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Can We Be Happier Parents?

KJ Dell'Antonia
Author KJ Dell’Antonia with her daughter. Photo credit: Jessica Lahey

I didn’t read any parenting books before or after becoming a parent. With the exception of some pregnancy books to understand what my body was going through, my husband and I opted to rely heavily on advice we got from our pediatrician, friends and family members who all have years of experience. (No judgment if you read ALL the books. Books are great!) And that’s worked out fine, until now.

Fast-forward and the 2-year-old I have on my hands today is a complex human being with seemingly infinite needs and desires which are often at odds, and while much of the time they still stem from the obvious (tired, needing attention), they are at other times perplexing. When I picked up How to be a Happier Parent: Raising a Family, Having a Life, and Loving (Almost) Every Minute by KJ Dell’Antonia, I was intrigued, since I already love her writing on parenting (she sends a weekly parenting email and edited the New York Times Well Family section and Motherlode blog before writing this book). But I also thought, “I’m already a happy parent!” and, “My kid is only 2. I probably don’t need this yet.”

Book cover

I was wrong.

Not only was it surprisingly helpful to learn about things I will encounter a few years down the road, but several of the challenges Dell’Antonia describes have very practical solutions that work best if you change your behavior early on. I’m sure I will still find myself in plenty of battles with homework time, chores and getting the family out the door in the morning, but at least I’ll have a better understanding of what’s happening and what I can do about it (or where to find the answers in this book if I’ve forgotten them!).

If your kids are a little older, even teenagers, there are tons of scenarios that Dell’Antonia breaks down in age-appropriate ways and she walks through what has worked for her and for other parents. She by no means claims to be the guru on raising children, but rather, shares her own struggles and crowdsources feedback from friends, and backs her suggestions up with research.

Since Dell’Antonia grew up in a Christian household and her husband grew up Jewish, she’s well aware of the challenges that can arise around religion and parenting. We were circulating her excellent essay “Mixing Hanukkah and Christmas” around our office one year and I was an instant fan. After reading her new book, I had a few questions that she was kind enough to answer.

Silken: The book is about (spoiler) how to be a happier parent. Do you feel like you have the answers now, and you are a happier parent, or is it a daily effort to maintain?

Dell’Antonia: I feel like I know what to for myself most of the time (which isn’t the same as knowing what to do as a parent most of the time at all) but it’s often an effort to do it, absolutely. Some things were always easy, like noticing good moments when there is a good moment. Other things took some learning, like recognizing that things are still pretty good even when they feel a bit fraught. You can have a kid on the floor in hysterics because her math teacher has been super-unfair and still get that your life is absolutely good, and be happy, but that takes some doing. You have to learn to just let her have her problem and her emotions and not feel like you have to join in (and evaluate whether there’s a real issue with the teacher later when things are calm).

And then there is stuff like making them do their chores instead of just doing it myself, which is frankly always hard—always a case of “what will make me happy now is not what will make me happy later.”

I love how specific the challenges are that you seek solutions for, and how practical the advice. Did you feel like this type of book was missing in the market?

I felt like there were a lot of great books out there on why many of us are feeling anxiety and unhappiness in our family lives—both the cultural and societal expectations and the national policy issues that can make being the head of a family a real challenge—and lots of books about how those things could change, but nothing that was really going to help those of us who are parenting right now in this atmosphere, with these cards that we’ve been dealt, find more joy in it.

As a mother of a 2-year-old, I plan to store away a lot of the wisdom in this book and use it later, when things like homework come into play. But I found it really helpful to start thinking now about topics you covered like chores and discipline, which could really save me some headaches later. Did you imagine parents of very young children would find the book useful, too?

I do think parents of younger children will find it useful, especially if they keep it in mind as they worry about things like whether they can take off work to join in the nursery school Thanksgiving, or when they’re contemplating all these kid activities that abound and weighing them next to spending time on the hobbies and activities that they already love.

I tell parents of really young kids to skip Disney, go somewhere you want to go, because either way you’re going to be hanging out in parks and trying to get the kid to nap (and let me just say that I know this because I took a terrified 2-year-old to Disney, where the only thing he really liked was a generic playground that could have been anywhere). If you want to go to Disney at that stage, go, but don’t go for your kid—and that applies to a lot of things.

Have you encountered any unhappy moments that stem from struggles around having two religious traditions/faiths in one home?

We came into this with pretty open eyes, so our unhappiest moments have involved issues with extended family, not one another. I think we’ve both felt some disloyalty around not adhering to our family traditions—or really in participating in things we were taught were disrespectful to our cultures of origin—and when one of us is uncomfortable the other us unhappy. But that’s actually part of what makes it work—we recognize it when our various parents or other relatives are being insensitive, or overly sensitive, and we make a point of saying something to each other later, or sticking up for each other. We’ve never felt separated as a couple by the issue.

What tips do you have for our parent readers to be happier when it comes to religion? 

The more open you are about what’s going on in your head—what traditions you imagined doing with them that are unfamiliar or unwelcome to your partner, for example—the easier it will be to talk about them. Your partner might not know what’s important to you—and you might not really know, either, especially when it comes to whether it’s the religious aspect of something that matters to you, or the cultural and traditional piece. There are a lot of ways to do this thing, and no one way works for every family. Talking about what matters to you (not your parents, or your guilt) is what’s going to make the biggest difference.

That said, doing some things for grandparents with everyone involved knowing that that’s why you’re doing it can work too.

How can we be happier during the December holiday time?

If you spend holidays with extended family, you can only control some elements of it. Make those the baskets you put your happiness in. Maybe it’s that you chose to bring your kids to spend time with this part of the family, even if you know Uncle Hugh’s political views will make you very uncomfortable. Reminding yourself of why you’ve chosen to do what you’re doing—and that you have a choice—can make you feel much happier when things are challenging (happiER, not necessarily happy). Maybe you grew up getting one big gift, or no gifts, and your kids are getting slathered in gender-specific junk, but they’re having a great time and connecting with their aunts and uncles. That’s why you’re there.

If it’s your partner’s family that provides the crazy, on whatever level, I suggest this wonderful phrase to you: not my circus. Not my monkeys. Even if your partner won’t reign in his dad’s off-color humor or his sister’s bottomless bag of candy, you can let that happen. It’s one day (or a few days) and you can be all in with giving your children the gift that is a weird, colorful, story-worthy family.

You really do have a choice. You could stay home, or go somewhere else. That choice might make everyone around you unhappy (possibly including your partner and kids) but it’s still a choice. These—at least some of them—are the people you love and want to be with. The rest is noise.

We also have challenges around lifecycle events, like when a child is first born. Sometimes it can come in the form of pressure or lack of support from extended family members. Do you have any advice for new or expecting parents?

KJ Dell'Antonia
KJ Dell’Antonia. Photo credit: Cara Paiuk

Don’t hide from the stuff you know is coming. You know you’re going to be talking about the possibility of a bris, or a christening, or a naming ceremony. Bring that up early with your partner and then with extended family and make your choices around it known. Better to do it while everyone is excited about the baby! And do whatever you can go to get your loving tolerance on. Your in-law may well corner you and try to pressure you into a different decision. They’ve got pressures of their own, remember, from their own actual living parents or their memories. Smile and nod, smile and nod. You’ll never be sorry about keeping your emotions low when everyone else’s are high.

Lindsey Silken

Lindsey Silken is the director of content at 18Doors based in Natick, MA.