I love when the right book drops into my life at just the right time. I have one of those families that garners frequent chuckles of “Wow, you’ve got your hands full” from fellow grocery shoppers, restaurant patrons, the letter carrier, and whoever else lays eyes on our horde of four kids under seven. I love the busy symphony (cacophony?) of lots of children close in age, but it can be overwhelming. And tiring. And easy to get mired in minutiae, or sink into the quicksand of the many big feelings that little people have. KJ Dell’Antonia’s How to Be a Happier Parent: Raising a Family, Having a Life, and Loving (Almost) Every Minute held a lot of promise for me, given the season of parenting I’m in right now, and it delivered.
As I took in each chapter — while nursing an infant, snuggling a sleeping, sick toddler, and in the blissful dark hours of morning and evening with the hiss of white noise on the baby monitor next to me — Dell’Antonia’s voice reminded me of some of my treasured friends. I’m talking about the friends with kids a bit older than mine, walking the parenting road a bit ahead of me, who pass along hand-me-downs and answer my questions about summer camp field trips and how much money the tooth fairy should bring. How to Be a Happier Parent strikes a balance of empathy, research, and crowd-sourced tips from the trenches. Dell’Antonia’s mudroom could be mine, with the siblings who fight passionately about who is the rightful owner of a baseball cap, or the hurried child who drops a binder with the dreaded “easy-open rings” — in my case, launching a cascade of slippery pages of sports cards as the bus pulls up outside. The difference in our experience is, of course, that she read the stack of parenting books I’ve wanted to read but haven’t, dug through the canon of research, and surveyed over a thousand parents for their takes on common parenting pitfalls. She compiled the pearls for the rest of us who are still searching for a Sharpie to mark the name of that hat’s owner once and for all.
How to Be a Happier Parent opens with “Ten Mantras for Happier Parents.” Mantras are so useful for referring us back to the bigger picture, and several of Dell’Antonia’s have made their way into my mental rotation. You don’t have to go in there helps enormously to deflect my oldest child’s frequent complaining. Just because he’s unhappy with the feeling of his sweatshirt sleeves or the color of the cheese we have for lunch, I don’t have to go down with him. If you see something, don’t always say something reminds me to make the conscious choice to let my kids work through some of their conflicts and struggles independently. What you want now isn’t always what you want later has so many applications for a habitual quick-fixer like me; with new resolve, I encourage myself to try to take the long, I’m-teaching-them-to-be-the-humans-I-hope-they’ll-grow-up-to-be view as often as possible.
As it circles back to the mantras like reassuring refrains, the book is organized around parents’ pain points — chores, homework, sports and activities, and food — topics that encompass small but life-altering details that can change the course of a family’s experiences for better or worse. One such detail for me was our laundry situation. Specifically, the industrial hamper-size piles of clean clothes perpetually waiting to be sorted and folded, and the angry complaints from my kids that the favorite items they wore a day ago aren’t yet available to be worn again.
I bundled several of the book’s suggestions about chores to tackle this laundry issue. I chose to start when life changes, launching a new routine in connection with the start of the school year. I began to expect help, asking each family member to put their dirty clothes in their own labeled laundry basket and bring it to the laundry room when full to be washed as its own load. Finally, I fully embraced Let them whine, responding to gripes about preferred outfits not being clean with, “Sorry, I haven’t seen your full basket in the laundry room yet this week.” When I ran into my 4- and 6-year-olds in the hall the other day, each clutching one handle of an overflowing laundry basket that wobbled between them on their way to the washer, well — that felt like parental happiness, right there.
Even more than laundry help, though, I appreciate Dell’Antonia’s remarks on her personal transformation as a result of writing this book: “I revel in the ordinary. I remember that this is the life and the family we chose and that here we are, having what we wanted.” If we, as parents, can choose this outlook, surely we’ll be more consistently happy.
See you out there, fellow lunch makers and laundry folders. (I’ll be the one with my hands full.)
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