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If you want to be happy, don’t become a parent. Or, if you are a parent, just have one child. And wait until you’re older to have it. And have a job outside the home. And, if you can manage it, be a father instead of a mother.


That’s the collective advice of a slew of happiness studies conducted throughout the last decade.

If you want to be happy you should become a parent. Or if you’re already a parent, have more kids. When you are as young as possible. And stay at home with them. And, if you can manage it, be a mother instead of a father.

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That’s also the collective advice of a slew of happiness studies conducted throughout the last decade.

Why are the findings of parental happiness studies so varied and often contradictory? Part of the problem is the incredibly broad term “happiness,” which is defined quite differently in different contexts. An even bigger problem is that, although, these studies use different methods for measuring happiness, news coverage of these studies often flattens their methodological differences.

A review paper can be a useful tool when researchers asking similar questions find different answers. Instead of conducting original research, authors of review studies try to understand how researchers tackling the same topic have come to different conclusions. Looking at review articles of parenting happiness can help us understand the limitations of happiness research, which can, in turn, help us make better sense of future findings.

Apples to oranges

In their 2014 Psychological Bulletin review article of parental happiness, authors Nelson, Kushlev, and Lyubomirsky describe the three basic methods used to measure happiness. The first method they identified was to make comparisons between parent and nonparent populations.

This type of study is like comparing apples to oranges. There is some value in comparing apples to oranges, as they are both parts of the larger category of “fruit.” Likewise, there is value to comparing parents to nonparents, as they are both parts of the larger category of “people.”

There are also limitations to this kind of comparison. For one thing, the labels of “parent” and “nonparent,” like their fruit counterparts, are broad categories. “Nonparent,” Nelson, Kuslev, and Lyubomirsky note, includes 20-year-olds who will eventually become parents, married couples who are struggling with infertility, and elderly couples who were childless by choice.

Those groups likely have completely different experiences and attitudes about children. “Parents” is just as broad a category, and both parents and nonparents have a host of confounding factors (age, gender, employment, etc.) that make comparisons difficult.

Even though both groups are broad categories, “parent” is a much larger group. The authors note that comparing parents to nonparents may be fraught because there are so many more parents than nonparents. Roughly 85% of Americans become parents, which means that at most, the “nonparent” category can include 15%. Because the members of that 15% are so different, it may be difficult to make large generalizations about them.

Observing apples as they ripen

A second way to study parental happiness is to collect data from people as they transition from being nonparents to being parents. We might say that, unlike studies comparing parents to nonparents (apples to oranges), these studies compare the apples as they ripen.

A benefit to this approach is that, because researchers are watching the same parents over time, the study has built-in controls for factors like age and gender.

A major limitation to these kinds of studies, the authors conclude, is time. They assert that the timetable of the studies in their review – about five years – may overstate the unhappiness of parents, based on factors related to early childhood. Like apples, early parenting has a relatively long shelf life, with parents reporting an initial surge of happiness. However, things start to sour once sleep deprivation sets in.

One major limitation of these “aging apple” studies is that researchers don’t keep following the apples. Fermented apple cider is not the same thing as an apple, but we might argue that it has been positively transformed as it ages. Such may be the case with parenting.

Comparing varieties of apples

A third way parental happiness is measured is having parents rank daily activities, like going to work, watching television, doing chores, working out, reading, and, of course, caring for children. In these types of studies, researchers examine the rankings to draw conclusions about parents’ happiness. Instead of comparing apples to oranges, or older apples to their younger selves, these studies are creating what amounts to a ranked list of apple varieties.

The rank-order used in such studies may make it seem like there are wide gaps between types of activities when those differences may not be statistically significant. One study in Nelson, Kushlev, and Lyubomirsky’s review ranked child care 12th out of 16 activities, while another ranked child care right in the middle at 9 out of 18. Some studies have found that rank order is significantly different for men and women, while others have not found such differences. Studies that rank parents’ most preferred activities may be artificially inflating the differences between them. A person might like Honeycrisp apples more than Gala apples, but that person generally likes apples.

