Taking Back Happiness
Bloggers Hollee Schwartz Temple at TheNewPerfect.com and Meagan Francis at TheHappiestMom have just published new books on happiness. Katherine Stone, who writes about women’s emotional health at Postpartum Progress and ParentDish, sat down to talk to them about life’s holy grail.
Katherine: First let me say I’m so excited to see two female bloggers I respect coming out with books. Congratulations! It’s interesting to me that both of your books -- The Happiest Mom and Good Enough Is the New Perfect, co-authored by Becky Beaupre Gillespie -- as well as others like Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project, are focused on the concept of happiness. Why is this topic suddenly so popular?
Meagan: I feel like we're coming out of an era of extreme cynicism and sarcasm -- it has even permeated children’s entertainment. I've been writing about motherhood for many years and slowly my writing was affected by that trend: more and more, being "real" about motherhood seemed to equal being sharp, cynical, and overall, pretty negative.
I love sarcastic humor as much as any self-respecting child of the 80s, but after a while it started to feel exhausting being so cutting all the time. I honestly got kind of sick of myself. I felt like all my stories about motherhood featured me screwing up in some way ("guess I better start saving for therapy!"), or being irritated with my kids, or lamenting how hard it is to be a mom. Well of course all that is real, but it's not the whole story. I started my blog TheHappiestMom.com in order to elevate the conversation about motherhood a little. I wanted to go beyond venting and griping and inspire myself and others to try a little harder, to be a little happier. The overwhelmingly positive response I got told me, "this needs to be a book!"
I think we all want to be happy, and we all want to enjoy our lives and love our kids. Being "real" about motherhood (and life) is fantastic but in order to be really real we have to show both sides. I think blogs and books like ours are an attempt to bring things back to center by showing the other side -- you can be happy, and you should try, even if you look a little less cool in the process.
Hollee: In our case, we knew women were very interested in happiness and work/life fit. For a long time, work/life issues were considered to be private, family issues that weren’t to be discussed in public. With last year’s White House Forum (when Michelle Obama admitted that someone with her privileges struggled with work/life issues), something lifted. It became OK to talk about this.
We struggled, too, with the idea that people would think we were whiny complainers if we wrote a book about mothers and happiness. We realize that we have many advantages, and we certainly appreciate the great inheritance that our Baby Boomer mothers left to us. But that doesn’t mean we should be silenced! This matters, deeply, to us. The majority of women we interviewed for our book said that work/life issues were the most pressing in their lives. So that’s why it’s become so hot.
Katherine: Happiness is hard to define, since it looks so different based on each person. Why should we try to seek happiness in the first place? Is it something we can truly achieve?
Hollee: I think of seeking happiness as a process, not a goal. I’m pretty sure that given the demands of my professional and personal lives, I’m not going to be living in a state of spa-like bliss all of the time. That being said, I know there are steps I can take to feel happier each day, and I think that is a worthy goal. It means that I’m enjoying my life, and I’m showing my children the example of a thoughtful, invested parent.
Little things help me with that. I snuggle with my boys and I take time to practice piano with them. I do as much yoga as I can, because it really relaxes me. I like to create rituals, like our family dinners, because they make me happy!
Meagan: Like Hollee, I see happiness as more of a process than an end goal. I also think a lot of us mistake what true happiness is: we think it means we always feel good, a constant state of bliss or having fun all the time. It's not terribly exciting, but my definition of happiness is an overall feeling of contentment; a sense that your life is on (more or less) the right path and that you can handle the inevitable bumps and jolts life will throw at you.
I think it's immensely important to be constantly seeking that contentment and sense of peace and rightness. Being happy frees up your energy, allows you to be more creative, nurturing and giving. Also, being happy is really the only way we can teach our children to seek their own happiness.
Katherine: Have you found that where women work (inside the home, outside the home, both) has any impact on their happiness or is everyone the same regardless?
Hollee: In our research for Good Enough Is the New Perfect, we personally interviewed more than 100 women, and found their happiness didn’t depend on where they worked – it was all about priorities. If their work matched their professional goals and allowed them to be the kind of women and mothers they wanted to be, they seemed fairly content. The moms who were not getting satisfaction from their work -- the women who felt that they were giving up too much or didn’t have enough control over their schedules -- seemed to be less happy.
What surprised us the most was that the factor that seemed to have the biggest impact on mothers’ happiness was something we hadn’t expected: unrelenting perfectionism. In our survey of more than 900 American moms, 67 percent said they felt a constant pressure to be “the best” in every aspect of their lives. That explained a lot about why they weren’t feeling so happy!
Katherine: I resemble that remark.
