The secret to being a happy mom

Sometimes the joys of parenthood can be rudely knocked aside by the sharp elbows of drudgery, anxiety and resentment that often accompany caring for children. And apparently it’s so common for mothers, especially, to feel stressed out and annoyed with their lives and their kids that a whole slew of new books are promising to make them Happy Moms again.

Take, for example, “The Happiest Mom” by blogger Meagan Francis, a Michigan mother of five whose book came out in April.

“I felt like everything out there about parenthood was all so miserable-sounding,” she says. She wanted to find a different voice—one that steered clear of the “making perfect snacks is making me a crazy person” genre, and instead spoke regularly of the joys of motherhood.

“Everybody is really ready for the message,” she says.

The publishing industry appears to have banked on it. Besides Francis’ book, joydeficient parents can pick up “Raising Happiness” by UC Berkeley sociologist Christine Carter, published in 2010, and also “10 Habits of Happy Mothers” by Michigan pediatrician Meg Meeker, published in March.

Carter, who is a staff member at the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley and who teaches classes based on her book, says the time is right for these titles.

“In the last couple of years, parents have really been bombarded with statistics about how unhappy they are,” including by a study that showed women today are less happy than their mothers were, she says. Another showed that childless couples were happier than those with offspring.

“More and more emphasis is being placed on our kids’ achievements at younger and younger ages, and this is not a path to happiness for the parents or the kids,” she says.

Bonnie Gould, a marriage and family therapist in San Jose, says she sees a lot of mothers who feel overwhelmed and unhappy with aspects of their parenting, and who don’t trust their parenting skills.

“They are trying to keep themselves happy and their kids happy, and it’s a lot to juggle,” she says. “There is a lot of societal pressure to be supermom.”

Happiness as a skill

Carter’s book begins with a chapter that should appeal to those attempting to be supermom: It’s called “Put on Your Own Oxygen Mask First.” The book goes on to describe much of the latest scientific research on what makes people happy, and then applies it to the effort to raise happy children — which begins, she argues, with being happier oneself.

“If, as a parent, you’re really anxious or depressed, those emotions are contagious to your children,” she says. “When we are really happy as parents, our kids feel happy, and they feel it as their own happiness.”

And lest parents start to feel anxious about infecting their kids because they aren’t living cheerfully enough, Carter has good news: It’s not hard to learn how to be happier, and it’s never too late to start. Research shows that happiness is like a skill to be learned and practiced, she says, not a character trait.

Oakland resident Jessica Natkin is among the parents working on the happiness skill in Carter’s classes. She wasn’t an unhappy parent, she says, but nonetheless the class has given her some concrete ways to improve her family life.

“It’s definitely stressful,” she says, referring to life as a mother to children ages 2, 4 and 9. “Just getting through the day-to-day without yelling and screaming at your children is hard . You want them to be active participants in your household, and not be a nag and a screamer. My goal would be for them to say, ‘I had a good childhood,’æ” she says, rather than remembering their early years as a chorus of parental yelling.

Natkin adds that she likes the fact that Carter’s advice is based on what researchers have shown is effective. One change she’s made in her own parenting, she says, is to try to praise her children differently from she has in the past, focusing on specific things they’ve done well (“I like the colors you used in that drawing”), rather than praising them generally (“You’re a good artist”).

That’s because research by Stanford University psychology Professor Carol Dweck has shown the former kind of praise, known as “growth mind-set” praise, is more likely to result in kids who strive to get better at things.

Changing expectations

Morgan Hill resident Kim Gaxiola, who has a 9-year-old daughter, a 5-year-old son and a full-time, work-from-home job in the financial services business, agrees there’s a niche the “happy mom” can fill. A couple of years ago she and her husband, Victor, were working in downtown San Jose, Calif., spending too much time commuting for their liking. The decision to find a way to work from home was part of a conscious effort to be happier personally and as parents, the couple says.

“Women of my generation seem to have a tough time with this work-life balance. Growing up, we were raised to be careerminded and go to college and be successful .æ.æ. but we still want to be there for our kids,” says Gaxiola, 38. “We want it all, really. So I think that’s where all these books come from.”

San Francisco resident and business owner Stephanie Soler, 36, is a single mother to a 10-year-old son, Jack. She hasn’t read any of the “happy moms” books, though she did read “The Happiness Project,” a 2009 book by blogger Gretchen Rubin. Soler says she works hard to find happiness in the “day-to-day stuff” of parenting, which can be a struggle, she says.

“A lot of people are delaying childbearing and having kids later and later and have a lot of expectations for what it’s going to be like. Once those children arrive, the reality is that there is a lot of grunt work involved with parenting,” she says, which can eclipse the joy of raising kids.

She says remembering to “find the daily joys keeps me happy as a parent.” One of those is watching “The Biggest Loser” on television with Jack while eating ice cream. “I don’t know how we got into that show; it’s so trashy, but it’s our thing.”

Watching reality TV and eating ice cream is not typically one of the things on a mother’s “must do this for my kids” checklist — that list usually has things on it like “piano lessons!” and “throw a great sweet-16 party!” But letting go of that mental checklist is a big part of having a happier life as a mother, says Meeker, author of “10 Habits of Happy Mothers.”

“We never get the duties on the list all checked off, and that’s what causes us the churning feeling that we’re not doing enough,” she says. Instead, she recommends tending to one’s inner life first. “That’s where the good stuff starts, and that’s where it ends.”