Three Questions to Ask If You Want to be Happier in Your 30s and 40s

Find your happy. It’s out there.

Having children can be the most amazing experience in our lives, bringing moments of happiness that we didn’t think were possible as we get to know these new little human beings. But parenting can also be one of the most challenging things we ever do. Our parenting years often also coincide with big changes in careers and finances that accompany our midlife years (our 30’s and 40’s).
These big changes can result in tumultuous times for adults. While we celebrate every milestone with pride and revel in hugs from our little ones, parents may also find themselves sleep deprived, frustrated with parenting challenges, and financially strapped. In fact, some research has demonstrated that parents of young children are likely to report lower levels of well-being and happiness.  
All is not lost! There is also a body of research that demonstrates the potential for great happiness in midlife, despite these challenges. When life gets overwhelming we start falling into what some researchers call the U-Curve of midlife – picture a chart of our happiness trends that dips like a “U” in our 30s and 40s. How can we pick ourselves up and start heading back up that curve?  

Consider asking yourself the following research-backed questions:

Are you balancing “productive activities” with caretaking?

Christina Matz-Costa studied adults’ levels of engagement in volunteer, paid work, or caregiving activities defined as “productive roles” and found that those who reported high levels of engagement in paid or volunteer roles were more likely to report greater levels of psychological well-being.
Interestingly, when it came to caregiving activities those who reported mid-levels of engagement were more likely to be happier – too much or too little caregiving responsibility was associated with lower levels of well-being.  There is a necessary balance between caring for yourself – defined as participating in activities that make you feel productive or engaged – and meeting the needs of others.
We can’t give ourselves entirely to our kids or our parents who need care, likewise, we are less happy if we feel we are not providing the care we’d like. Don’t punish yourself for needing time away from your caretaking responsibilities. Remember: Make sure the flow of oxygen is activated in your own mask before trying to assist others.

Take Action:

  • Identify a volunteer activity that fits fairly easily into your busy schedule and aligns with your passions. Do you like food? How about a monthly shift at the local food shelf? If committing to a specific time and place is challenging, try finding a volunteer opportunity that can be accomplished indirectly, like writing articles for a nonprofit newsletter.
  • You are not alone! Join a parent playdate circle or set up a childcare exchange with friends so that you can work with other parents to find ways to balance caregiving needs with other pursuits. Going to an organized children’s activity with your young child can also help to fulfill some of your needs for adult interaction and socialization.

Are you being true to yourself?

Research has demonstrated that a sense of identity in midlife was more positively correlated to well-being than a sense of intimacy. Early developmental research by Erikson posited that identity development that happened in early adulthood and was followed by intimacy leads to more happiness than isolation.  
Yet this more recent research illuminates a need to return to developing a sense of self in midlife. Perhaps this is a time of life when exploring who you are and in what you believe takes precedence over the need to be intimate. This isn’t surprising, given the pressures that young children and tight finances can bring to a marriage and friendships. This isn’t to say we should give up on intimacy, but perhaps grounding and not losing our focus on ourselves is just as important as supporting and connecting with others.  

Take Action:

  • Take small steps to advance your career or pursue new interests.  Consider taking an online class on a topic that you’ve wanted to explore, or getting a certification in a new skill.  Even if it’s not the time to go back to school full-time, taking a small step can help you feel like you are making progress and learning more about yourself and your passions.
  • Commit to a regular self-care practice, such as yoga, meditation, or walking. Start small by trying to work it in on a weekly basis. When you find something that feels right you can increase the number of times you integrate it into your schedule.
  • Hold your “me time” as a precious commitment. When life gets overwhelming many parents have a tendency to soldier on in the face of debilitating exhaustion or frustration. Taking time for yourself, whether you are practicing the self-care mentioned above, or simply reading a book or taking a bath should be just as important as what you have to do for others.

Are you celebrating the potential of older age?

Psychologists Steven Mock and Richard Eibech conducted research to measure how one’s attitude toward growing old was related to their current sense of well-being. These researchers found that favorable attitudes toward aging were associated with higher life satisfaction.
Instead of looking back at our youth with longing, we benefit from thinking about all of the great things we’ll do when we’re old and perhaps exploring how we can begin to do some of those things now.
As our kids grow and become more independent we can return to some of the things that made us happy when we were young (either with or without our kids), but with the added wisdom and appreciation that comes from having made it through the more challenging years.

Take Action:

  • Don’t be afraid to start a new hobby, step-by-step. Dreaming of a huge garden when you have time to work on it?  Start with a few raised beds and grow your garden a bit year by year.  Want to travel the world some day?  Start with a few short, affordable trips that feed your travel appetite – you can expand what you’re able to do as your time and resources grow.
  • Get Inspired.  There are many successful people who began the pursuits for which they are famous later in life. Toni Morrison published her first novel at age 40; Laura Ingalls Wilder began writing the Little House on the Prairie Series in her 60’s, and Julia Child didn’t go to cooking school until age 36. Read Strenger and Ruttenberg’s 2008 essay “The Existential Necessity of Midlife Change” (in the Harvard Business Review) to learn more about debunking the myth of midlife decline. Even the psychoanalyst who first coined the term “midlife crisis” had what Strenger and Ruttenberg call a “second life” full of success.

