This 5-Minute Read Can Help You Find More Joy in Parenting

Last spring, my kids and I rescued a bird. Until then, I had been only vaguely aware of a nest somewhere up in the maple tree in our front yard. But late one afternoon, while I was cooking dinner, overseeing homework and revving myself up to run the bath-book-bedtime gauntlet, a friend dropping something off asked if I knew there was a baby bird covered in flies dying in our grass. I did not.

My children, then 4 and 7, ran to the window and immediately demanded we save it. I felt an overwhelming urge to stick my head in the sand, return to my mac and cheese, and march on with our evening routine. If my kids go to sleep significantly late, I feel myself becoming unglued. Then again, I couldn’t see where “traumatic bird murder” fit into our bedtime ritual. So, after panicked calls to several local animal hospitals, I learned the following: 1) It was nearly 6 p.m., they were closing and, no, they could not send someone to pick up a bird. 2) The bird—a grackle, I was later informed—would almost certainly be eaten alive by maggots within hours, before my children’s eyes, if I did not intervene. 3) It had most likely been attempting its first flight. Or it had been pushed from its nest, either by its mother in a teaching effort or by overcrowded and stronger siblings. I struggle to find a more perfect metaphor for childhood.

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Now, tending to gravely injured birds may not be a big deal for many people. But my neuroticism, germophobia and lack of wilderness skills register about an 11 on the Larry David scale. In spite of this, an hour and several phone calls later, I had tapped into a network of independent volunteer bird rehabilitators in my area. One woman guided me through the phone, step by step, as I picked up the bird (I used oven mitts), put it in a box (from Amazon) and drove it to her home about 30 minutes away. Exhilarated and terrified, I yelled nonsense orders at my kids for no reason. I also just yelled generally. As a mother, I wear many hats: teacher, unskilled chef, Beyblade champion, vocalist, therapist, wrestler. I can now add avian EMT to my CV. As we drove, the grackle peeped painfully from the trunk of our hatchback. 

“The Bird Lady,” as we came to call her, lived in a Victorian home by the sea. She welcomed us in, gently taking the box from my hands, and thanked us sincerely, telling us we did the right thing. I’ve never seen my kids so quiet. At her invitation, I walked them right into her bathroom (so much for stranger danger). There, she lifted a dishcloth off a Tupperware container to reveal three teeny-tiny baby birds, each no bigger than my thumb. She proceeded to nurse them with an eyedropper. Then we went home.

The next day, my son drew a picture of the grackle. My kids still ask me periodically how he’s doing. I tell them he’s thriving. That he’s surely been adopted by the Bird Lady and is living happily with all those rescued crows in wrought-iron cages on her porch. But the truth is, I don’t know. I don’t even know if he’s a he. The Bird Lady texted a few days later to say he had a hematoma and a broken wing, but she had cleaned him up and was hoping for the best. I am choosing to believe, and willing my kids to believe, that because we tried to save something pure and vulnerable, we succeeded. In a way, no matter the outcome, we did. Thanks to my kids’ essential goodness, I did something braver than I considered myself capable of. But ultimately, I have no idea how the bird story ended, just as in parenting, we don’t know how our kids’ lives are going to turn out. We do our best. In our golden moments, they inspire us to become better versions of ourselves. To refuse to be passive, to do the right thing—often the harder thing—when the path of least resistance beckons. We hope this will be enough to cushion them when they inevitably fall or get pushed.

Of course, there are so many moments when parenthood inspires the opposite of nobility and grace. Maybe that’s why I wanted to do something that felt heroic that afternoon. I so often worry I’m failing.

mom hugging her daughter
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No parent needs to be told how transformative the transition to parenthood is. As they say on Instagram, “Being a mom breaks you and mends you all at the same time.” What we do need to hear is that we are not alone. That whatever we’re going through, we’re not the only ones. What is unique to our generation of parents, though, is how we look to the internet, rather than to the traditional “village,” for guidance. Online, “expert” advice is relentless yet confounding. (Attachment parents advocate co-sleeping; the American Academy of Pediatrics says we increase the risk of SIDS if we do, etc.) New York Times parenting editor Jessica Grose has described this prescriptive glut as “a long list of scold-y admonishments from Big Parenting.”