Another problem with these types of studies is that they are less able to consider context. “Childcare” is almost as baggy a term as “happiness,” so what counts as childcare (changing diapers vs. play) may create bias. Even when broad terms like “childcare” are broken down into component tasks, it’s not clear how momentary enjoyment is linked to long-term satisfaction. A man may hate Granny Smith Apples on their own, but after the work of turning them into a pie, he might derive a lot of satisfaction from them. So parents who rank child care at the bottom of their day-to-day activities may find diapering, or potty training, or fighting over curfew to be extremely unpleasant tasks, but those tasks may have a long-term payoff.

Putting the “happiness gap” in perspective

Nelson, Kushlev, and Lyubomirsky’s review reminds us that no study can prove that apples are better than oranges. No individual study can definitively prove that parenting makes someone happy or unhappy, “because people cannot be randomly assigned to have or to forgo children, researchers cannot conclusively answer the causal question of whether parenthood improves well-being.”

A well-designed study, however, can highlight the possible disparities causing one group to report less happiness than another. The authors conclude that the best possible studies of parenting happiness would use a mix of the methodologies they describe, as such a hybrid design would help minimize the limitations associated with any one method.

Researchers could, for example, observe apples as they ripen (people as they transition to parenting) and oranges as they ripen (nonparents over the same period). Then they could compare the apples to the oranges.

Another hybrid design was used to find that the happiness gap between American parents and nonparents is wider than it is in any of 21 other countries. According to the study, American parents are less happy than American nonparents by a wider margin than any of the other countries studied (and in some of those countries, the gap is reversed, with parents being happier than nonparents).

This study benefits from more than one means of comparison. It begins by comparing apples to oranges (parents to nonparents), but then it compares its comparisons. Instead of just looking at American apples and American oranges, the compares the differences in American happiness to other countries.

That dual set of comparisons is the sort of mixed method approach suggested by Nelson, Kuslev, and Lyubomirsky’s review article. The researchers of the “happiness gap” study aren’t looking to declare parents happier than nonparents, but to determine what accounts for the wider gap between parent and nonparent happiness in some countries.

Their answer – the average cost of child care for a two-year-old and the number of paid sick leave days – suggests a new way of approaching the happiness gap. Instead of focusing on whether or not parents are happy, researchers could turn more productively to asking when and why parents are sometimes happier and sometimes unhappier than nonparents.

That also requires work from all of us, apples and oranges alike, to interrogate the claims behind the latest sensationalist headline and give weight to the humble review article.

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As the saying goes, "failing to prepare is preparing to fail," and that seriously applies to parenting. With no fewer than one dozen items to wrangle before walking out the door on an ordinary errand, mamas have plenty on their mind. That is why one of the very best gifts you can give the mamas in your life this year is to reduce her mental load with some gear she can depend on when she's out and about.

Although it may be impossible to guarantee completely smooth outings with kids in tow, here are the items we rely on for making getting out of the house less of a chore.

1. Bugaboo Bee 5 stroller

This stroller is a dream come true for any mama on the go. (Meaning: All of us!) Lightweight, compact and easy to maneuver with just one hand, this is made for navigating busy sidewalks with ease—or just fitting in the trunk without a major wrestling match. It's designed for little passengers to love just as much, too, with a bassinet option for newborn riders that can be easily swapped with a comfy, reclining seat that can face forward or backward for bigger kids.

$699

2. Bugaboo wheel board

This wheel board will let big brother or sister easily hitch a ride on the stroller if their little legs aren't quite up for a full walk. We love the smart details that went into the design, including a slightly offset position so Mom or Dad can walk without bumping their legs. And because toddlers have strong opinions of their own, it's brilliant that the wheel board allows them to sit or stand.