Midlife can be hard, especially when we are parenting or when financial resources are tight, but taking small steps to focus on our own happiness can help to make the time and space to appreciate what we do have – beautiful children, career opportunities, powerful relationships with others, and the strength to find happiness amidst all of the chaos.
 

The Astounding Secret Life of the Perfect Picture

The real trick is snapping a photo that captures the perfection in imperfection.

When the last little eye lid of my last little child has finally closed for the night, I sit down on the couch to relax and do what parents everywhere do: scroll through my various social media apps to see what went on in the world while I wasn’t looking.
Beautiful faces of children smile back at me, adorable candid shots of babies and dogs. Amazing scenic vacation shots of Colorado mountains, tropical beaches, local dive bars, and European cafés satiate my touch screen. Mostly, I think kind and happy thoughts about the people in the pictures.
But every now and then, when I see these pictures – when I see an unbelievably gorgeous black and white image of a couple on a date night looking so…PERFECT – I feel a bit jealous. Here are these people looking shiny and beautiful and happy! How can that be real?! And that picture they posted last week of their brand new baby swaddled up, so stinking cute. They must want everyone to think this is real!
And then I remember how hard the days get. I remember the mornings we (“we” being the collective parents of the world) are woken up with a barrage of extreme sounds (toddlers crying from cribs), awful smells (poopy diapers on said toddlers), and demands (breakfast, cartoons, our sanity).
Hot coffee is our best friend, and yet we only get to take a few sips before we are pulled away, leaving it to grow cold and sad, alone on the counter, while we chase an infant with a marker and fend off an eight-year-old trying to steal our phone to play Pokémon Go in his pajamas.
Our lovely coffee has to be reheated, at which point it tastes like crap. I remember the driving schedules, the daycare drop-offs and pick-ups, the oodles and oodles of craft projects the kids bring home that require a profound amount of brain power to figure out what to do with, and summon extreme guilt when we end up throwing most of it away in the end.
I remember the cleaning and the laundry, the rushed meals we never fully get to enjoy ourselves because we have to get up from the table 18 times to get milk, a spoon, a napkin, more cheese, another spoon because the first one fell on the floor and the dog licked it.
I remember baby puke, kid puke, husband puke during a bad stomach flu that assaults the whole family. The sick days we don’t get to take because there’s no one to step in when we get the flu and so have to sit in the car with a barf bag, sweating bullets and unable to stand upright without vomiting or passing out, while the kids get on the bus for their first day of summer camp.
I remember the hours of homework and time we put into our kids, the effort we put into our houses to make them lovely, warm, happy places for our kids to come home to. I think about all the parents who work their tails off night and day in an office, in a car, in a restaurant, on a playground, on a plane, building beautiful lives for their families.
When you think about all that time spent and all those humble hours making meals for others, making beds, making lunches, and making money just to pay for clothes and toys they grow out of in a minute, and maybe a babysitter once in a while…it seems that picture-perfect moment gleaming on Facebook for all our friends to see (and maybe feel a tad bit jealous about) is pretty heroic. I would even say it is damn well deserved.
Somehow, the perfect picture worthy of a post on Instagram dares to pull us out of the trenches for one gleaming moment, holding up a hand into the murky air and shouting, “There! See! It is all worth it!” It says there is value to our herculean efforts, which, intrinsically we know deep down inside our weary souls, but end up doubting anyway.
Our pictures somehow remind us again that we are doing a beautiful job even when it doesn’t feel like it. They tell one tiny bit of a story that is otherwise organized chaos – as my eight-year-old likes to call it. For one smidgen of a moment, all the stars aligned and that breathtaking image emerged from the dust. And by golly, people need to see it.
Life is crazy hard. We don’t try to be perfect, or assume for a moment that we can even come close. But we do our best, and we get excited when the sun sets at just the right angle to gleam its glittering rays all over us at just the right moment so we can catch it and hold it up for the world to see. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
It reminds me that we are all in this sacred sphere together. Life is completely imperfect and crazy, a beautiful mess that we continue to find ourselves in, day after day. And yet that is where the truth lies and the extraordinary pieces of hard work are revealed.
If you can adjust your lens and look into the pictures from the place where I’m sitting, you’ll see that the imperfect is where the perfect shows up.

Open Letter to My Kids About What Matters Most

Never stop. The world needs you.

