You may have read articles before stating that parents are not as happy as people who don’t have children. Of course, that’s not everyone’s experience with parenthood. But it’s a finding that we tend to explain away with conventional wisdom like “Well, having kids is hard. That’s just what parenting is.”
But that not may be the case.
First, the bad news. According to the latest research on the topic, the happiness gap between parents and nonparents is larger in the U.S. than it is in other developed countries. But here’s the new wrinkle on this topic: Researchers say that it’s possible to close the happiness gap through new policies on work leave and childcare.
It’s rare that social scientists can explain a phenomenon so completely, the lead researcher, Jennifer Glass, PhD of The University of Texas, said in an article for Quartz. But in countries with most family-friendly policies, parents were just as happy as nonparents.
So what does this mean for us parents here in the U.S.?
First, consider something that Glass says about U.S. parents in the Quartz article:
They often find parenting fulfilling, and wouldn’t have it any other way. But their stress levels tend to be high, which can overshadow any happiness to be gained from shepherding another human being through life.
Parenting in our culture is stressful. You aren’t doing something “wrong” if you are having a hard time meeting the demands of parenthood! Because stress comes with the territory of parenting, try these strategies:
- Get support. Be proactive in seeking out support, both emotional and practical. In other words, you need both friends you can confide in about the challenges of parenting and friends who can take your kids to soccer when you can’t.
- Strengthen your marriage. Also, look for ways you can continue to nurture your marriage so that you and your husband can support each other. You need a strong connection with your spouse to weather the stresses of parenting.
- Ask for help. Much of the work of parenting, such as managing the logistics of your kids’ lives, still falls disproportionately on women. If there’s an imbalance of parenting duties in your relationship, ask your husband directly to take on more responsibilities. It’s better to ask for help than to simmer with resentment!
- Advocate. Finally, you can advocate at your company and beyond for policy changes that help parents. Glass’ study found that paid sick and vacation leave were especially powerful ways to increase happiness.
Are you up for an eye-opening project?
Here’s what I want you to do: Think about what’s really important to you in life, and then make a list of those priorities.
Next, take a few days to track how you actually spend your time. It’s important to get some real data here, not just your estimates on where you think your time goes. Try to be as accurate as you can. (If you like tech tools, try a time-tracking app.) Make sure that you’re noting how much time you spend on your key relationships: your husband, your family, your friends.
The third step is to compare your priorities list with the information from your time-tracking. Are they in alignment? What’s taking up more of your time than you expected? And what’s getting less attention?
Your results might surprise you — you spend that many hours on Facebook? — and inspire you to rethink how you use your time.
As you do, pay special attention to your relationships. Marriage, family and friends likely ranked high on your priorities list, but you might have discovered that you’re shortchanging them.
Giving more time to your relationships is the most powerful way to improve your life. That’s not just self-help happy talk! The impact of our relationships is shown by science.
Take a few minutes to watch this TED Talk by Robert Waldinger, the latest leader of a 75-year study on what makes for a good life. Waldinger says in his talk:
What are the lessons that come from the tens of thousands of pages of information that we’ve generated on these lives? Well, the lessons aren’t about wealth or fame or working harder and harder. The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.
Based on that study’s findings, when you devote time to strengthening your relationships, you can expect the payoff to be greater physical and mental health. The researchers in Waldinger’s study even successfully predicted how long subjects would live based on the quality of their relationships at age 50!
Your marriage is especially important:
It turns out that being in a securely attached relationship to another person in your 80s is protective, that the people who are in relationships where they really feel they can count on the other person in times of need, those people’s memories stay sharper longer.
Think about how you can best use the time available to you to nurture your relationships, especially your marriage. You may even want to continue tracking your time and noting how a greater focus on relationships affects your happiness. Even if you add just a few minutes of quality time with your husband each day, it can make a big difference.
We all fall prey to it sometimes: The feeling that we should do more, be more, have more. We all face pressure to be ‘living large.’
Maybe you succumb to it when your sister asks what you’re doing to help your teen get into a high-ranked college. Or when your friend shares pictures on Facebook of the dream vacation your family can’t quite afford. Maybe photos of beautiful decors on Pinterest have you looking at your own house with critical eyes, or an upcoming class reunion makes you wish you had more career successes to brag about.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of those pursuits, of course. The problem comes when we start chasing such goals without even asking ourselves whether we truly want them and how much they will truly cost us.
How might the stress of trying to “go big” in every area of your life affect you? Could the high expectations that go with pursing all these goals possibly take a toll on your marriage?
‘I Am Not Enough. There Is Never Enough.’
What turns our expectations for ourselves from a source of motivation to a source of stress? Well, some common beliefs in the United States have something to do with that tendency.