$125

3. Nuby Keepeez cup strap

If you know a little one gearing up for the major leagues with a killer throwing arm, this is a must-have so parents aren't buying new sippy cups on a weekly basis. Perfect for tethering to high chairs, strollers, car seats and shopping carts, it allows Mama to feel confident she'll return home with everything she left with in the first place.

$6.99

4. Bugaboo footmuff

For those mamas who live anywhere where the temps regularly dip below 40 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter, this ultra-soft, comfortable footmuff is a lifesaver. Made with water-repellant microfleece, it keeps little ones dry and cozy—whether there is melting snow, a good drizzle or simply a spilled sippy cup.

$129.95

5. Bugaboo stroller organizer

Because we know #mombrain is no joke, we are all for products that will help us stay organized—especially when out and about. With multiple zipper pockets, a sleek design and velcro straps that help it easily convert to a handbag when stepping away from the stroller, it helps keep essentials from spare diapers to the car keys within reach.

$39.95

6. Bugaboo Turtle car seat

It may be called a car seat, but we love that this one is specifically designed to securely click into a stroller frame, too. (Meaning there is no need to wake up a sleeping baby for a car-to-stroller transfer!) More reasons to love it are the lightweight design, UPF 50+ sun protection shade and Merino wool inlay, meaning it's baby and mama friendly.

$349

7. Chicco QuickSeat hook-on chair

This hook-on baby chair will almost certainly earn a spot on your most-used list. Perfect for dining out or simply giving your baby a space to sit, it's portable and beyond easy to install. (Plus, it's a great alternative to those questionably clean high chairs at many restaurants!)

$57.99

8. Bugaboo stroller cup holder

Chasing after kids when out and about can work up a thirst, just like neighborhood strolls in the chillier months can get, well, chilly. So we love that this cup holder will help mama keep something for herself to drink close at hand. Designed to accommodate bottles of all sizes and easy to click onto any compatible stroller, it's a perfect stocking stuffer.

$29.95

9. Bugaboo soft wool blanket

Fair warning with this luxe stroller blanket: It's so cozy that you might want to buy another one for yourself! Made with Merino wool that helps it stand up to any elements parents might encounter during an outing, it will help baby stay warm during the winter and cool enough as the temps start to pick up.

$109.95

10. Munchkin silicone placemats

Made to roll and stow in a diaper bag, these silicone placemats will make dining out a (relatively) less messy experience. With raised edges that will help contain spills and a grippy bottom, they will stay in place on tables so that parents might be able to enjoy their own meals, too.

$8.99

11. Bugaboo Breezy seat liner

Designed to keep baby warm when it's cool and cool when it's warm, this seat liner will minimize fusses during all seasons—which is one of the very best gifts you can give a mama. Because accidents of all types can happen on the go, we also love that this seat liner is reversible! With a number of colors, it's also a fun way to help a stroller to stand out at the playground.

$79.95

12. OXO Tot Handy stroller hook

If you ever catch yourself thinking it would be nice to have another hand, these stroller clips are the next-best solution for when you are out and about. Perfect for lugging a bag or anchoring a cup, you'll want a set for every stroller you own.

$14.99

This article was sponsored by Bugaboo. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

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New mama Shay Mitchell is the latest celeb to prove that breastfeeding can be so glam.

Eleven months after Rachel McAdams' viral breast pumping photo from her Girls Girls Girls shoot, Michell posted her own a gorgeous portrait she captioned "Breast friends."

The pun is so intended and Shay obviously intends to normalize breastfeeding.

Shay isn't the only celeb to follow in McAdam's footsteps.

Earlier this year Hilary Duff posted an Instagram shot comparing her own pumping moment to McAdams'. In the black and white photo she's seen using a manual breast pump while wearing a parka and a disposable plastic hair cap (it looks like she's getting her hair done).

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With plastic wrap on her head and a towel draped over her shoulders she looks a lot less glam than McAdams did in diamonds and Versace, but that's kind of the point.

