Mother's Day is that one time of year that moms are allowed indulgence—in our household this usually involves breakfast in bed and a rare opportunity to read the paper. For me this breakfast-in-bed "indulgence" is, not surprisingly, messy and a little on the chaotic side. (Though definitely fun and cute, trying to balance coffee on a tray with two excited kids encouraging me to eat the toast they made—daddy scraped off the burned stuff—is just not that relaxing.)
But here's the thing: I don't really care if I experience bliss on Mother's Day because I take a lot of time for myself. I regularly travel to Los Angeles for my work, where I stay overnight to hang out with my brother, who is single and fun. I spend a half day every other weekend with a friend in the city—a world away from my family—working on paintings and talking about music. I regularly go out for food, belly-laughs, and soulful confessions with my good friends. I always try to be training athletically for something, which means I can often be found at the gym or on a long run or at a surf clinic. When we go swimming, I lounge in the shade and read (because my skin-cancer prone complexion conveniently can't tolerate much sun) while my kids' dad plays with them for hours on end.
I do feel guilty about taking all this time to myself. Am I being selfish? Should I be making more personal sacrifices for my children? Would my kids benefit from more time with me? Would they be happier or better prepared for adulthood if I joined them riding bikes at the local elementary school instead of painting on Sunday afternoons? (Or is it narcissistic to think that?) I even feel guilty that I'm privileged enough to make such choices—that financially I can afford not to work full-time, that my parents are nearby and often pick up the kids from school while I'm off running or am in LA, and that my kids have a very involved dad who picks up the slack. Shouldn't I be doing more of the parenting myself?
Truth is I start to feel bored and anxious if I spend too much time doing laundry, mediating sibling arguments, and reading Biscuit Goes To School. I don't really like playing Sorry! with my kids, especially if I have to do it all the time. And I just can't seem to make myself fully participate in the pretend play that so engages the endless imaginations of my daughters. (I mean really, how many cups of pretend coffee can a woman drink enthusiastically in the span of an hour?) Go ahead, judge me. I'm a bad mother.
GUFFAW. Of course I'm not a bad parent, and neither are you. I love being a mom. Clearly I think a lot about what it means to be a good parent, and though I'm not perfect I try hard. I find deep joy in a nose-to-nose snuggle with a child who puts off sleep by saying, "Mom, I want to tell you one more thing. So I had this idea…" And I really think that my own personal happiness—nourished by the time I take for myself—benefits my children.
Happy Mothers, Happy Children?
Although I haven't seen good research to substantiate this theory that mothers' happiness directly influences the happiness of their children, a fairly extensive body of research has established a substantial link between mothers who feel depressed and "negative outcomes" in their children, like acting out and other behavior problems. As you might imagine, when we mothers feel depressed it is not good for our children's happiness.
Maternal depression affects kids in two ways. One way is direct—maternal depression actually seems to cause behavior problems in kids. The other way is that depression can also affect the way people parent—making their discipline less effective, for example—and so it creates behavior problems in kids that way as well. Depressed mothers tend to be less sensitive and proactive in responding to their children's needs, and they are less likely to play with their children in emotionally positive ways. The children of mothers who are chronically depressed—those whose feelings of sadness and despair persist—perform more poorly on tests of school readiness, they use less expressive language, and they have poorer social skills. And it isn't just depression: anxiety in mothers (something I'm prone to) is associated with increased anxiety in children.
So for goodness sake, take care of yourself or the mothers in your life this Mother's Day! "Indulge" in those things that will make you lastingly happy, knowing that when you do the things that nourish you as a whole person—one with more interests and needs than just being a good parent—you are also doing something good for your children. Next week I'm going to blog about those things that will bring you real joy on Mother's Day. If you aren't a mom but you know one—and I'm betting you do—let this be your gift guide for her! In the mean time, please post comments about those things that make you happiest as a person, and how you feel when you are "indulging" in those things.
Christine Carter, Ph.D., is a mother of two and the executive director of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley. Find more tips for raising happy kids at greatergoodparents.org.
Become a fan of Raising Happiness on Facebook.
Follow Christine Carter on Twitter
Subscribe to the Happiness Matters Podcast on iTunes.