In her book, The Trance of Scarcity: Stop Holding Your Breath and Start Living Your Life, coach and speaker Victoria Castle writes that most of us living in American culture have internalized the story: I am not enough. There is never enough.
If that story is something you feel at your core, nothing will be enough to fill that sense of lack. You’ll be constantly heaping new expectations on yourself.
Then there’s our culture’s belief that you can do anything you set your mind to. The simple truth we often ignore, though, is that everyone has physical, emotional and financial limits. Your energies and resources are not infinite.
Now throw in the push to compare ourselves with others thanks to the never-ending barrage of images on social media. “Why does it look so easy for everyone else?” we wonder. And then we push ourselves even harder.
Feelings of scarcity, a belief that we should be limitless, and constant comparisons with others are a perfect recipe for ongoing stress.
And as you already know, being stressed only makes a marriage harder. When both of you constantly feel pressured to keep up with outside standards, it really makes it harder to keep the focus where it needs to be — on each other.
Is It OK to ‘Live Small?’
You may think that the happiest marriages are between people who have somehow figured out how to do it all and have it all. Not true.
Instead, the most satisfied couples get clear on what’s important to them. They step away from external pressures that don’t fit the life they want to create. And they make their marriage a priority, even when taking time for their relationship means they have to let go of some of the things they’re supposed to do or have (but that ultimately aren’t as important to them).
These couples haven’t escaped from pressure and expectations. But they can better weather them because their relationship gives them a strong center. And they don’t necessarily have tiny, circumscribed lives. The difference is they respect their limits and get added support when they need it.
Think about the expectations you put on yourself and where they come from. Do they stem from your own desires, or do they feel more like what you have to do to be “good enough”? Do they leave you energized and fulfilled, or stressed and emptied? And how do they affect your marriage? Whether you live smaller or larger, make sure your life truly reflects your most important priorities, and remember these wise words:
“If you don’t make time to work on creating the life you want, you’re eventually going to be forced to spend a LOT of time dealing with a life you don’t want.” -Kevin Ngo
Have you and your girlfriends ever mused together about how “the male brain” only processes information about sports, sex and food? Or maybe you’ve heard comedians joke about how “women’s brains” have endless room for remembering men’s slip-ups so they can throw them back in their faces someday?
While the idea of brain differences between men and women has found its way into pop culture wisdom, it has actually long been an area of controversy among researchers.
A study released late 2015 casts new doubt on whether brains can be male or female.
Researchers led by Daphna Joel of Tel Aviv University published the study “Sex beyond the genitalia: The human brain mosaic” in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The researchers looked at the MRI exams of more than 1,400 men and women. Based on what they found, they concluded that “human brains cannot be categorized into two distinct classes: male brain/female brain.”
There are indeed gender differences in brains and behaviors, according to the study, but most of our brains are “comprised of unique ‘mosaics’ of features, some more common in females compared with males, some more common in males compared with females, and some common in both females and males.” Brains with characteristics that are purely “male” or “female” are rare.
The new research supports what I argued in my book Strong Women, Strong Love. In the book, I explained that, yes, there are some common ways that men behave and that women behave, but those aren’t the only ways. Research shows that there are more differences within groups of men and within groups of women than between the sexes. In other words, you can’t say that all men or all women do a certain thing. The behaviors you might blame on your husband’s “male brain” are more likely due to the messages he received growing up about what it means to be a man.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember, though, is that whether a person’s behavior is caused by a brain characteristic or what he or she learned from others, it’s always possible to learn new ways of being. After all, recent brain research has also demonstrated the power of neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to change in response to our experience.
How would you rate your own brain? Does it seem more female, more male or — as the researchers described most of the brains they studied — more of a “mash-up”? Share your thoughts in comments or on my social media channels.
Whatever is on your holiday gift list for your husband, there’s really just one thing that he desperately wants from you.
It’s not for you to lose weight, to cook more meals at home or to surprise him with some “mind-blowing” sex tip from a magazine.
What he wants from you is admiration. He wants to look in your eyes and believe that he is important, special, and necessary in your life. That’s it.
Men have a deep need to be needed, to feel like they are doing their job as your partner. While some couples are letting go of the assumption that the husband should be the primary breadwinner, boys are still raised to take care of people, to be confident, to be “the strong one.”
They get these messages from an early age. And what they come away with is the belief that their worth depends on being of some value in your life.
It might help you understand where your husband is coming from if you consider what women are taught about the importance of our physical appearance. Even if our parents didn’t raise us to believe we “have to” be pretty, even if we live our lives based on very different values and priorities, expectations about women and beauty are so pervasive in our culture that it’s difficult not to be affected by them to some degree. Being told we’re ugly can hurt in a way that other insults do not.