Dear Kids,
I’m writing this letter in hopes all three of you can block out a world screaming for your attention, even if for a few minutes. In case my time on earth gets cut short, I want to be sure you know what matters to me before society tries to tell you otherwise.
Because all three of you are young adults, the divisiveness of our country is not lost on you. As a nation, we no longer exemplify the privilege of standing together for the good of each other. For nostalgia’s sake, I looked up unity in Webster’s yesterday only to learn the word no longer exists. Turns out the editors over at the dictionary factory couldn’t agree on the meaning. An argument ensued, which ended with a decision to toss the three-syllable classic into the circular file.
Sigh.
Listen, guys, we live in a broken world. Humanity took a beat down pretty much from day one. Legend tells us the blame game started between the first two people on earth. A girl ate an apple from an off-limits tree. A boy knew she was in the wrong but couldn’t resist the juicy temptation and he also took a bite of the forbidden fruit. Then, when the apple grower found out and asked the boy why he ate it, the boy blamed the girl.
Not much has changed since. Millions of people make independent decisions every day, regardless of rules. When they get caught doing something wrong, they blame someone else. The result is a continuous charade of finger pointing. If you aren’t on one side of the argument, you’re purported to align with the other. Welcome to the second Continental Divide of the Americas.
Thus, we live in a splintered society filled with groups of people who don’t like or agree with other groups of people. Each group touts their platform of logic, belief, and understanding as the correct interpretation. Assumption and ignorance override contemplation. Taking the time to listen to one another with empathy is rare. Now, we form opinions based on third, fourth, fifth party information – with actual truth lost beneath layers of translation.
Life has become a battle of who screams the loudest, longest, and to the right people – i.e. those with the most power. Meanwhile, the beautiful intent of humanity – love and relationship –erodes beneath the rubble of discontent more and more each day. Our purpose in life is relationship – with each other and the world around us. Love makes the world go round. But as of late, fear has the globe careening off its axis.
As your mom, I apologize on behalf of everyone guilty of allowing our country to get to this spiteful, hateful place. I’d love to tell you I’ve had nothing to do with creating the problem, but I’d be lying. I’ve grown up a lot in the last several years and am the first to admit my shame in contributing to the mess. I’m different now. Humility is a dragon slayer. And I’m trying to better myself every day by practicing what matters most: LOVE.
I want you three to grasp the importance of doing the right thing, no matter how the rest of the world behaves around you. Our individual actions affect the collective spirit. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
Therefore:

It matters to me that you’re kind.

It matters to me that you try hard not to judge others; being the best version of yourself is enough work for your lifetime.

It matters to me that you try your best to make a difference in the world, no matter how small.

It matters to me that you don’t walk through life with a label maker; attaching sticky tabs to everyone you meet.

It matters to me that you know you are a beautiful creation and take care of your mind, body, spirit.

It matters to me that you know how to give and receive love.

It matters to me that you appreciate nature because all creation is a gift.

It matters to me that you respect others even when they disrespect you.

It matters to me that you don’t define yourself by who others perceive you to be.

It matters to me that you don’t define others by who you perceive them to be.

It matters to me that you appreciate the value of human life – in every sense of the word.

It matters to me that you participate in the world from a place of love, that your heart always leads – not your ego.

It matters to me that you live your dream, not someone else’s dream for you.

It matters to me that you smile at others even on a bad day.

It matters to me that you believe goodness always exists, even when the media tells you otherwise.

It matters to me that you always choose to be the change you want to see.

It matters to me that when you stand up for what you believe, you do so without stepping on another.

It matters to me that you choose to be a good listener – not just a hearer.

It matters to me that you have a mindset to serve, not to be served.

It matters to me that you embrace your uniqueness and the uniqueness of others; “normal” is an illusion.

It matters to me that you believe in something higher than yourself and don’t take for granted the miracle you are.

It matters to me that you know without a doubt how much I love you – and that NOTHING can ever separate you from my love.

It matters to me that we all do one thing very well – be LOVE. The rest takes care of itself.

It matters to me that all three of you realize how proud Dad and I are of you. Because the above list represents all the actions you guys already live out.

Never stop. The world needs you.

Love,
Mom

20 Signs You're Spending Too Much Time With Your Kids

You will spend a lot of time with these tiny folks who have no concept of personal space or privacy – so much time that you will change.

