Are you a happy mom? (Or dad?)

The transition into motherhood stands out as one of the most potent pro-depressants I’ve ever experienced. The first few years of my daughter’s life were tough on me. I was sad, anxious, grumpy, resentful, angry, and downright physically ill most of the time.

I’m now much more peaceful, blissful and content. Still, the emotional angst was severe enough and went on long enough to encourage me to become a card carrying member of the Once And We’re Done Club.

Then roughly a year ago, I met Meagan Francis in a New York bar. Meagan showed up in a glamorous gown. Her hair was styled, and her skin seemed lit from behind. She dripped happiness from her every orifice.

At first, I figured she must only have one child. Nope. She informed me that she had five! I happened to know that she also had a demanding career. Like me, Meagan is a freelance writer. Freelance writing is currently one of the toughest professions to earn a living. It’s only eclipsed, perhaps, by acting and art. To make ends meet, most of the freelancers I know work late hours, weekends, and holidays. Freelance writing is also very tough emotionally. Freelance writers are often the brunt of more criticism and rejection than any other entrepreneur.

I looked at Meagan and I just couldn’t figure out how she did it. How on Earth was she seemingly able to raise five kids, thrive as a freelancer, have time for the occasional manicure and walk around with a happy skip in her step. It was right around the time I was wondering this that Meagan mentioned that she writes a blog called TheHappiestMom and had a book coming out by the same name. I thought, “Of course!” I mean, if anyone is an expert on happiness, it’s her. It’s one thing to manage to be happy when you are rich, childless, and kept. It’s quite another to do it when you are the mother of five who is working in one of the most thankless professions on the planet.

Meagan’s book The Happiest Mom just released. I got my hands on an early review copy. The book is beautiful. I felt happier just by touching and fondling it. It’s also full of counter intuitive advice that is new, interesting, and effective. I’ll be giving away two copies of the book by the end of the post. For now, here’s how Meagan answered some of my questions.

1. I’ve written about the importance of caring for your own needs and how this can benefit the entire family. This concept, however, can be controversial and some people assume putting yourself first is the same thing as being selfish. What are your views on this?

I think it would be a bad thing to ALWAYS put yourself first. Part of being a human is learning to balance your own desires with the needs of others, and think beyond what you want. But I think most moms take it too far in the other direction–always putting everyone else first, until they wind up exhausted, spent, and resentful. Being a good mom requires enthusiasm and energy and commitment, and it’s hard to to drum up those qualities if you’ve been ignoring your needs for sleep, good food, socializing, exercise, and an inner life of your own. Also: being completely selfless has a way of turning into martyrdom, which isn’t the greatest example to set for your kids.

2. Is there anything moms do in an effort to improve their lives that paradoxically causes more distress and makes them more unhappy?

I think we tend to deny our own personalities sometimes in the name of self-improvement, and it doesn’t always work. We can’t all be loosey-goosey earth mothers or super-ambitious go-getters. That said, I think sometimes adopting a little more structure can make a laissez-faire mom a bit happier (it was easy to get by without a reliable bedtime before you had kids, but after they’re here, it might just make you crazy) and on the flip side, women who were super structured before having children might find that “going with the flow” a little helps them keep their expectations in check.

3. What’s your best tip for moms who want to have a happier relationship with their men?

Realize that your life won’t be like THIS (whatever rough stage “this” is) forever. Having small children is incredibly stressful to a marriage and you won’t even have time to work through some of the growing pains you experience during that time, because they keep changing! (Unless you have a large family, in which case you’ll probably start to get it figured out by, oh, kid number four or so…) But the good news is, infancy and toddlerhood really go by so fast. In a few years you’ll be sleeping again, your child won’t be hanging on your legs all day, you’ll be able to more easily plan time together or keep from snapping at your spouse because it’s been at least a week since you had any time alone. Or maybe you’re in a rough spot because of a layoff or a troubled teen or (fill in the blank.) Either way, the hard time you’re having probably won’t define your entire life together, so work on staying as connected as you can, as loving as you can, as forgiving as you can, and then dig in your heels and ride it out to smoother waters.

4. Any secret tips for getting your spouse to pitch in more without having to nag or hear him groan or roll his eyes?

Oh gosh. I wish. I think depending on the guy, he may respond to requests, he may respond to lists, he may respond to outright sexual bribery…but he may not respond to any of those things. Here’s the thing: I have found a lot more satisfaction in my marriage by working on myself and adjusting my own expectations and standards than I ever did trying to get my husband to change. Once I stopped viewing my husband’s failure to do the dishes as a personal insult, I realized it’s really not that big a deal to just take care of it myself. Especially when I stop to really consider all the things he does around the house–like acting as our family’s unpaid IT consultant–that I don’t always take a moment to notice when I’m mad about the wadded-up towels on the floor.

5. You’ve managed to juggle a demanding career, have 5 kids, and stay sane. What’s your secret?

It might sound Pollyanna-ish, but I really believe that looking at my life in a positive light helps me stay on top of things without unraveling. Instead of thinking, “Oh, I’m way too busy this week, I don’t have enough child care, my house is a mess…” I try to think about things in more positive terms: “I’m looking forward to this exciting time. Wow, I am so efficient, I can handle this schedule without a lot of help! I wonder how clean I can get this house this afternoon…”

Perception is reality. If I think of myself as tired, overwhelmed, and unhappy, that’s how I’ll feel. And vice versa.

To win a copy of The Happiest Mom, just comment on this post. You can either share your best happiness tip, or you can tell us how parenting or marriage destroyed your peace of mind. Or you can just let us know why you need this book. I’ll pick two winners by Sunday night.

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