That’s how men feel about being useless.
‘Why Should I Stroke His Ego?’
Some of you might be thinking things like this:
“Why do I have to prop him up?”
“So now I have to flatter him all the time?”
“It’s not my job to give him self-esteem!”
Let’s be clear. It is your job to boost him — and it’s his job to boost you. You both signed on to care for each other emotionally. Expressing sincere admiration is part of that. We all have the need to feel valued and appreciated. Sometimes we overlook the fact that men have this need too because there’s still the societal expectation that men are supposed to be self-sufficient.
The keyword here is sincere admiration. We’re not talking about flattery, fawning and fake enthusiasm. But your marriage will be better when you make an effort to notice your husband’s contributions and to praise them.
Whether or not you realize it, research shows that for many husbands, their wife is the main source of emotional support in their lives. How you look at your husband has a huge impact on how he feels about himself.
When he feels valued in your eyes, he’ll feel good about himself and much closer to you. That can lead him to give you some of the things you’ve been needing emotionally too.
The Most Vulnerable Times
It’s especially important to understand your husband’s need to feel useful and admired by you when he’s going through a circumstance that could make him feel useless and not very admirable.
For example, a job loss or layoff is painful for anyone, but can be especially difficult for men. If you respond by panicking and “managing” his job search, you could be magnifying his shame and guilt. On the other hand, reminding him of the special value he has to you and expressing confidence in his abilities, regardless of his paycheck, can help him come through the crisis more quickly.
A Holiday Wish
Think of some of the ways your husband makes the holiday season a little brighter for you. Is he always patient with your talkative dad during your family gatherings? Does he go out of his way to create special moments for the kids? Does he give you gifts that melt your heart? Let him know how much it all means to you.
You’ll find many more insights that will help you understand your husband and deepen your relationship with him in my book Strong Women, Strong Love.
I wish you both much joy and closeness this holiday season and into the coming year!
Love never dies a natural death. It dies because we don’t know how to replenish its source. It dies of blindness and errors and betrayals. It dies of illness and wounds; it dies of weariness, of witherings, of tarnishings. ~Anaïs Nin
We’re entering a busy time of year. But amid everything on your holiday season to-do list, don’t forget to give your marriage attention, too.
Neglect is an easy pattern for spouses to fall into — all the while assuming that things are OK in their marriage because they’re not outwardly fighting.
To some extent, it’s normal to give your relationship less attention over time as the two of you grow comfortable and secure with each other.
But your marriage will suffer if you starve it of time and attention for too long.
Perhaps it’s not very romantic, but we can compare marriage to other things that take ongoing maintenance, like caring for you car, your appearance or your garden. You can get away with putting off an oil change, a haircut or weeding for a while, but eventually that deferred maintenance takes its toll.
And there’s another similarity between marriage maintenance and the other routine maintenance tasks we perform. It doesn’t have to take long. We’re not talking a fancy dinner every week or romantic vacations every season.
In fact, it’s essential that your marriage maintenance fit into your lives. As busy as we all are, anything that seems like too much work is a hard sell.
So how do you make marriage maintenance an easy habit and avoid neglecting your relationship? Here are a few tips to help keep your love strong:
- Take some time for just the two of you. Even a little bit helps.
- Look for the positives. When things get hectic — as they often do this time of year — we tend to focus on what needs doing, not what was done right. Make a conscious effort to notice your husband’s contributions.
- Examine your interactions. Your relationship happens in all your little daily moments together. Do they make you feel better about each other — or worse? Remember the common courtesies, like saying goodbye to each other when you leave in the morning.
- Go beyond small talk. Even if the two of you don’t have much time for conversation, you can still take things a little deeper than “How was your day?” “Fine.” When you do have an opportunity to talk in more depth, you may want to try the 36 questions I wrote about in earlier blog. Research shows they build intimacy.
- Don’t forget special occasions. Do you overlook the milestones you made a big deal out of back in the early days of your relationship?
- Stop and check in. Do you know what’s important in your husband’s life right now? Life throws a lot at us sometimes, and when it does, you might fall back on assumptions about what’s going on with your partner. Remember to stop and ask each other how you’re doing, what your main concerns are and whether you’re both still moving toward your dreams and goals. Disconnects happen between partners. Maybe, for example, one of you feels that life hasn’t changed that much since you had a baby, but the other feels discombobulated. The important thing is to catch these disconnects early before the two of you drift too far apart.
- Make it a regular part of your day. When marriage maintenance is just part of your routine, it feels less like “work.”
A little daily maintenance can make your marriage dramatically better. You can find many more ideas for strengthening your relationship even when you’re both busy and stressed in my book Strong Women, Strong Love.