There will be no season of your life where you will spend more time with other people than when your kids are small. And, you will spend a lot of time with these tiny folks who have no concept of personal space or privacy – so much time that you will change. It won’t be a sudden change. You won’t wake up one morning and have an urge to ask someone 40 questions in a minute and a half. It’s a gradual change, over time. Before you know it:
1 | You shout “Yay!” after anyone does anything.
2 |  You ask your spouse if they have to go potty.
3 |  Everything you eat needs a dipping sauce.
4 |  You prefer the blue cup.
5 |  You have to announce every single thing you are doing around the house.
6 |  You find yourself becoming averse to all forms of green vegetables.
7 |  You don’t see a need to change out of your pajamas if you have no place to be.
8 |  You don’t see a need to change out of your pajamas.
9 |  You prefer straws.
10 |  You find yourself watching an episode of Paw Patrol when no kids are around and think, “Oooh, I haven’t seen this one yet.”
11 |  You tell a story and end up telling four stories at once and finally end with a story that has nothing to do with the one you started telling.
12 |  You catch yourself losing your fuse and think, “I really need a time-out right now.”
13 |  You make the worst excuses for cleaning anything up like, “I can’t. My legs are so tired of walking around this house.”
14 |  You ask yourself questions like, “Why doesn’t the cat have lips?”
15 |  You get really quiet when you don’t want anyone to know what you’re doing.
16 |  You can never find any shoes that match and you don’t seem to care.
17 |  You’re perfectly happy eating cereal for dinner four nights in a row.
18 |  The last twelve books you read were either written by Dr. Seuss or Laura Numeroff.
19 |  You think it’s a perfectly fine idea to give a moose a muffin.
20 |  You agree that blanket fort is a great place to dine. On cereal.
21 |  You get excited because Peppa Pig is on.
22 |  You eat Eggo waffles without a fork.
23 |  You are more comfortable with a night light at bedtime.
24 |  You embrace Play-Doh as the new yoga.
25 |  It’s difficult to sleep in a bed that doesn’t have rogue toys milling around it.
Really, it’s not so bad. These tiny folks will bring so much joy into your life and teach you things nothing else could teach you, like love, patience, an appreciation for the simple things in life, and the fact that it’s possible to put your socks on upside down. You’ll likely outgrow these little habits just as they will, and thankfully, one day, it’ll be less than 40 questions at one time. There’s a rumor going around that the “yay!” response never goes away.

Momaholics Take Note: It’s Time to Embrace that Non-Mom Side

We need to see who we are – in addition to our role as mom. So embrace that non-mom self and try a few of these ideas on for size.

Everybody knows you can’t make your job your life. That’s why vacation time exists and there are delineated “business hours,” implying you should at some point get on with the rest of your life. That’s why “workaholic” is a word in the dictionary.  
Yet, “momaholic” remains on the fringes. “Mom hours” do not exist. We are encouraged to be the best we can be for our kids. What this translates into, more often than not, is a running tally of “mommy-do” lists – Cook a real dinner that involves things not previously frozen. Encourage sharing. Practice handwriting for thirty minutes after school Start the bedtime routine an hour before actual bed. Sign up to bring snacks for the school party Encourage sharing, (again).
Dare I say it? Moms need to take a step back. We do it to ourselves. Yes, we are mothers, but we are also spouses, friends, daughters, businesswomen, artists. The Mother-of-the-Year award need not be the push and purpose of our lives. Even the Mother-Of-The-Year-Because-I’m-Such-A-Funny-Mess-At-Mothering award needs to fall by the wayside. Instead, we need to see who we are – in addition to our role as mom. Your kids need to see you this way too. So embrace that non-mom self and try a few of these ideas on for size.

Lose Yourself in a Craft

And I do not mean anything kid-related on Pinterest. I mean something totally for you. Remember when you used to paint or write or photograph like a pro? Do that. Remember that knitting project that’s sitting in the attic? Get those needles moving. Remember the fancy cooking class you always wanted to take but wasn’t practical? Go learn how Julia Childs made coq au vin. The kids would never eat it, but that’s not the point. We invest so much of our time in kid crafts that we ignore the curious side of ourselves. We need to explore our creative side too.

Ignore Them

Your kids don’t always need your undivided attention. I don’t mean all the time. If the house is on fire or someone is bleeding, take note. But, occasionally, your kids need to cry or whine or scream and not have you jump at the ready. If you are on the phone or in the middle of a task that needs finishing, explain that you will be there as soon as you are done. Independence is good. For you and them. Maybe they can work out whatever issue is at hand on their own.

The Art of Conversation

Find some adults (your significant other, neglected friends, other moms) and talk to them…about something other than your kids. We moms are notorious for circling back to potty training or consignment sales or, “that funny thing my kid just said.” It’s good to practice the art of conversation. Call up a friend you haven’t seen in a while. Go for a walk or a drink and chat about the Oscars or the weather or the last great book you read. Trust me, it feels good to talk at normal volume without interruption.

Indulge

That’s right. Treat yo’self. Mom guilt is real. Leaving your kids to do anything other than the practical can feel almost unethical. But it’s not. It’s crucial for your heart, soul, mind and body to step away. Even if your kids are angels, too much of a good thing can turn sour. Breaks make you appreciate what you have and better prepare you to handle it when the angels run amok. Get a massage or a pedicure or a new haircut. Wander the farmers’ or flea market. Leave your significant other with the kids, go out to dinner with friends and practice that adult conversation. Do something that you would tell another mom to do when she needs a break. We never take our own advice.

