November 26, 2018

How fear can keep us from being happy parents and raising happy children—and the ways we’re managing to reclaim both.

Shouldn’t we be happier now that we have kids? According to a growing number of sociological studies, we’re…ummm, we’re not.

Wait, what? Don’t we tend to smugly compare ourselves to our childless friends and just assume we won the happiness lottery? Apparently, it depends on who you ask. Among sociologists, the widening gulf that fear has created is now being called the “Parenting Happiness Gap,” and they cite fear as the primary reason why most parents are, in fact, not happier than their peers without kids.

If ever we needed a reason to conquer our fears as parents, this is it. We’re hard-pressed to raise happy children if we ourselves aren’t happy, and of all of the reasons we might imagine that keep us from being happy, fear is the one actually topping the list.

But, I think I’m happy

Logic and our own parenting experience tell us we should be happier. After all, joy is biologically hardwired into mothers and fathers if for no reason other than to ensure humanity’s survival into future generations. Our personal stories and memories seem to back this up: from the euphoria of first seeing our newborns, the unmatched gratification of being needed, the pride in watching our kids achieve something remarkable or perform some unprompted act of kindness, and even just hearing our children say they love us. But stacked up against this mountain of powerful, emotional imagery is the equally powerful force of fear and it’s getting in the way of us really enjoying our experience as parents.

The global face of fear

Fear looks like many things to different parents—some of it within our control, and some of it not—but the most widespread form of fear, according to several studies looking at more than 22 countries, comes from a scarcity of time and money…and the anxiety that accompanies these resource shortfalls.

Despite our robust GDP, the United States ranks lowest on the happiness scale among Western industrialized nations because of our “lack of tools to successfully combine work and family” such as flexible work schedules, gender income equality, ample paid maternity/paternity/sick/vacation leave, and subsidized childcare.

The widening gulf that fear has created is now being called the Parenting Happiness Gap.

Doctor Jennifer Glass of the University of Texas, who led one of these studies offers some simple clarity on the mass of data and statistics: “The differentiator between countries is the cost of care for the average 2-year-old as a percentage of wages, and the extent of paid leave from work.” And even if those specific markers don’t loom large in our particular household, we can almost all agree that more successfully making ends meet would better help us enjoy our kids, and our time parenting them.

While our ability to dramatically reshape national social policies may seem as likely to us as stemming global terrorism or climate change, there may still be value in putting a name to this pervasive fear, if only so that we can mindfully change the way it encroaches on our homes and on our happiness.

Our diverse fears

The same might be said about the other fears we face as parents, most of them smaller in scale, but surely no less terrifying. Among them are fears that our kids’ digital habits are damaging their quality life and our life as a family; that our seemingly dauntless, free-range kids will end up in the ER or in the hands of abductors—or land us in the clutches of Child Protective Services; that we will somehow shortchange our kids on getting the best possible education; that our children will fail to launch due in part to our best intentions; that they will end up alone; that their school will be the site of the next mass shooting; or that we might, in fact, be imposters who only look like parents.

Our holdover fears

Of course, these are just the new fears we inherited when we became parents. We also bring with us a treasure trove of unresolved fears from our own childhoods that persist despite our best attempts to pack them away with our worn-out baseball mitts and sparkly unicorns. Reacting to age-old triggers can suddenly bring us back to our much younger selves, our long-dormant anxieties and the juvenile way we’ve long processed them. Only now we have an audience of pint-sized protégés modeling their own behavior on ours. Now suddenly seems like a really good time to re-examine how we manage this primal instinct.

So what exactly does fear look like?

Fear impacts us both emotionally and physically. We can control some of it by fact-checking our thoughts, by retelling the narrative that pops into our heads when we confront our triggers. The physical markers of fear include sweating, racing pulse, and high adrenaline—and interestingly, the way we respond to these biochemical signs ranges widely. Some of us avoid them at all costs, and often those costs are too high. Others of us are actually drawn to them, like the adrenaline junkies who describe themselves as not feeling fully alive unless they’re putting themselves in harm’s way. The makers of scary movie, books, and video games rely on a fair number of us being attracted to the things we fear most.

Fear is our most powerful, ancient emotion, and with good reason—fear kept our ancestors alive and cautious when it was most important. The trick, it then seems, is learning how to master that instinct. At its very best, fear triggers useful reflexes that help keep us safe, prompting the logical side of our brain to quickly process fight-or-flight decisions about self-preservation. At its worst, fear literally hijacks our rational side—the part of our brain that helps us feel in charge.

