection to something larger than yourself. When people are in service to something bigger, they describe their lives as filled with meaning. It's not the smiley face, but when it's all over, you realize you'd do it again." The first step to being a happier mom, then, is to value what you do -- to feel that it's important. The next step is to find ways to make it more enjoyable. Here's how:
Admit when you're stressed
Ironically, once you stop expecting motherhood to feel warm and fuzzy all the time, life as a mom gets easier. "It's okay to feel frustrated, angry, or irritable sometimes," says Dr. Ubel. "You're not a bad parent. It's not even a bad parenting experience. It's just normal." Parenting.com: Kiss mommy guilt goodbye
Get enough sleep
Most of us know that money can't buy happiness, but who knew that a good night's sleep just might? That's a key finding of that University of Michigan study. "Making $60,000 more in annual income has less of an effect on your daily happiness than getting one extra hour of sleep a night," says study author Norbert Schwarz, Ph.D., a professor of psychology.
So how can you sneak in that extra hour or two? Misha Sauer, mom of 1-year-old Riley, says her husband takes over on the weekends so she can sleep in. "It makes a big difference in the way I feel," says the Culver City, California, mom. "And I'm more willing to do something active, like take my daughter to the park. If I'm tired, the most I can do is sit there and read to her." Parenting.com: Moms' 6 Biggest Sleep Mistakes
(Re)consider your priorities
It may sound simplistic, but one key to being in a more positive mood is to structure your day so you do more things you enjoy. "It's how you spend your time, not your money, that counts," says Dr. Ubel. "If you have any financial flexibility that lets you maximize your family time, use it now. For instance, do you really need to be the one to clean the house? How about paying someone to help out? And if that's not an option, think about how clean your house really needs to be -- do you need to make the beds, or is bed-making time better spent drawing pictures with your kids?"