Extend Some Grace

To yourself. We are our worst critics. You are not the perfect mother. You do not need to be. Perfection breeds dissatisfaction. We’re not always going to get it right, even the balancing act of caring for ourselves as well as our families. The whole mothering thing gets a lot easier if we let go of that. It gives us leeway to experiment, to make mistakes, to learn what works in each new season of life. You’re not always going to cook dinner. You’re not always going to be nice mommy. Bath time will not always precede bed time. You will overreact. You will fight with your spouse in front of the kids. Deep breath. It’s okay. Give yourself the same grace you would give any other person in your shoes. You might be a mother, but you’re still only human.

Aiming For Average

Between working full-time, momming full-time, and life’s roller coaster ride of ups-and-downs, I am done feeling the guilt.

There is so much pressure to be the world’s best mom, pressure from myself, pressure from my kids, and pressure from the outside world. I have wasted so much time and energy trying to compete with all the Pinterest-perfect moms out there. Quite frankly, I am at the point now that I am sick of hearing about how great everyone else is doing and what wonderful things they are doing for their kids all the time.
It’s not that I don’t want to do these fabulous things for my kids, it’s just that I can’t keep up. Honestly, I am done feeling the pressure. Between working full-time, momming full-time, and life’s roller coaster ride of ups-and-downs, I am done feeling the guilt.
So, my new motto is: Aiming for average.  I am not a perfect mom. Hell, I don’t even think I am a really good mom. I’m average. I love my kids with all my heart. I do my very best every day to give them everything they need and make them happy, but I admit: I can’t do it all.
Let’s break it down. What is wrong with being average? What is wrong with being typical, common, or ordinary. Why do we all have to stress ourselves out and make ourselves crazy striving to be perfect? Have you ever even met someone that is actually perfect? They may appear to be, but once you get to know them, you quickly find out they have flaws like everyone else. So, I am done.
In an effort to not be confused with all those perfect moms out there, here are some things that I do that are not perfect.  These are my confessions:

  • Sometimes my kids don’t brush their teeth before going to bed.
  • I don’t make festive holiday decorations and cute crafts to put out on the front porch of the house. I just don’t want to.
  • Swimming lessons definitely count as a bath, don’t they?
  • There are times I skip pages when I read to my kids. 
  • I don’t make organic, seasonal Pinterest treats to for my kids to bring to their school birthday parties or to team sports. I buy treats at Costco, in bulk…and they are never organic.
  • Sometimes, if I don’t get all the laundry done, I Febreze my kids dirty pants before school so they don’t smell.
  • I throw out more than half of my kid’s artwork. I don’t want four million pieces of paper with two scribbles on them. I keep a few of the best and toss the rest.
  • My kids ride the bus to school. The big, yellow one that stops at the corner to pick them up. I make my kids stand outside at the bus stop, even in the winter.
  • More often than not, I just put a towel over the wet pee spot on my daughter’s sheets in the middle of the night when she has an accident.
  • I allow my daughter to go to school with her hair unbrushed and ratted up in knots. It’s not worth the fight in the morning.

Phew….I feel so much better after getting all that off my chest. I’ve come clean. I’m not perfect. I’m average.
So, am I a bad mom? I don’t think so. I’m an average, regular, normal mom. How do I navigate being an average mom? Humor. It is all I know. All I can do is laugh at the crazy because I can’t do it all. I can’t even do most of it. I’m average, and now, I’m ok with that.

