When Brigid Schulte, a journalist and mother of two, learned she had 30 hours of leisure time every week, she was shocked.
Between racing to school activities, rushing to meet deadlines and wrangling a never-ending to-do list, it never seemed her free time amounted to so many hours. Schulte felt powerless over her schedule.
“One of the most important things I learned is the biggest journey is right in your head,”
One of the most important things I learned is the biggest journey is right in your head,” says Schulte, who directs the Better Life Lab at the New America Foundation.
Finding a realistic balance amidst the chaos is also important to Jason Marsh, a dad and editor-in-chief and director of programs at the Greater Good Science Center, a U.C. Berkeley center that explores “the science of a meaningful life.” Marsh is constantly thinking about evidence-based tips for parents who crave a more fulfilling connection to themselves, their work and their families.
He often recommends looking for ways to practice and express gratitude more in our everyday lives. That might sound hokey to a harried parent who just wants to shower, but research shows it can make a big difference.
Simply writing down three to five things for which you feel grateful a couple of times per week can elevate your mood and perhaps even improve your health, according to research.
While those suggestions are excellent places to start, Schulte and Marsh had several more strategies to offer. You might be surprised by how much they involve doing something for yourself instead of focusing exclusively on your child.
Most people experiencing stress tend to hold their breath, but parents may be especially prone to this habit as they, for example, try to calm a screaming toddler or hunt down missing homework.
Both Schulte and Marsh recommend taking even a few moments every day to breathe deeply and fully. Studies show that restoring breath can lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. “[Breathing] creates space for you to think clearly,” says Schulte. Every parent could use more of that.
2. Change your expectations.
With clarity comes the ability to think openly about what you want. Schulte says transforming the experience of parenthood requires a willingness to abandon other people’s ideas of what it means to be committed to both work and family.
4. Spend time with your partner.
Time-use surveys show that partners are often the last priority when a child arrives, but Schulte says it’s a disservice to the entire family when that key relationship suffers. If possible, schedule a regular date night or declare one evening free of devices and work. Instead of filling every conversation with observations about your child, find new subjects that engage you both.
5. Don’t panic about your kid’s future.
Education is important, but too many parents today are panicked by the thought of their kid not being competitive enough to attend an Ivy League school. The research on long-term fulfillment, though, shows that it doesn’t matter which college people attend. Their selection may account for income and prestige, but has very little effect on fulfillment.
What matters more is whether college students had a trusted adult in their lives and were engaged in meaningful activities, among other factors. So parents should relax and stop positioning themselves to constantly rescue their children from failure. “When you scaffold too closely,” Schulte says, “you’re not allowing the kids to discover who they are on their own.”
7. Put the phone down.
Your phone may feel like a lifeline to information and conversation, but it can also keep you from engaging with your child and yourself. “If your face is always in your phone, that’s what [your children] are going to see as normal,” says Schulte. Try silencing notifications and texts or put the phone in a drawer for a set amount of time every day.
8. Build a support network.
The adage about it taking a village to raise a child is true. But that community is as important for the parent as it is the child. Parenting can be an isolating experience, so work on making connections with like-minded folks who can support you in the journey.
“You don’t want it to be competition,” says Schulte. “If it turns into that, then pull out, because it’s not what you need.”
9. Practice self-compassion.
There’s so much to worry about — how your child sleeps, eats, plays and poops. Guilt, says Schulte, can be particularly pervasive for women who hear plenty about their worth as mothers and still encounter stigma when they work.
Parenting, though, is a lifelong journey and you can’t be everything to your child.
10. Express gratitude.
Feeling and expressing gratitude is a practice, and it doesn’t mean ignoring upsetting or frustrating circumstances, like a child having trouble at school or a relentlessly demanding workday. Forcing yourself to be positive, in fact, can be a recipe for unhappiness, according to research.
What you want is simply to make a habit of observing moments of joy as well as good things, events and people in your life that you might take for granted. Marsh says the “three good things practice,” which involves writing down those observations, is a way to focus on the positive aspects of your life.
For more information on how to practice some of these strategies, visit Greater Good in Action, an online resource created by the Greater Good Science Center.