Meagan: I was pretty miserable working outside of the home with small children, but that wasn't because I didn't want to work; it's because the job I had wasn't suited to my strengths and demanded more time than I felt able to give at that point of my life. I'm much more content working from my home even with the domestic distractions it brings. That's partly because I'm now doing something I love (writing) but also because I'm doing it in a place I love (my home). Obviously that's going to be different for everyone: some women might feel drawn to the corporate job, others might be completely fulfilled by caring for children and domestic pursuits, etc. I think we're happiest when we are true to our own unique selves, and find a way to seek the kind of work (whether that's paid or not) we love. And also, realize that the kind of work and place of work we feel most content with may change over time.
Katherine: I know that my blog has brought a lot of happiness to my life, but at the same time I feel constant pressure to keep it up, as well as keeping track of email, Twitter and Facebook. If these young whippersnappers come up with another social media tool I’ve got to manage, I may just explode into pieces. How do you think connecting through social media has affected women's level of happiness in general?
Hollee: I think social media can provide that affinity group that so many women crave. I know that personally, I have developed deep and true friendships through social media, and those friendships make me very happy. On the other hand, at one point, my husband became angry with me because I was spending so much time on Twitter -- he lashed out because he thought I cared more about the people on my TweetDeck than about my family. But that wasn’t true, of course. I just had to find the right balance!
Meagan: I think that social media has given us all an incredible opportunity to create community and connect with one another, which is so important for women, especially for moms who may be feeling isolated and lonely. I also think it's been revolutionary for a huge and growing group of women who are now able to pursue freelance work, telecommute and start internet-based businesses that allow them more time with their families. For example, I know that the internet was instrumental in helping me launch my writing career, which has been fantastic for me and for my family.
On the other hand, social media creates a lot of noise. Suddenly there are thousands and thousands of opinions you could consider before you make a choice, and that can be overwhelming. I think it can also create a false sense of connection -- on the surface it seems like you have so many friends, but it's impossible to actually nurture hundreds of friendships at once. I think you just have to be aware of the time you're spending online to make sure you aren't passing up opportunities to strengthen your in-real-life support system. Twitter and Facebook friends are great, but they can't babysit for you in a pinch.
Katherine: It’s not just social media that is a double-edged sword. You mentioned choices. Women have more power, more choices, more ability to earn and more ability to use our voices than ever before, so you think we’d all be deliriously happy, yet it seems like we are finding it even harder to find happiness despite all of these wonderful new options. Why is that?
Hollee: I’m so glad you asked -- this is a major piece in our book, and we call it The New Mommy Wars. Today’s moms aren’t focused on, or don’t fit neatly within, the traditional “at-home” or “working” camps -- there are so many shades of gray today.
The New Mommy Wars are internal, and they’re about much more than two simple choices. Many moms feel stuck somewhere in between; there’s too much gray area to have the two clearly defined “sides” many of us expected. Many women told us they felt alone in their choices, and many were struggling to figure out where they fit in. Fitting in validates us. But, these days, it isn’t easy to find a group of women who have made all the same choices, and there isn’t a single “right” answer. So we’re left to fight the battle alone, in our heads: Have I chosen the “perfect” path for me? Pile on the mind-boggling amount of information available these days -- it’s a lot to juggle.
Meagan: Having more choices can be tough. I don't want to give up any of the options that are available to me, but on the other hand, it can become overwhelming. Like Hollee said, it's no longer just about being a working mom or an at-home mom. It's not even just about being a breastfeeding mom or a bottle-feeding mom. Now you have three dozen sub-options when making any choice. With all those choices -- and endless information about each choice available at our fingertips -- we feel like we should be able to pick the exact right one.
In The Happiest Mom I say that happiness is when reality meets expectations. I think modern women have a crisis of high expectations. Because we have so many choices, we expect to be able to put together a life that makes us perfectly happy. Then when we still find ourselves yelling at our kids, griping at our spouse, or not being able to afford that huge kitchen remodel we thought was coming to us, we feel let down. But the idea of perfect happiness was an illusion to begin with.
Katherine: Which gets back to my original question about whether happiness is something that can really be achieved …
Meagan: We can challenge ourselves to do a little better every day, but the fact is, we are always going to want to gripe and yell sometimes. We're all going to find ourselves frustrated with the monotony or rush-rush-rush of our lives sometimes. We'll all miss out on something we really, really want. Real happiness -- the lasting kind -- is feeling like you are living for a purpose, and that you are being true to your deepest, real self. The rest of it -- the promotion at work, the A on your child's report card, the shiny new car -- are just window dressing.
Katherine: Thanks friends, and thanks to BlogHer for inviting us to chat about this topic. Happiness never gets old.
Good Enough is the New Perfect (Harlequin Nonfiction) will be released later this month, and The Happiest Mom (Weldon Owen) is available now at Amazon.