"Am I doing this right?" Duff captioned a comparison of the shots.

Yes, mama. You're doing this right.

Whether you've got a Willow tucked into your ball gown like Nicole Phelps did, or are going hands-free with a double electric pump like McAdams, or are nursing in a Target dressing room like Jessica Alba did, or are feeding your baby a bottle full of formula (Alba did that, too), you're doing this right.

We don't all look like movie stars when we're living this mom life, but Duff reminds us that movie stars don't always look like that either.

Sometimes, they (and we) look like multitasking mamas, and it's okay to laugh about it together.

[A version of this story was first posted January 4, 2019. It has been updated.]

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It's officially matching family pajama season—okay, technically you can match all year round, but the holidays are the perfect excuse to get everyone in the family into the same cozy outfit. Hanna Andersson, one of our favorite destinations for all things matching and comfortable, just dropped a last-minute surprise pajama collection for the season and you're going to be obsessed, mama.

If you can't get everyone on board to wear holiday-specific looks, we can guarantee they'll sign up for these avocado or bacon and egg prints. All pajamas are made with organic cotton knit, making them incredibly soft and gentle on even the littlest kiddo's skin and high enough quality so they won't fade. Plus, the seams are flat so they won't be itchy. Kid sleepers start at $42 with adult long john PJs $48 for bottoms and $46 for tops—but we promise they're worth it!

If you're still in search of the perfect Christmas morning pajamas or holiday loungewear, we adore these:

Bacon + eggs 🥓

matching family pjs

What better print to wear for breakfast? The background blue is beautiful and kids will love the fun bacon slices and egg prints. This one even comes with a matching outfit for your family pet.

$46

Lemons in white 🍋

matching family pajamas

This is one of the most classic prints from the collections, and perfect to wear all year round. It features a sleeper, kids short set and women's long john set.

$46

Avocados 🥑

matching family pajamas

If we're being honest, this would 100% be our option for an Instagram post. What's cuter than a little one dressed in an avocado pair?

$46

Lemons in navy 🍋

matching family pjs

If white isn't your thing (or you're too worried about messes) you're in luck. The classic lemon print comes in a navy background, too.

$46

Bananas 🍌

matching family pjs

Go bananas over this bright and fun pajama. It comes in long johns for parents and a short set for kids. Plus, a sleeper for the baby.

$46

We independently select and share the products we love—and may receive a commission if you choose to buy. You've got this.

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I often joke that if I were to draw a food pyramid to represent what my toddler actually eats, it would consist of a wide, sturdy base of starches and fruit and a fat midsection devoted to dairy (but let's be honest, mostly cheese). Its pinnacle would be a nearly microscopic triangle representing the two vegetables he occasionally eats (carrots and cucumbers).

Though I like to think my son is a special unicorn in all sorts of ways, I know from my shared laments with other parents that his eating habits, as specific as they are, aren't all that unique — at least for many American kids (culture has a big influence on our food preferences). In fact, there's no shortage of ink (er, html?) spilled about how to feed toddlers and young children whose eating patterns, like my son's, don't deviate much from staples like macaroni and cheese, flavored yogurt, and fruit (give or take maybe a chicken nugget or hot dog).

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It made me wonder: Why do kids love the foods they love? Was society imposing these food preferences on our kids, or did they burst forth from their mothers' bodies craving fluorescent orange cheddar, buttered noodles, and bananas?

The answer is kind of the latter.

Babies are born with a preference for sweet and salty flavors

If you think about a typical toddler's favorite foods, many of them have either sweet (fruit, juice, flavored yogurt, and anything sweetened) or salty (cheese, chicken nuggets, hot dogs) flavor profiles. Meanwhile, their oft shunned foods (hi, green veggies) tend to be bitter. Scientists believe this has evolutionary roots.

