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The Importance of Embracing Your Own Definition of Happiness

“Isn’t this amazing?!” my ex-boyfriend shouted, the wind flattening floppy brown hair against one side of his head, a dried saltwater crust over the part of his face not currently drenched in spray.

Shivering, nauseated, and wetter than a penny in a fountain, I looked out over the side of the sailboat and replied, “Yeah, it’s really great. Like, beautiful and stuff.”

I spent the first three decades of my life on a wild goose chase, attempting to track down happiness using directions that had worked for others. I tried road trips. Fail. Movie marathons. Fail. Lazy Sundays, cooking, spontaneity. Fail, fail, fail.

Then I gave birth to a baby who spent most of the day writhing in pain. In and out of Seattle Children’s Hospital her first year, I would have done anything to make her happy. So I did. Since the only place she smiled was the aquarium, we moved to be closer to the fish. I let go of “shoulds,” and just followed her joy.

Attempting the same with myself, I started doing the stay-at-home mom thing my own way. Scheduling. Socializing. Busyness. Color-coding. When we greeted friends at Toddler Time every Tuesday morning at 10:25 A.M. (green square on the calendar) after a trip to the gym (red square), I felt utterly content.

But I still wondered what was wrong with me. Why do I need to feel productive, even lying on a beach? (“That’s two books in two days,” I’d smile, finally able to enjoy the sun’s kiss and sand’s scratch.) I ached to be like the characters in novels for whom all noise fades, the sunset speaking to them with greater clarity than human language allows.

My jealous gaze followed a pair of moms who jumped off the train and headed for Puget Sound on a whim. I even envied those who paid a high price for their fun. How wonderful would it be to say, “Heroin? Sure! Why not?”

I’m a Californian after all: why can’t I be happy hanging loose?

Then a message from above — well, technically, across — showed up in my Facebook feed. Humans of New York quoted an NYU professor explaining:

Happiness [is] a mixing board with several different dials: positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and achievement. Everyone’s mixing board is set differently. There’s no one way to be happy and there’s no wrong way to be happy. I may draw my happiness from relationships, while somebody else may need to be constantly engaged in the pursuit of a goal.

Mind. Blown.

Just as it was when I read about introverts recharging alone and extroverts recharging together. I’d always thought people who didn’t want to hang out during downtime secretly didn’t like me. I also felt thoroughly defective after my introverted mother asked, “Why do you need company every minute of every day?” That is, until I read that I’m just built differently, and that’s okay.

In “Year of Yes,” Shonda Rhimes summarizes:

It may be different for you. Your happy place. Your joy. The place where life feels more good than not good… My producing partner Betsy Beers would tell me that for her that place is her dog. My friend Scott would probably tell me that for him it is spending time being creative… It’s different for everyone.

We all spend our lives trying to follow the same path, live by the same rules.

I think we believe that happiness lies in… being more like everyone else.

That? Is wrong.

There is no list of rules.

The University of Pennsylvania’s “Authentic Happiness” website would seem to agree. It offers questionnaires that use positive psychology to try to help individuals thrive. According to one of them, the things that fulfill me are learning, planning, critical thinking, diligence, creativity, and socializing. In other words, thinking about stuff and getting stuff done—preferably with other people.

So no, I don’t want to take my kids to the beach this afternoon. If we organize it a week ahead of time, read about the history of changing water levels, enter a sand castle competition, and invite friends, then I’m game.

That doesn’t make me a stick in the mud. I am one type of stick among many. And I’ll be happiest if I luxuriate in my favorite blend of dirt and water, rather than wallowing in someone else’s. 

Since the same is true for my family members, the key to thriving relationships can’t be just pursuing my bliss with others in tow. So I’ve stopped trying to make my kids and husband happy the way I think they should be. Instead I observe their reactions and moods, take mental notes when they’re most engaged, and try to replicate those conditions — playing from their mixing board rather than mine sometimes.

