By Alexa Joy Sherman
Having a baby is supposed to bring you unparalleled happiness—but if we’re being totally honest, your bundle of joy won’t always bring you, well, bundles of joy. In fact, according to some research, parents often report being less happy than their childless counterparts. The reasons for that may be a bit of a no-brainer to new moms and dads. After all, who waxes ecstatic about being the target of projectile spit-up? Or trying to lose pregnancy pounds? Or going a month—or six or eight—sans sleep (or sex)? The pressure and responsibility can be daunting and, in fact, many parents—including fathers—suffer from postpartum depression.
Inevitably, there’ll be plenty of highs (baby’s first smile!) and lows (sleepless, colicky nights) as a new mom or dad—but the goal remains the same: To create a stable home with reasonably predictable and (mostly) positive emotions. Below, seven happiness boosters to help you do just that.
Be true to yourself Being a parent is a hugely important role, but it needn’t replace everything that existed before the baby. “Too often, our culture expects women in particular to focus on this one part of their lives and lose the rest of themselves,” say Marc and Amy Vachon, coauthors of Equally Shared Parenting: Rewriting the Rules for a New Generation of Parents (Perigee Trade, 2011). Instead, moms and dads should each commit to maintaining one hobby after the baby arrives and take turns watching her while the other goes out solo. “All of these things remind you that you aren’t stuck in the mundane details of diapers and lullabies, and that you can balance the best of your pre-baby life with the wonders of your new life as a parent,” explain the Vachons.
Go the [bleep] to sleep Funny as the latest children’s book parody may be, sleepless nights are no laughing matter. “When healthy adults are deprived of good sleep for just one month, they begin to develop all the clinical signs of depression,” says Will Courtenay, PhD, a Berkeley, Calif.-based psychotherapist and founder of SadDaddy.com. Sleeping when the baby sleeps isn’t exactly possible if the baby won’t sleep—which is why so many parents turn to the methods of Dr. Harvey Karp, assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Southern California School of Medicine in Los Angeles and author of The Happiest Baby on the Block (Bantam, 2003) and The Happiest Toddler on the Block (Bantam, revised 2008), whose baby-soothing Rx is known as “the 5 S’s” (swaddling, side/stomach position, shushing, swinging and sucking). Whatever technique you use, know this: When baby sleeps better, you sleep better, and happiness is sure to follow.
Assemble an entourage Research shows that today’s parents are less likely to spend time with friends and extended family than they were a generation ago, which means you could be missing out on a healthy support system. “Nobody was ever supposed to raise a child by themselves,” says Dr. Karp. “It was always the mother, father, next-door neighbor, aunt, grandmother—everything was shared.” So accept help when it’s offered—or seek it out when it isn’t by hiring a babysitter or joining a mom group (find one near you at momsclub.org).
Relinquish your “rights” Perfectionism rarely plays into happy parenting. “It’s easy to get preoccupied with the ‘best’ way to manage sleep patterns, swaddle a baby or introduce solids, but you’ll be much happier when you realize there are many ways to do things right,” says Gretchen Rubin, New York City-based author of The Happiness Project (Harper, 2009). So, rather than comparing notes with other moms (or um, advice on a parenting website!), do what you know in your heart is best for you and your baby—and let others do the same. In the long run, it’s a major sanity-saver.
Hone your health Women tend to be hyperconscious of their health choices while pregnant, but those habits are critical after baby is born, too. Keep your blood sugar and mood stable with small, frequent, nutritious meals and keep taking your prenatal vitamins if you’re breastfeeding, since deficiencies in folic acid, iron and vitamin D can lead to fatigue and mood disorders. Exercise is just as important: It elevates mood, thanks to the release of feel-good endorphins and the body confidence it brings.
Please yourself…and your partner A bit of postpartum pampering—whether it’s a good old-fashioned bubble bath, putting on a bit of makeup or taking a trip to the salon—will go a long way in making you feel not only human, but beyond happy. Of course, the ultimate path to pleasure is connecting with your partner. It doesn’t have to be a night on the town or even hot, steamy sex; plenty of couples are happy just curling up with some popcorn, ordering a movie and escaping into the couch for an hour or two of spit-up-free snuggle time.
Look at the big picture The day-to-day challenges of parenting may not fill you with joy, but when you stop and think about the life you’ve created and the larger experience of bringing up baby, chances are your cup will be overflowing with warm fuzzies. “Seeing children learn, change and grow boosts happiness,” Rubin says. Sure, you’ve heard it a million times before, but for good reason: These moments (even the tough ones) pass quickly. Blink (or go ballistic) and you’ll miss them.