Studies show that babies have a biological predisposition for sweet tastes before they're even born. And there's a purpose for this. While you may associate sweetness with sugar-sweetened junk food (not exactly a survival imperative), sugar is an easy form of energy, which young children need. "If you're developing, you have energy needs," says Rachel Herz, PhD, senses and emotion scientist and author of Why You Eat What You Eat.

In addition to signifying calories and carbohydrates, sweetness is a predominant taste signal for human milk, says Julie Mennella, PhD, researcher at Monell Chemical Senses Center. So an infant's hankering for sweetness primes them to like breast milk. But children don't outgrow this preference once they leave infancy. Throughout childhood kids gravitate toward sweetness, which could explain a toddler's preference for sweet foods, like fruit, juice, or flavored yogurt.

So what about other American kid favorites that aren't sweet, like cheese, chicken nuggets, or hot dogs? Part of the appeal could be their salty flavor profile. Children prefer a higher concentration of salt than adults. This too serves an evolutionary purpose. Saltiness is a signal for protein, Herz says. Plus, it's a mineral that our bodies need to function.

On the flip side, there's a lot of nature behind a child's reluctance to eat vegetables, which sometimes have a bitter flavor. "In nature things that are bitter tend to be poisonous, so it's advantageous to not to be consuming bitter foods. Having these predispositions are helping with survival," Herz says.

Texture and color factor into food preferences too

Of course, taste isn't the only factor that influences a child's food choices. Though less researched, a food's texture and color may also play a role. Children are naturally neophobic, meaning they're apprehensive about new foods. To a mild degree, this is adaptive, Herz says, because it steers them away from unfamiliar foods that could be poisonous.

Along these lines, a slimy, crunchy or uneven texture (think: yogurt with fruit chunks in it) can raise a child's red flags. "Texture can be a signal for food that could be contaminated," Herz says. "If you were eating something and detected grains of dirt or sand, you know you shouldn't probably eat it. Likewise, if you're eating something with little bits, your reaction is to be cautious. That's connected to biology." This could make the unnaturally smooth texture of processed meats, like chicken nuggets or hotdogs, more appealing than the less predictable consistency of a real chicken breast or piece of pork.

Color too may be a signifier. Children may show a preference for foods that are white, such as rice, plain pasta, or bread because they perceive them to be "safe." As far as why kids love the vibrant orange and yellow of processed cheeses, "foods that are yellow have been shown to make people happier," Herz says.

How to expand a picky palate

Despite the fact that there's a biological basis for flavor preferences, they aren't set in stone. One of the best ways to raise an adventurous eater is to start 'em young. "When introducing solids, expose a baby often to bitter vegetables, fish, and spicy foods — foods that most toddlers would refuse," says Dr. Natalie Muth, MD, RD, a pediatrician and registered dietitian based in California.

But what about those of us for whom babyhood is a mere memory? Is all hope lost?

Not quite. Food preferences will evolve over time, independent of how we parent. Though our partiality to sweet and salty foods lingers through childhood, it lessens with age. For instance, if you ask a four-to-six-year-old to sweeten a drink to their preferred level of sweetness, they'll put in 12 sugar cubes, while an adult would add only seven, Herz says.

Parents can also help shape and broaden their children's picky palates in a number of ways, as well:

Prioritize exposure over clean plates. For a parent desperate for a child to try new foods, the sight of a barely-touched plate can be stressful. But Muth urges moms and dads to try not to fret.

"Be as relaxed as possible about offering a food they'll probably reject," she says. "Don't be so invested in whether they eat or not. Focus more on exposure," she says.

It can take 15 to 20 exposures for a kid to come around on a food. The key is that they're trying it. "They don't have to chew and swallow," Muth says, it just has to touch their tongue."

Make food more appealing. Rather than forcing toddlers to try new things, "the key is to find tricks to make them want to try the food out of their own volition," Muth says. A few ways to drum up interest in new foods include getting kids involved with meal prep or letting them pick out foods at the store. Or you could gussy up a disliked food by cutting it into a fun shape or putting it in a bag covered in stickers.