Meanwhile, as the years roll on, daily life with small children continues to result in what “toddler whisperer” Tovah Klein, Ph.D., calls “a misalignment of needs.” (Mainly, our need to sleep and their need not to.) “What’s crucial for parents to see and understand is that during the toddler years, the needs of the child (for autonomy and exploration, coupled with support and comfort) and the needs of the parent (for time for self, or the need for the child to be good) come into constant misalignment.” In her book How Toddlers Thrive, Klein describes this disparity as “downright maddening.” In All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, author Jennifer Senior cites a Harvard study wherein researchers observed 90 mother-toddler pairs for five hours. They discovered that “on average, mothers gave a command, told their child no or fielded a request (often ‘unreasonable’ or ‘in a whining tone’) every three minutes. Their children, in turn, obeyed on average only 60 percent of the time. This is not exactly a formula for perfect mental health.”

So we look online for more than just advice. On social media, we connect through commiseration. Parenting is patently absurd: “My kid smeared poop on the walls.” “The nurse called; we have lice!” “Welp, we’ve got a biter.” When the going gets tough, the tough reframe it as funny. In any case, pride and joy take a back seat. Cynicism becomes a coping mechanism. And yet everything on the internet lives forever. None of us would ever want our kids to see a joke we posted or a meme we liked and think we resented them. I can’t imagine what someone struggling with infertility or engulfed by the loss of a child would give to have a lice crisis. But most of all, I hate the thought that any child would assume we wouldn’t choose to do it all over again. For the record, we’d do it all again—ten thousand million times—if we were so fortunate. “People like to bond over a similar experience, and the negative groans are easier to share,” says Aliza Pressman, cofounding director of NYC’s Mount Sinai Parenting Center and host of the podcast Raising Good Humans. “People don’t laugh together about the real stuff—the deep feelings of joy and the honor of being with our kids.” Even the darkest motherhood memes, she says, “all come from a need to connect.” 

But what if we took complaining off the table? How else do we spark joy even when—especially when—we are burning out?

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An oft-cited stat is that today’s moms—the majority of whom work outside the home—spend as much time with their kids as stay-at-home moms did in the 1970s. So from a historical perspective, you’re already winning. If you’re seeking more joy, doing less could be a great place to start. As writer Annie Reneau puts it, “Love is a limitless resource. Energy is not.” This raises the question: Is “minimalist parenting” even a thing? Is it possible to KonMari motherhood?

Celebrity stylist and creative director Calyann Barnett, whose clients include Dwyane Wade, is the founder of Miami retail space The Shop in Pop Up Shop, a mom of two (including a newborn) and the wife of a firefighter. She offers this useful guideline: “I have accepted that I cannot be everything 100 percent all the time without running myself into the ground. When I am an excellent mother and wife, some of my work may take a back seat. And when it comes to a big project, I may miss a family outing. I always say two out of three at any given time is excellent. The trick is to be present in whichever role I decide to make a priority.” Mom Brain cohost Daphne Oz agrees that maintaining her own identity makes her a better parent. “One of my favorite practices is saying yes to fun as often as possible,” she says. “If I can make it work, I will. I’ve stopped trying to justify all the trade-offs and let the fact that it’s something I’m excited about be reason enough. The point is to give myself ways that I can continue to grow into a more joyful, present version of me, which brings that much more joy and presence to my parenting.” 

Why not apply JOMO to parenthood? Skip tae kwon do. Accept that two birthday parties in one weekend is a recipe for insanity. Don’t volunteer for the thing. Maybe the trick to battling parental burnout isn’t latching on to the “right” big idea (attachment parenting/free-range parenting/tiger momming)but letting go of lots of little ideas about how things are “supposed” to be. “It’s hard to access joy when we are trying so hard to make things be useful or memorable or important,” says Pressman. I think of all the everyday moments I’ve tried to turn into teachable ones. What if we stopped straining so hard to optimize every experience?

Lauren Smith Brody, mom of two and author of The Fifth Trimester, consults with businesses to help them attract and retain working parents. She also advises those parents on which obligations to eliminate in order to make space for the ones that matter. “Years ago, when you were fantasizing about what being a parent would be like, what were those things you imagined loving?” she asks. Was it giving your kids bubble baths? Baking with them? Playing outside? “On your list of 300 tasks you have to do, prioritize that handful of things.” As for the rest? Do your best to outsource, delegate or ditch it. Assuming we’re talking about two parents in a coupled relationship, “I recommend doing this incredibly awkward, hilarious, painful task of sitting down together to write down, ‘What are all the things it takes for our home to run the way we envisioned?’ Then look at the list, give each other some grace and really decide, ‘What can we do without?’” The goal is to reduce not only extraneous responsibilities but also the guilt and resentment that come with them. Make it official family policy to order takeout two nights a week, Smith Brody says. This way, when you do, it will feel like you’re hitting your goal instead of falling short.