We also bring with us a treasure trove of unresolved fears from our own childhoods that persist despite our best attempts to pack them away.

And how do we keep it in check?

Dr. Martin Seligman, the renowned clinical psychologist, University of Pennsylvania professor, and author of The Optimistic Child, suggests that “evolutionary selection pressures” are still with us, and just because we’re no longer fending off wild animals in forests doesn’t mean that our senses and reflexes aren’t still poised to avert such an encounter. Seligman offers that “While you can’t always control your experiences, you can control your explanations of them,” something he refers to as ‘self-talk.’

One of the world’s most cited authorities on anxiety, Seligman has been researching this field for 40 years, and has, for almost as long, been advocating “learned optimism” as a kind of inoculation against fear, pessimism, and anxiety. Stated simply: fear and adversity are events that happen to us; belief is how we interpret those events, and consequences are the feelings and actions that result from the beliefs. Those positive feelings and actions eventually build resilience and mastery in the areas where we struggle the most.

Seligman’s practical approach tracks with the prevailing “CBT” (cognitive behavior therapy) practiced in most psychologists’ offices, a kind of gradual exposure therapy that requires us to confront dialed-down versions of our fears in a safe space. The exposure increases as we build up resilience and eventually recognize what the poet Robert Frost once wrote so succinctly: “The only way around is through.”

Millennials have their own special brand of fear

Kim Brooks describes our current climate of competitive parenting in her book Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear. In it, she suggests that the markers of “getting it right” are increasingly hard to nail down and that the critics of who is, and isn’t, getting it right are becoming increasingly strident. Brooks adds that we’re often obsessed with things that have “very limited actual negative impact on our kids, and yet we overlook the larger issues that do.”

As an example, the author points to media attention garnered by hot car deaths (averaging 30 per year) vs. the number of kids who are killed/injured in car accidents (averaging 487 per day). Brooks calls out seemingly benign threats like childhood obesity as needing more of our attention, citing CDC statistics that 100 million Americans are currently diabetic and that 40% of us will be by 2050.

She also shines a spotlight on the crushing reality of our children’s plummeting emotional well-being: “Depression in kids and teenagers is very disconcerting, but it doesn’t make for as good a headline as ‘Toxic chemicals in our kids’ food!’” It’s natural for us to worry, but Brooks asks the question: How well are we doing at worrying about the right things?

“A lot of people in my parents’ generation will say things like ‘I think I was a pretty good parent in the 60s or 70s or maybe 80s, but I’d be a terrible parent today.’ All of these things they used to do would be, if not criminalized, they’d at least be really stigmatized today.” Brooks continues, “But the pendulum has swung so far in the opposite direction that we’re now seeing other problems from this sort of hyper vigilance.”

And if you don’t happen to be one of the keepers of the new flame in parenting, there is often more judgment coming your way than useful advice.

While you can’t always control your experiences, you can control your explanations of them.

We’re a judge-free zone here—so, you know: just the strategies

We’ve already covered a few, including managing fearful thoughts by fact-checking our self-talk; monitoring and managing our body’s physical signs of fear; recognizing old childhood fears when they emerge and wearing our big girl pants to handle them now as adults; appreciating the useful aspects of fear and channeling this toward the logical, problem-solving part of our brain; practicing exposure therapy or CBT (ideally with a therapist); zeroing in on what actually qualifies as fear-worthy instead of just falling for click-bait headlines; recognizing that we are currently navigating a minefield worth of moving targets when it comes to getting this parenting thing right; and allowing ourselves at least a few of the “free passes” enjoyed by previous generations.

Our virtual community

Brooks describes our prevailing parenting landscape as “hyper-individualized,” a place where “every individual parent is responsible for their individual child and nobody shares responsibility. Combine that with feelings of scarcity—that there’s not enough to go around—and you can see how this all gets so competitive, all-consuming and soul-crushing.”

Looking after each other and each other’s kids is a simple, local way to combat this demoralizing trend. “When we entered the workforce en masse in the 60s, we sort of paid lip service to this idea of women’s lib…that we would be full members of society…that we could be mothers and work as well. But,” she continues, “we didn’t back up this lofty ideology with policies or the support structures necessary for women to succeed—other people helping us raise those children, either partners, extended family, national programs or larger communities.”

At Famifi, we’d like to be part of that community. We’re here to encourage you and your extended family to share ideas, resources, and stories that can help primary caregivers talk to each other and find solutions to the fears that might be keeping us from being happy parents and raising happy children. Turns out we did win the happiness lottery when we decided to become parents, and learning how to be fearless is how we’re most likely to cash it in.

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