Now that my oldest is in school full time, leaving only afternoons to reconnect with me and her two siblings, that means skipping the fish and other recurring outings. Instead we play each day by ear, usually staying in to construct fairy traps and make mini-s’mores (or, more realistically, to whine over who got the fanciest trap or most graham cracker). As long as I pencil in “unstructured time at home” (purple square), I can work with that.

We all find joy disparately. Accepting that fact is what enables us to be happy together.

Who said motherhood doesn't come with a manual?

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I had big plans to be a "good mom" this summer. There were going to be chore charts, reading goals, daily letter writing practice, and cursive classes. There would be no screen time until the beds were made, and planned activities for each day of the week.

Today was the first day of summer vacation and our scheduled beach day. But here's what we did instead: Lounged in our pj's until 11 am, baked the girl's pick, chocolate chip cookie brownies, started an art project we never finished, then moved to the pool.

It's so easy to be pressured by things we see on social. Ways to challenge our kids and enrich their summer. But let's be real—we're all tired. Tired of chores, tired of schedules and places to be, tired of pressure, and tired of unrealistic expectations.

So instead of a schedule, we're doing nothing this summer. Literally NOTHING.

No camps. No classes, and no curriculums.

Instead, we're going to see where each day takes us. I've dubbed this the "Summer of Me," so workouts and clean eating are a priority for me. And also giving our girls the freedom to pick what they want to do.

We may go to a local pool and check out the swimming programs. And we join the local YMCA. But whatever we do—it will be low key.

It will include family time, too much TV, a few trips, lots of sunshine, some new roller skates, water balloons, plenty of boredom, rest, relaxation, and reading. (Because mama likes to read!)

So if you haven't figured out what you're doing this summer, you're not alone. And guess what? It's OKAY! Your kids will be fine and so will you.

Originally posted on Kristen Hewitt's blog. Check out her post on 30 ways to have fun doing almost nothing this summer.

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In the moments after we give birth, we desperately want to hear our baby cry. In the middle of the night a few months later it's no longer exactly music to our ears, but those cries aren't just telling us that baby needs a night feeding: They're also giving us a hint at what our children may sound like as kindergarteners, and adults.

New research published in the journal Biology Letters suggests the pitch of a 4-month-old's cry predicts the pitch they'll use to ask for more cookies at age five and maybe even later on as adults.

The study saw 2 to 5-month olds recorded while crying. Five years later, the researchers hit record again and chatted with the now speaking children. Their findings, combined with previous work on the subject, suggest it's possible to figure out what a baby's voice will sound like later in life, and that the pitch of our adult voices may be traceable back to the time we spend in utero. Further studies are needed, but scientists are very interested in how factors before birth can impact decades later.

"In utero, you have a lot of different things that can alter and impact your life — not only as a baby, but also at an adult stage," one of the authors of the study, Nicolas Mathevon, told the New York Times.

The New York Times also spoke with Carolyn Hodges, an assistant professor of anthropology at Boston University who was not involved in the study. According to Hodges, while voice pitch may not seem like a big deal, it impacts how we perceive people in very real ways.

Voice pitch is a factor in how attractive we think people are, how trustworthy. But why we find certain pitches more or less appealing isn't known. "There aren't many studies that address these questions, so that makes this research especially intriguing," Hodges said, adding that it "suggests that individual differences in voice pitch may have their origins very, very early in development."

So the pitch of that midnight cry may have been determined months ago, and it may determine part of your child's future, too. There are still so many things we don't know, but as parents we do know one thing: Our babies cries (as much as we don't want to hear them all the time) really are something special.

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When we consider all the skills our kids will need to succeed in the future, what comes to mind? Perhaps creativity, tech skills, or an excellent understanding of math might be at the top of many parents' lists. Social-emotional skills, like empathy, compassion, or the ability to understand another person's viewpoint may not be the ones you thought of right away, but deep down you know they matter.

We've all had those co-workers who didn't know how to listen to our ideas or friends who couldn't compromise with others. We know that in the work world and in our personal life, emotional skills are key to developing and maintaining healthy relationships.