Looking for Happiness? There’s an App for That

What makes us happy? For centuries, people have been trying to understand the source of this erratic, fleeting, yet most desirable condition of human existence. The quest for happiness is so central to our lives, so deeply rooted in civilization, it is nearly instinctual. How to be happy is the fundamental question of the ages, and the answer lies somewhere deep in our collective consciousness.
Uncovering the secret to being happy has been the focus of a comprehensive, 75-year scientific research project at Harvard University. The Harvard Study of Adult Development (a.k.a. the Harvard Happiness Study) is the longest running study of its kind, mining data from every echelon of society, analyzing thousands of interpersonal relationships, as well as assessing subjects’ physical and emotional well-being.
In 2003, Harvard psychiatrist Robert Waldinger became the fourth director of the Grant Study. Recognizing the potential benefits of combining technology with mental health, Waldinger expanded the scope of his research to include computer and smartphone applications. He did a TED Talk outlining his ideas and invited the world—or anyone with access to a smartphone—to participate.
The very day I listened to Robert Waldinger’s now famous TED Talk, I downloaded the app and became a participant in the Harvard Happiness Study.
Three times a day I got a notification on my phone with a banner that read: How do you feel? The goal was to open the app and take a brief survey as close to receiving the alert as possible. The survey asked things like: What are you doing? Who are you with? Where are you? Are you suffering from any physical ailments? Do you work? If so, how many hours? How much sleep did you get last night? Did you struggle with bills last month? Who do you live with? How many times have you checked Facebook today? And so on. The questions ranged from simple to complex, and they always varied. Clearly, the objective was to find correlations between circumstances and happiness.
Every six months, TrackYourHappiness.org sent me a compilation and analysis of my surveys in an aptly named “Happiness Report.” Not surprising, I was happiest when I was with my family or friends doing something interactive. I felt best after exercising and getting adequate sleep, and I enjoyed being busy—but not too busy.
I was least happy after spending a lot of time on Facebook, I felt anxious being at home with nothing to do, and eating junk food affected my mood. The reports weren’t particularly revelatory in and of themselves, except they indicated a steady increase in my overall happiness.
In the two years since I started using TrackYourHappiness, I became happier—and I don’t mean just statistically; it wasn’t just the reports. Overall, I was more grateful, I felt better connected to friends and family, I felt less stressed, and I was in a better mood. It was as if the app taught me how to be happier.
My results, it turns out, were as much a reflection of being mindful as they were parallel to any certain behavior, and they were not unique. Participants across the board recorded elevated dispositions, independent of environment or conditions. In other words, simply paying attention to happiness makes one happier. The surveys, which came at random times during the day, were like gentle subliminal reminders, influencing the way we perceived our lives.  
After two years, the app stopped working on my phone, and, I took it as a sign that TrackYourHappiness’ work with me was complete. Deleting the cute frog-looking icon from my screen was much like when Mary Poppins left the Banks family: She said goodbye after imparting her valuable wisdom. I had learned the secret to happiness—what more could I ask for?
As far as I know, the study is ongoing and always accepts participants. If you have the inclination, I highly recommend it. Find it on iTunes, in the app store, or at TrackYourHappiness.org.

Want More Sex in Your Marriage? Start With Forgiveness.

I think it’s safe to say that sex is an important part of any healthy marriage, and that it’s worth you and your spouse going out of your way to make sure it happens often.
Yet even the most sex-positive moms and dads out there can relate to those times when making love falls completely out of the frame. You know it’s in the periphery and that you should try to refocus on it, but everything else has crowded your view: the sick kids, the work stress, the AWOL relative, the house projects, the check engine light, the CAT Scan, the alarming news on the radio, the staying power of democracy (you know, the little stuff).
Life’s demands on your time and energy are steep as it is, and what you could really use – before even contemplating nudity in front of another person – is some good old fashioned sleep.
This is where forgiveness comes in. What does forgiveness have to do with getting it on? Plenty.
In its simplest form, forgiveness demands that we let go. Merriam-Webster reminds us that to forgive is, “to give up resentment of, or claim to requital.” (Bear with me and the definitions. Yes, I love “Word Girl”.) Forgiveness is releasing someone from bitterness, compensation, retaliation, or the expectation of something offered in return. This is a big deal. Especially when it comes to sex.
Maybe you need to let go of expectations and the frustration that comes along with them not being met. Maybe you need to let go of a predisposition to guilt or insecurity or a fear of falling short. Maybe you need to be forgiven for falling short.
Maybe you need to grapple with some pent-up anxiety that’s interfering with your bodily ease and morphing into anger under pressure. How do you let that go? You find a way to talk about it, and in doing so, forgive yourself for letting it rupture into a contentious or destructive force.
Maybe you’re terrified of being alone, and instead of grasping at unhealthy ways to remain in the forefront of someone else’s mind, you need to settle into who you are – also a form of letting go – and know that it is enough. It has to be enough. The people who love you know this already and can help you find comfort in acceptance.
Or maybe, as in my case, you need to forgive yourself for not being invincible and tag out every once in a while. A forgiving partner will understand where you’re at, even if he’s in a completely different place. A forgiving partner will rub your back as you drift into a dream, and she won’t act like you owe her one later.
I’ve witnessed so many relationships dissolve due to one or both parties refusing to forgive. They grip onto this idea that they must stand strong. And standing strong means cleaving, resolutely, to their side of an argument without attempting to understand the other side – without even listening, in some cases.
This is a missed opportunity. It’s also a misappropriation of strength.
You are not strong when you refuse to hear someone out. You are not strong when you shut your eyes to other ways of seeing. You are not strong when you are defensive, punitive, or vengeful. And you are certainly not strong when you can’t find it inside yourself “to give up resentment,” and free someone – above all, a lover – from guilt.
On the contrary, these stances are signs of weakness at the core. They are walls people build around themselves out of habit, or worse, fear.
I think generally people underestimate the power of forgiveness. It gets shoved in the same corner as backing down or giving in, as though being merciful is akin to being subordinate in some way. Yes, pain will get your hackles up every time. And stepping outside of your own assertions is hard.
Moreover, trying to understand another person’s hurtful actions can be mind-bendingly difficult. But addressing these discomforts and unpacking them with your partner always brings you to someplace new, to a deeper understanding of a relationship.
I asked an old friend recently about how sex had evolved for him and his wife since becoming parents nine years ago. “We just try to embrace it and appreciate it when it happens, and not put on pressure when it doesn’t,” he said. “We also go out of our way to remember we’re lucky that the flame is still alive.”
I loved this response because it’s all about understanding and acceptance. It’s ripe with an awareness of what my friend and his wife have built together over the years, as well as the determination to honor that work.
It’s easy to take our spouses for granted. It’s easy to assume that the closeness will always be there, that the things we’ve built will never come down. But they can. And they do. I’ve been on the jackass side of the relationship equation more than once. I also know how it feels when strangers trespass into a space I thought was mine, even though, when it comes to love, ownership is a total allusion.
Trust, however, is not.
Part of the beauty of (safe, consensual, loving) sex is the way in which we willingly make ourselves vulnerable to another person. We only do so because we trust that our partner will care for what we’ve offered them, hold it quietly behind their eyes and inside their mouths like a rare discovery, treasured for its secrecy and beauty.
We are so often guarded in life, calculating our next move or poised to defend, that an act of genuine openness can even take the giver by surprise. It brings tears to the eyes. And we need to feel those feelings! We need to be able to confide in people this way – to let our bodies soften and open toward one another. We may not be “young” anymore, but we’re not old either. We still yearn and fear and fuck up and fight and hope like hell the world’s not as hard as it feels.
In light of all this, forgiveness is fundamental. It’s heart food.
So yes, by all means, work at it, through thick and thin, sickness and health, and all those other dizzying oppositional states of being. Don’t let fear hold you back. Have fun. Let your kids see how much you love each other. Do what it takes to keep the matchless flicker of your connubial flame alive.
And do so with kindness and humility, and generosity, of course, and a boatload of forgiving. Because it’s from this tender place of conscious love that the most luxuriant things – including great sex – can bloom.
 
