Interview with KJ Dell’Antonia: Newsflash! Parenting Can Be Fun

How to Be a Happier Parent by KJ Dell'antonia

When I was a new mom I read the New York Times’ now-defunct Motherlode blog. That’s where I discovered KJ Dell’Antonia who edited that blog from 2011 through 2016. I avoided most parenting media because it would make me feel terrible! What do you mean you haven’t perfectly coordinated every single second of the first birthday party that no one, especially the kid, will ever remember? By contrast, I found KJ’s posts where just what I needed – calm, practical, and free of the kind of fluffy nonsense that I suspect just makes most moms feel inadequate.

So I was delighted to discover that she’s got a book coming out on How To Be A Happier Parent. This book may well become the gift I give every new mom. KJ was gracious enough to answer a few questions I had. Have a read. But, before you do that, pre-order the book! It will be published in August, but order before August 24 and you get a download on happier mornings, a Get More Sleep printable for kids, and a free @Chatbooks photo album. Learn more here.

Tami: I love the expression “You aren’t IN traffic, you ARE the traffic.” It’s so relevant to the current achievement and sports arms race that many families find themselves in. How do stop being the traffic or, put another way, be okay not being in the traffic?

KJ: I quote a family in my book who made keeping Saturdays sacred a family value—and whose three kids simply didn’t participate in activities on Saturdays. The kids were (and are) accomplished athletes and musicians. Sometimes other people were understanding and even accommodating, and sometimes they weren’t.

And those kids are fine. Two are in college. One is a senior in high school. They did things, but they did them on their own terms, and while it wasn’t easy, it worked out. You could say they made their own traffic lane. I also have a friend (whose name you would recognize) whose kids barely touched an organized activity or sport throughout their childhoods. They weren’t joiners. She worried about it, but rolled with it. Again, those kids are fine. One’s in college, one is in high school. No traffic, no loss.

You can’t do everything, and it’s okay if you don’t do much of anything. Downtime is incredibly valuable for kids, and kids whose days aren’t packed to the brim with scheduled practices and whatnot have time to putter around and figure out what they themselves want to do. They also have parents who are more pleasant and less stressed, because there’s so much more slack in their schedule than for the parent who’s got ten minutes between A’s soccer practice and picking up B after play rehearsal and fifteen miles to cover. As kids get older, they’ll find ways to do the things they enjoy.

I do want to say, though, that it’s also okay to be the traffic. My kids all play organized sports. They love it. We do find ourselves expected to do crazy things in the name of those sports—travel, or late nights, or missed school. Sometimes we push back. Sometimes we shrug and go along. What matters is that we don’t just accept what’s dished out—we think about the schedule overall, and daily, and what works for the whole family. Sometimes kids miss stuff they want to go to, sometimes we bend over backwards for one kid and another gets shafted. Sometimes we just have to tell a kid that baseball is a no this year. We try to even it out, and we protect dinners and family time, and we make a point of reminding ourselves, and our kids, that those extracurriculars are a choice. They’re where we want to be, not where we have to be.

Tami: I think recognizing the choices we have here is so key. Doing what the family loves is great. Dragging everyone around against their will and stressing out all the while? Not great.

Tami: Many women leave their full-time jobs to become SAHMs because the stress of trying to do everything can be too much. As those women then contemplate a return to the workforce, what advice can you give to help them rethink how they approach family life to keep the stress more manageable?

KJ: First, know this: your kids don’t need to have all of you. It’s not even good for them to have all of you. Your happiness, and how you spend your time, shouldn’t depend on them. That’s a terrible burden for a kid. You are the grown up, and kids feel secure in seeing you go off and do grown-up things that aren’t dictated by their needs.

But of course, there’s the practical side of being a working parent as well. Our society is set up for two-parent households where one parent is at home, even though only a small percentage of families look like that. School ends at 3 and lets out in June—work doesn’t. And day care for kids who are too young for school is scarce and expensive. I could rant about that for pages, but let’s skip what we all know and move on to just making the trains run on time. This is do-able. It takes organization. It takes purpose. It takes recognizing that if you have a partner, that partner, too, is equally on the hook for what’s going on with the kids when you’re both at work and for making the meals and activities and homework and life in general.