If you are the parent of a toddler, you know that young children are inherently self-centered. It's not some faulty aspect of their character or a misstep of parenting skills. Young children simply do not have the brain maturity to consider another person's perspective or needs just yet—their brain physically is not ready to handle that kind of mental work.

However, child development research shows us that we can do a few things along the developmental path to help foster social-emotional skills in our kids. With a little help from us, our kids' brains can develop with meaningful connections that tune them into the feelings of others.

Here's how:

1. Treat others how you want your kids to treat others.

How we talk to our kids becomes their internal dialogue. We know from research that this goes for emotional skills as well. A recent study showed that when parents talk to their kids more about how other people might be feeling, the kids had better perspective-taking abilities—the ability to see a situation from another person's point of view.

This, of course, is the basis of many emotional skills, especially empathy. Just by talking about another person's feelings, kids begin to develop those crucial brain connections that help them develop empathy.

It's worth pointing out that very young children under ages 3-4 do not have the brain maturity to really understand another person's perspective. They lack a crucial skill that psychologists call Theory of Mind, meaning they can't understand the mind of another person.

However, our urgings and thoughtful phrasing to point out how another person might be feeling can only help them down this developmental path. Then, once their little brain matures, they will be in the habit of hearing and understanding the feelings of others.

2. Model positive emotional behavior in daily life.

It's probably not surprising to learn that how we react to our kids' feelings influences their emotional development. When your child gets upset, do you get angry or ruffled by their big emotions? We are all human, of course, so sometimes our kids' emotions are the exact triggers that fuel our big feelings, too. However, if we can remain the calm in the emotional storm for our kids, their development will benefit. Through modeling emotional regulation, over time our kids will learn how to self-regulate as well.

One study, in fact, showed that toddlers whose parents exhibited anger or over-reacted to tantrums were likely to have more tantrums and negative emotionality by the end of the study. However, the opposite dynamic can happen, too. Parents who model firm, but calm emotional regulation help their kids learn these skills as well.

3. Don’t be afraid to show your emotions.

Many times, we feel that one of our main jobs as a parent is to protect our children from the big, often overwhelming emotions of adults. For instance, we try not to break down crying or become red-faced with anger in front of our kids. It just feels too big for them to handle and perhaps not developmentally appropriate.

As they mature, however, older kids are able to handle a bit more discussion and expression of honest emotions. Have you noticed that kids usually pick up on the fact that you are upset even if you try to hide it? Kids are naturally curious and, many times, very sensitive to the emotional tenor at home. If they are developmentally ready, this can be a good time to have more discussions about emotions and how to handle them.

For example, my 9-year-old is playing a lot of baseball this summer and always wants me to pitch to him so he can practice batting. Now, I am not a very skilled player so my pitches often go off course or are too weak. He had gotten in the habit of correcting my pitching or (more likely) complaining about it every time we played.

After repeated experiences with this, I was not only annoyed but it also sort of hurt my feelings—so I finally told him how I felt. Guess what? His behavior at practice time changed dramatically! The mere fact of him realizing that his mom has feelings too really made him think about his words more carefully.

These types of interaction can become part of your "emotion coaching." It may sound silly but it can make a big impact for kids, especially as they grow older and are more able to really understand the emotional lesson. On some level, it's nice that our kids think we are superheroes, but it's also crucial that they understand that we are still human, with real feelings.

The magic of helping our kids develop empathy doesn't happen in well-planned lessons or elaborate activities. The real magic happens in the small, simple interactions and discussions we have with our kids each day.

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Sometimes it can feel like you never get a minute to even finish a thought—let alone a to-do list. When your day is packed with caretaking, your own needs get pushed back. So when you finally get to lie down at the end of the day, all those thoughts are waiting for you. While we haven't figured out the secret to keeping you from over-analyzing every.single.thing. (sorry, mama!), we do believe you must carve out time for you. Because that rest is just as important—and you've certainly earned it.



PS: We spoke to Jessica Alba and she gave us the lowdown on why she stopped breastfeeding, and Nordstrom is having their anniversary sale until August 5th. Here's everything we want!

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