I’ve recently embarked upon a small research project to help me understand parents better.
I want to understand what challenges parents face, what needs they might have.
Why am I doing this, when I’m already pressed for time (like all working parents)? Why add to my already overfull plate of kids, work, volunteering, maintaining the household, writing this blog, and coaching on the side?
Well, there are a few reasons.
1. Exploring the parenting happiness gap
Research has shown that parents, on the whole, are actually less happy than non-parent counterparts. This is odd because most of us would say that parenting is one of the single-most fulfilling things we do in life, and a source of one of the deepest experiences of love and human connection.
Further study has found the so-called parenting happiness gap varies greatly from country to country. Parents living in societies that support them – for instance, with good, affordable childcare and a culture of flexible working – are sometimes happier than non-parent counterparts.
This supports my belief that the parenting happiness gap is not a foregone conclusion over which we have no control.
Maybe it’s the optimist in me, but I believe it’s possible to minimise the aspects of parenting that challenge happiness, and maximise the aspects that promote happiness and well-being.
But in order to test my theory, I wanted to move beyond my own experience and the anecdotal experiences of friends and family and hear from a wide variety of people to find out more about their experience of parenting and happiness.
2. Parenting and the middle age happiness dip
Sometimes it feels like the research is against us. Not only is there a documented happiness gap for parents, research is showing happiness dips in a u-shaped curve over the course of a lifetime, with the lowest life satisfaction on average being around ages 45-59. The dip in life satisfaction and happiness is inversely reflected with a rise at the same ages in anxiety. And the downward happiness trend and upswing in anxiety starts in our thirties.
Basically, the years when many of us are becoming parents and raising kids at home are also years when many people seem to face lower life satisfaction and more stress.
There are some studies that find less of a u-shaped curve and more of a wave once accounting for different factors. But as economists Frijters and Beatton observed, mid-lifers who are happier are often so because they were happier to begin with, so happiness-boosting things tended to happen for them, thus further supporting their happiness, like an upward spiral:
Put simply: happiness increasing things seem to happen in mid-life to individuals already somewhat happier.
Just as I believe we can do things to eliminate the parenting happiness gap, this got me thinking there may be things we can do to minimise the negative impacts middle age has on our happiness.
And while we’d all like more money and more time, there’s lots of research to suggest the best predictors of happiness are things like our relationships, personality, and mindset. George Vaillant of the 70-year Harvard Study of Adult Development even went on record saying:
“The only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people… Happiness equals love—full stop.”
What can we do during our thirties and forties to protect our relationships and promote our own happiness, in the midst of the strains parenthood brings with it?
3. Identify the problem
If I’ve decided my mission in life is to be a happier parent, and to help other parents to be happier, then I need to identify the problems we face before I can jump to solutions.
Side note: I don’t think it’s my place to rescue other people from their problems or save the world. I’m not thinking I’m on some pedestal and can dole out wisdom to the suffering schmucks. Far from it. Because I’min the trenches, too, it serves me to understand happiness and how to overcome barriers to it.
I do think that I’m passionate and rather driven once an idea gets into my head, and if I can devote my passion for learning, coaching, and happiness to help myself and others, then that’s a good thing.
To do that, I need to understand the problems a variety of parents face. I want to get below the surface of ‘money’, or ‘work/life balance’. What are the problems specifically impacting everyday working parents? And what research developments out there could provide some frameworks and solutions? Can I bring the two together to provide some tools, for myself and others?
I have to understand the problem, truly and free of judgement or advice, to find out.
4. Redefining parent coaching
This research also stems from a trend I’ve noticed when looking at the world of parent coaching. So much parent coaching revolves around parenting skills – how to parent children at different challenging stages, how to relate to your kids, how to discipline, etc.
As a parent myself, I’ve been disappointed by this. Not that I’ve got the parenting game down pat (FAR from it…), but I’m also stubborn and resistant to other people telling me what to do when it comes to mu boys. Besides, it’s an ongoing learning process, trying to be the best Mum I can be. I’m not perfect, but I’m learning every day, and we’re happy and loving.
No, what I really feel I need help with more often than not is holistic aspects of my life, like balance, juggling everything and everyone’s needs, including my own.
I struggle with work challenges and ambitions, within the context of spending time raising my kids and being in a relationship and finding childcare.
I am regularly going through transitions, as watching kids grow is like non-stop transition; our family – and my daily life – are constantly growing and changing to keep up with the evolving needs of the family.
Basically, I struggle with all the things anyone might struggle with, but everything is within the context of being a parent.
Every single thing in my life touches upon the fact I’m a parent and have two people I love who depend on me, and for whom I play a crucial role.
So for me, I would want parent coaching that looks at life holistically, but with the awareness of how everything is linked.
I also want personal development that acknowledges a twenty-minute meditation every morning isn’t always practical when I wake up to a a demanding toddler, not an alarm, anywhere from 4:30am to 6am. When you’re a parent, there are different demands on your time and attention that are simply unavoidable, so any happiness solutions need to take that into account.
But was I alone in this? So again, I wanted to understand what other parents wanted to see if there’s really something missing in the world of parent coaching, or if I’m an odd outlier.
Want to get involved?
You may be reading this because you’ve already taken part in my survey and/or agreed to be interviewed in more depth as part of my research. If so, I thank you.
If you haven’t taken part and would like to, I have a 3-minute survey here. If you’re interested in a possible in-depth interview, the last question asks for your email address so I can get in touch and we can arrange a time to speak.
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