Go get Laura Vanderkam’s book I Know How She Does It. First off, she has multiple examples of women who work 40 or more hours a week at high-profile jobs and are also happily raising their families. More important, though, is her message: when we choose how to spend our time, and recognize that our days are the result of those choices, everything looks different. You have a lot going on as the working parent of children—but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It might be stressful in some individual moments, but it’s also exactly what you want. You can ease those moments (that’s pretty much what my book is about) but it’s even more important to reframe the whole thing as being who you want to be, doing what you want to do, even if the job isn’t ideal or you’re really in it for a paycheck. You’re supporting your family and then going home to them. That’s good stuff.

Tami: Three cheers for Laura Vanderkam! I think I Know How She Does It is one of the best books ever written about working mothers and really punctures the “it just can’t be done so don’t even try” narrative. I love your comment that it takes purpose. It really is okay, maybe even more than okay, for moms to include going to work part of their purpose. And yes to having a partner who is a partner! I recently read a story about Ruth Bader Ginsburg. When her son was in school and she was in law school the kid’s school kept calling her. She finally said “This child has two parents. Please alternate calls.” That son is now 52, which says something about how slow culture changes.

Tami: I loved your line “Your child will remember the party you had, not the party you didn’t have.” I think that idea extends further—your child will remember the things you do together, the meals you have, the class trips you chaperone, the snacks you bring. She won’t remember the things you thought you were “supposed” to do but couldn’t. How can moms let go of the impulse to make everything perfect and keep their child’s life constantly happy even if it’s making them miserable?

KJ: Just as it’s not good for a child to have your full attention 24/7, it’s not good for her to be happy all the time, either. Can you even imagine if your college roommate had turned out to be someone who had never so much as lost a balloon without Mommy rushing in with two new ones? Your child will remember the make-your-own pizza party you give her, not the rental bouncy house she asked for that was way out of your budget, even if she puts up a heck of a stink when you don’t give the inflatable castle the nod. And she’ll learn that sometimes she doesn’t get what she wants. And then she is still okay.

Your child needs to learn that other people (like Mommy) have needs that are important, and that her needs sometimes take a back seat to bigger things. Conveniently, this is also the route to raising a teenager and an adult that you (and other people) can stand to be around.

Tami: This was one of my favorite themes from the book. I was doing many of the things you recommend, but mainly to preserve my sanity! Realizing the bonus is that the kids may benefit was like getting an extra piece of birthday cake. I also think it’s important to remember that we don’t really control the story our children will tell about their childhood. While that can be a frightening thought it’s also a liberating one. My personal mantra is that I can’t make other people happy, I can only create the conditions for happiness. I’m sure I fall down in the “creating conditions” department regularly, but it’s a better place for me to focus my energy.

Tami: A lot of the book encourages parents to foster more independence in children. That seems like an advantage that some working moms have—kids often have to be more self-sufficient. How can SAHMs, in particular, break the habit of doing everything because it’s easier in the short term to gain in the long term?

KJ: Oh, this is hard. Because you’re right. It really is just easier to empty the dishwasher and pick up the towels off the floor of the bathroom yourself than to call the kid back multiple times every day for years to do it. It is one hundred percent easier.

The key is to remember that getting the dishwasher emptied and the towels off the floor isn’t usually the goal. The goal is to have a kid who can and will do those things for herself without being reminded, and that means repetition. More repetition than you ever imagined, in some cases. So here’s the other key—separate those last two goals, too. First goal: a child who can and will clear the plate or put the clothes in the hamper. Second goal: doing it without being reminded. Now, your job is simple. Require that the child deliver on the first goal until suddenly, you don’t have to require it—and voila. Both goals are met. Until tomorrow, when you will have to start all over again.

Tami: This advice has completely changed how I approach the reminding! I used to get so angry that I was reminding. Now I expect to have to remind. I do make little jokes about it “Sam, clear your plate. Same rules as last night. The rules didn’t change.” My next hurdle is just getting them to do more – your book has inspired me! Especially now that I’m okay with reminding.