 

This Mom’s Secret to Happiness? I’m Delusional.

A lot of times, we dive into negativity simply out of habit. I’ve made a conscious choice to think positively, even when that means deluding myself a bit.

Let me say it up front: I’m a very blessed woman. I have a LOT of advantages in this world making it easier for me to maintain a good mood. But all things being equal, I’m still (in)famous for having an above average attitude, and I have a little theory on what gives me my edge:

I’m delusional.

That’s right. I purposely hack my brain to keep from sliding into mindsets that drag me down. I make up split-second stories to explain crappy situations to myself in a way that helps me move on.

When I’m cut off in traffic, I don’t assume the culprit is a self-centered a-hole. I imagine it’s someone momentarily distracted from adding up all his charitable donations to single mothers, and suddenly I want to give that jerkwad a big hug. What does it matter if I’m wrong?

When my house is such a mess that I’ve forgotten the color of our kitchen counters (i.e., every night), I survey the chaos like the director of a play, appreciating how this mise-en-scène reveals so much about the characters’ daily lives. My, we must be a busy and spirited ensemble! Baking lasagna, straining tea, smashing Play-Doh, watching Peppa Pig on an off-brand tablet while scribbling on junk mail. Not a boring moment in this home!

When I catch sight of my formerly buoyant ass drooping down the back of my mom thighs, I pretend I’m the protagonist in a French film, where part of my character’s charm is knowing I have every right to feel beautiful despite the cynical eye of society and the imposition of time.

When we missed the last flight home because my daughter hid away for an ill-timed Secret Poop (yes this really happened), I told myself she saved us from getting on the very plane where an evil sorcerer would put a hex on our whole family. Nice save, baby!

When I’m treated with an inexplicable coldness from a mom I barely know, I tell myself she must just be going through some crappy private thing, because there’s no reason to assume it’s about me. Of course it could be, but I remind myself that she can take responsibility for her feelings and address them when she’s ready. Because we’re all busy grownups and I’m not the Social Dynamics Police.

When stress begs to close my throat over another month of barely getting by, I fast-forward to my retirement party where I toast my adult children and we laugh at how they never knew we bought all their Christmas gifts from Goodwill.

When I realize I’ve blackened the eye of my relationship with one of my many flaws, I decide that I’m now representing my country in the Olympics of Self-Awareness. I push myself to reflect on my role in what happened with as much flexibility, strength, and distance as I can muster, so I can truly learn from my mistakes and make an apology that sticks for us both. Because I’ve convinced myself that admitting when I’m wrong is a greater feat than being right.

When there are fights, when there is suffering, when tension threatens to grind me in its teeth – I take a step back and apply that lubricant of sanity that is imagination. Not to avoid reality, but to keep my head above despair so I can actually deal with it.

Do I ever feel crazy? To be honest, sure – but it’s not a bad thing. If I ever feel like I’m forcing positivity, that’s my cue to temporarily suspend this love affair with silver linings. Because sometimes the best thing to do is to explore sadness and anger. I trust myself to decipher those times.