Ali Maffucci, the brains behind popular food site Inspiralized and a PureWow Coterie member, plans ahead to maximize joy: “I used to wake up and have a long list of chores to do, including making the kids’ breakfasts,” she says. “I realized that by the time our nanny came so we could start our workdays, I hadn’t spent any time with my kids where I wasn’t partly running around. Most mornings, I had to put the TV on just so my toddler would be entertained. I always felt mom guilt that our short time together was spent this way.” She resolved to clean, do dishes, prep breakfast and even set the coffeemaker the night before, and hasn’t looked back since. “Now I start my days with joy,” she says. “I feel better as a mom, and my days are more mindful after a less hectic start.” She likens the idea to drinking a green smoothie for breakfast: No matter what else the day brings, you’re building on a healthy foundation.

mom and child playing
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What we should not sacrifice, experts emphasize, is spending quality time with our kids. However, don’t “get stuck on planning that perfect interaction,” says Pressman. “Just have the clear intention to pay attention to the experience of being with your child. Take a weekend and remove all the expectations, all the parenting do’s and don’ts, and just see what it’s like to connect with your child about something that makes you both laugh, without having to fake your enthusiasm.”

The absolute best thing you can do, therapists say, is spend ten minutes a day, one-on-one, with each child. No screens. No directives. No criticism. “Of all the compromises I make as a busy mom of four, the one thing I am a total stickler for is finding ways to get individual time with each of my kids throughout the week,” says Oz. “Our mini dates can be 15 minutes. It’s hard to sneak away from the rest of the pack for too long. But that alone time is so soothing and joyful ... These moments are when I get to see my kids becoming themselves.” Smith Brody enthusiastically agrees: “I’ve tried this with my children and it’s like a miracle drug,” she says. “Ten minutes in a busy day sounds like a lot. It probably pulls you away from something you would have done for yourself. However, as you sit there doing this for your child, it becomes something you’re doing for you too. If just for ten small minutes you can focus on your kid, he will give back to you everything you’ve put in times ten. That’s a win. That is a moment of joy. It makes you feel like, ‘Gosh, I was a good mom today.’” 

And what about those days when you weren’t? When we get emotionally flooded and lose patience with our kids, it’s how we recover that counts. “It may sound odd, but the mishap is not the problem, so long as there is a positive reconnection, a repair,” writes Klein. “The key at times like these—when their needs collide with ours—is how you reconnect with your child. Coming back together again, without blame, lets them know you are here for them, always, even when bad moments happen.” What she’s describing is a concept psychologists call “rupture and repair.” We will always have highs and lows with the people we love, because relationships are “dynamic,” says Pressman—meaning they are living, breathing works in progress. “They can’t just be one note of perfect.” But by attempting to fix what we’ve damaged, “we show our kids that ruptures don’t mean the end of the world, or that the relationship is doomed. Kids see they are able to go through a whole range of experiences and feelings and still stay loved and connected.”

So much of what we do as parents takes place behind closed doors. Of course, we’re not in it for the fame and money. Proof of our efforts, of our triumphs and shortcomings, will only be fully revealed decades from now, in family photos or on a therapist’s couch. But if we want our kids to be capable of joy, we need to find a way to model it now. That said, “self-care” has to be redefined as a shared laugh on the playground instead of a solo trip to the spa. When you haven’t peed alone in nine years,“meditate every morning” doesn’t sound helpful. It sounds, infuriatingly, like more pressure.

Ada Calhoun, author of Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis, captured this sentiment, writing in The Atlantic: “‘Take time for yourself,’ the women’s magazines say. ‘Practice self-care.’ What they mean is that once a week I should take an hour for highlights or a massage or an exercise class. What I hear is that I should treat myself by paying someone to help me look less tired than I am, because no one wants to see that. And I do some of those things. But the only thing I’ve found that actually helps is being in the company of other women... Laughing about school admissions, about [standing outside in the freezing] cold, about how ridiculous it all is, that’s what we really need—not self-care, but solace.”

high on adrenaline, I took a second to text two mom friends.Our message chain, which goes back years, is, through a certain lens, the most comprehensive record of my existence. “Holy s--- we’re rescuing a bird,” I wrote, without elaboration or punctuation. I don’t think I ever fed my kids dinner that night. Writes Senior “I look at what raising children means in the larger context of a life—what it is to feel joy, what it is to surrender ourselves to a larger set of obligations, and what it is, simply, to tell our stories…We’re all the sum of our experiences, and raising children plays an enormous part in making us who we are. For some of us, perhaps the largest part.” If we’re lucky.

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