Try 'bridging.' Strategically bridge the gap between your child's likes and dislikes. Start with a food your child likes and use it to introduce a food that either has a similar flavor but different texture or a different flavor and similar texture.

For example, if your child likes french fries, offer sweet potato or zucchini fries because they have the same texture, Muth suggests. Or, if your child likes sweet potato fries, you could introduce them to mashed sweet potatoes, which feature the same flavors, but a different texture.

If that goes well, move to similarly prepared but gradually less sweet foods, such as mashed squash or mashed carrots.

Pair likes with dislikes. Bring your kids around to bitter-tasting foods by serving them with sweet or salty flavors (depending on what they like). Add cheese sauce to broccoli to make it more alluring. "Once they like that, progressively take off more cheese, until they've transitioned to eating it plain," Muth says.

Model an enjoyment of eating. One thing that becomes more important with age that may influence flavor preferences from a psychological perspective is the social context of eating, Herz says. A meal becomes more than meat and veggies on a plate when it becomes associated with having fun or being surrounded by loved ones. Parents can nurture this by showing their kids just how enjoyable eating can be when everyone sits down for family dinners.

This story originally appeared on Apparently.

Learn + Play

As a mom, I often find myself in a rut of self-doubt. I endure a lot of critical comments—and even some side-eye—and it can start to wear on even the most confident of mothers. So many people in our lives "never had to deal with a child doing such-and-such" or "didn't do it that way" or "think things would be better if we just 'fill in the blank.'"

That's why a simple pat on the back goes such a long way. Personally, words of encouragement have always been my love language. That means I would gladly forgo a nice gift for some acknowledgment, recognition and praise.

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Tell me I'm doing a good job.

Tell me you appreciate me.

Tell me my kids are lucky to have me (especially if they can't tell me themselves).

I'm so grateful when my husband takes the time to notice all the things I juggle on a daily basis or when he acknowledges the special talent I've developed for talking our 2-year-old out of a tantrum (which is successful only some of the time). Even the unsolicited advice that pours in from family members is softened quite a bit when it's followed by an encouraging word or two.

For example, I especially appreciate when people tell me, "You'll figure it out." It reminds me that I am the one in charge of this whole beautiful mommy journey. Yes, people can make one suggestion after another. They can think they have all my parenting challenges figured out. But, ultimately, I'm the one who will do what's best for my children. I love to be reminded that this motherhood thing is not only my greatest responsibility, but it is also my most amazing opportunity.

As a matter of fact, my kids (and partner) are probably craving the same words of encouragement too. I can remember growing up that I had a deep need for my parents' approval and praise, and honestly, I still do. I see my toddler and infant respond so gleefully when we applaud what they do or tell them, "Good job!"

So my hope for all of us this holiday season—especially those with busy, overloaded, tired-but-trying mamas in our lives—is that we can all pass along some words of encouragement to one another.

This time of year often finds us plowing away at our holiday duties and obligations. Wouldn't it be nice if we all pulled our heads out of the fog to thank the mothers in our lives?

You can even turn this encouragement into an actual gift if you want to. Buy the mom in your life a journal and write your own inspirational quotes throughout. Write a compliment or reassuring message on each day/week of a calendar for next year. Or even get out a pen and paper, sit down, and write that mama in your life a good, old-fashioned letter. It's a sentiment I guarantee she will remember forever.

To be clear, I don't want to discourage you from buying her that spa gift card or that fabulous necklace she has had her eye on if you want to, but I do think the holidays are a perfect opportunity for all friends and family members to throw a little love each mama's way. It's nice to know that someone sees and appreciates our dedication to surviving this roller-coaster journey called motherhood.

The good news is that a compliment doesn't cost a dime, so we can freely spread cheer and praise to everyone around us.

Life
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