But a lot of the time, we dive into negativity simply out of habit. A lot of the time, we just don’t realize that we have a choice regarding which perspective we take. Because truthfully? We’re all delusional. We all project ourselves into stories edited by the genre of our moods. We choose the shots where we dwell; we cut together vignettes that cast people in selective lights.

Sometimes the comedy is obvious, sometimes the tragedy is undeniable, and sometimes life looks like one of those Oscar-winning indie flicks that doesn’t explain how it wants to make you feel. I enjoy all these things by finding beauty in the belief that this story is worth telling, and from the sincerity and growth of those acting it out.

And thanks to that (and a lot of the aforementioned luck), I’m happy. I’m happy because the way I see it, my life is better than perfect – it’s interesting. Even without leaving the house, I have a front row seat to the flowering of human consciousness every time my kid invents a new game, asks a silly question, or lodges a complaint. Our life takes me high and low and shows me so many sides of so many hearts until I damn near need to applause.

I’m not going to wait for a better reason to smile.

In the Midst of Your Own Struggles, Charitable Giving Can Help


Most years, when the holidays arrive, I am struck by how fortunate my family is. Perhaps this is because we are bolstered by a rich supply of traditions and rituals, many of which we collected during our four-year stint in Germany, where we developed a taste for gingerbread, mulled wine, and the jolly spirit of Bavaria. 

Whatever your traditions may be, many parents feel fullness and gratitude this time of year. Sometimes, these feelings lead us to entertain wispy thoughts of teaching our children – right here and now – how to give back to those in need. 

 I should really find a way to do that, we think. 

How, exactly, would I do that? we wonder. 

That sounds like yet another thing on my list this week, we conclude.

Then, we may let those charitable thoughts go all together, allowing the busy holiday season to slide into one more batch of cookies or yet another lazy, popcorn-fueled screening of the Grinch.

I know, because that’s how it often goes in my house.

But this time, for my family, the holidays arrived at the end of a catawampus year. My husband and I separated in May, and our dog died in early October. Two weeks after that, our eight-year-old son was hit by a car and walked away, miraculously, with little more than a concussion. 

Minus the dog, we are all safe and sound. But last month, when I began to feel that familiar sense of holiday gratitude, something had changed. My acknowledgements were raw and insulated. I found it difficult to see outside my own circumstance. If that’s how it was for me, then my children were probably spinning around in a similar, navel-gazing space.

My family needed something to propel us out and beyond this tragic moon phase, and quickly. 

In the past, we have always helped our schools collect items for holiday food baskets and donations to local children in need. These are important community efforts, yet many of them require only a simple, passive purchase. What we needed this year was an active kind of giving. 

While scrolling around on Facebook, I found a site dedicated to helping families do charitable deeds together: doinggoodtogether.org. I clicked on the “Pick-A-Project” tab and scrolled down. One idea jumped out at me, like a corner piece of English toffee from my mom’s dessert plate that I had to have.

This year, we would host a holiday card-making party for hospitalized kids.

After my son’s accident, when he regained consciousness, we sat in the road together, waiting for the ambulance. He begged me to just let him go home and get in bed. If only I could have. If only I could have pressed some kind of reset button, gone home to bed, pretend he hadn’t just been struck and thrown 20 feet through the blackish night. 

At the hospital, we entered a pediatric trauma room, where my son’s bed was topped with a tie-dye fleece blanket – a gift, perhaps made by someone else’s mom or a volunteer. Later, my son would take it home and drag it around the house like Linus from “Charlie Brown”. The blanket had provided him comfort and much-needed relief from the stark glare of the emergency room.

After that, my family understood what it meant to be in a hospital, uncertain and terrified, and to receive such kindness and care. The holiday card-making idea gave us a tangible, meaningful goal, connecting all of us to something we had been through ourselves. What’s more, it gave us an avenue to engage with our community.

We invited dozens of friends to our house after school one day and asked them to bring extra supplies to share. It became an arts and crafts love fest, complete with glitter glue and endearing misspellings of holiday greetings.

We made nearly 150 cards and packed them in a box sealed with gummy-bear-print duct tape. Then we mailed the cards to an organization that distributes them to children who are hospitalized during the holidays: cardsforhospitalizedkids.com.

Some years are admittedly too busy and stressful to find a way to do something charitable outside of your own family. Still, children can learn, naturally, to look beyond whatever is happening in their own lives, positive or otherwise. After our year of grief and loss, finding a way to focus on others helped with our healing process. 

I look at our Christmas ornaments, and I see how brightly they tell the story of our family, year after year, like the rings of an old tree. Now, that story has banked left into an unknown crop of hemlocks, and we wait for the ending to unfold.

It’s easy to get stuck on how messy life feels for us right now, so the simple act of helping others comes as a joyful distraction. If we pick up our heads and look around – like some kind of periscope of compassion – we’ll always find that the rest of the world is still out there, waiting for us to do our thing.