Caring for a baby is intensive. I was told by my midwive that a newborn needs about ten hours of care a day. No wonder that parents can’t even recall what it feels like to be rested.
And still… That first year can be heart achingly beautiful. Love, connection, joy, tenderness and care to name a few: life with a baby can bring it all out.
I feel reluctant to tell you this story, because I don’t know how it will land with you. However, I always feel strengthened by stories of happiness. So I am going to take a leap of faith here in the hope that my story is of value to you.
So here it is – I just had a wonderful first year with my daughter. Life can be pretty rough sometimes and I am no stranger to it, but this year I was simply overflowing with love.
I may have been happier than ever before. I have felt so much joy each day, that all the hardships are almost forgotten. And that is not a small feat with a mind like mine.
Looking back it is difficult to say how much was chance. The whole question of cause and effect is like opening a can of worms.
But I have found five factors that can be influenced! That means that you could influence you happiness too.
My brain is an easy victim for the negativity bias.
But first things first. Saoirse was born on the 26th of January and I immediately fell in love. Maybe for the first time in my life I had no doubt nor worry. She was here, and so were we and we were the luckiest people alive.
It was mid lockdown and we had be self isolating for months. Our situation wasn’t the best it had been, and I had a very tiring and emotional pregnancy. I often struggled to get through the days. But if you would ask my partner how it was, he wouldn’t even remember this. He is the master of focussing on the good stuff in our family. And yes that rubs off, as I found out.
As he kept on pointing out: we didn’t have serious problems. We had a roof overhead, we had our love for each other, a fantastic daughter and another one on the way. My brain is an easy victim for the negativity bias and I consciously needed to turn my mind towards the pleasant.
Our family deserved a happy me.
At least as happy as possible. So I took as much rest as I could, picked-up knitting and ramped up my meditation practice. I read a few pages of ‘I am That’ everyday to stay inspired to practice mindfulness through-out the day. And by the time Saoirse was ready to be born, I was calm, happy and full of love for everyone, even myself.
The craziest thing happened: it never really got hard.
And here she was, our lovely little girl. After an intense but beautiful birth. And I just sat on that bed looking at her. Glowing. Enjoying the care of the post-natal nurse. Feeling proud of my body. Cuddling up with my eldest. Holding hands with my partner. I remember thinking:
How long until these rosy glasses will be ripped off?
But I quickly let go of that nonsense. It would be hard when it’d be hard, and not a second earlier.
And the craziest thing happened: it never really got hard. Yes I struggled throughout this year, pretty intensely at some point. But never with the basics: I trusted us as a family, and was confident in the care for our daughters.
I had my motherly mojo back.
It was all worth it.
Because that first year?
It is never coming back!
How come I was so happy with my family?
It is always difficult to say with certainty. Self report is notoriously biased. But I am going to make a stab at it anyway – as I wish this onto anyone.
I see 5 major factors that contribute to happiness in my family, and hopefully in yours too.
Factor 0: luck.
Saoirse is just the cutest little button. Happy almost all of the time. She was born that way. And how much we’ve had to do with it? I don’t know. I believe we’re just a bunch of lucky bastards. And she was our second baby, so a lot of trust and confidence had already been built up with our first born Aoife. Unfortunately that factor cannot be transferred.
Factor 1: mindfulness and mindful parenting.
I remember feeling in control. Not over what happened, but over how I coped with it.
Results of a research have just come out showing that a special mindfulness training during pregnancy, can half the need for medical interventions during childbirth.
Other researches have shown that stress during pregnancy influences the stress-response in the foetus’s brain. Relaxed mother, calmer child. Roughly translated.
My own experience: not only did the practice of mindfulness help me during pregnancy, but mindfulness also helped me enormously during child-birth. I could stay calm and confident, navigate the pain, and make a conscious decision to have the aid of laughing gas in the final hours. I remember feeling in control. Not over what happened, but over how I coped with it.
And then throughout the first year of Saoirse’s live, I’ve been practicing to stay in the moment, put my phone away, and join in the fun when I noticed being preoccupied for too long. This ment that I simply had a lot of happy moments to notice and they lasted longer than they otherwise would have.
And I haven’t even started about mindful parenting, and all the insights and techniques I take from it on a daily basis to let everyone get what they need – more or less. But let’s keep it simple and say that mindfulness itself – being present with full attention – is an enormous factor contributing to anyone’s happiness.
Factor 2: compassion.
Internationally, the attention for compassion is growing. Different from empathy or self-esteem, and much more powerful.
Compassion can be a source of enormous strength. A bridge over conflicts, a healer of pain, and an aid in dipping into shortcomings without getting crushed or drowned.
Self-compassion helps to acknowledge inner difficulties and move on – in a kind and loving manner. Long story short, it pulls me out of misery and opens me back up for the joy and reality of daily life.
Compassion for others helps you to get a better idea of their point of view. It can shorten conflicts a whole lot as it helps you relate without drowning in someone else’s drama. And then with a larger and kind perspective, you can come up with a fitting response to whatever difficulty is there.
I have done compassion exercises almost on a daily basis. With audio from Eva Potharst – the developer of Mindful with your baby, and audio from Eline Sterk – the developer of Sitting still like a frog. This year it was as important to me as mindfulness meditation. And I recommend you try it too.
Mindfulness and compassion are great, but some things it just can’t fix.
Factor 3: getting the right support.
I am not going to lie to you: sometimes I can get pretty low. I could tell you all about it but let’s just stick to the point: I got professional help. I had a wonderful therapist this year and we cleaned up some very old shit. Does that mean I’m fixed? Always happy? I wish. But I feel that I am less intensely triggered, and I am able to enjoy the here and now a whole lot more.
Mindfulness and compassion are great, but some things it just can’t fix. So if something interferes with your happiness, and you cannot resolve it yourself, get the help you need!
And getting help or support can take many shapes of forms. Maybe it is professional help like with me, but it can also be a peer group, or asking family and friends to help (more), or building up a local network, or organising time for weekly sport or yoga, or finding online resources, whatever it is that can help you to get past that hump. I did most of the things mentioned above.
But the gist of it is: ultimately nobody can do everything alone. Especially not with a baby that needs care for ten hours out of twenty four.
Factor 4: cutting back and letting go.
Jelle from SoChicken has summed it up for me: live comfortably within your means. Budget such a way that you always keep some extras. And that goes especially for energy and time. What that looks like for you? That can mean a myriad of things. Leaving on time, doing one thing at once, stopping unnecessary activities, letting go of convictions that no longer serve your family. Without time and energy, nobody is their best self. Or has room to enjoy life. It can be an uncomfortable message, especially when life is so jam-packed with obligations. And cutting some things back can come at a prize. But I believe it to be worth it.
I have had to do this many times in my life. But I have gotten the hang of it most of the time now, and I no longer have to wait until circumstances force me (hurray!). This time I already had a lean and manageable package of responsibilities when Saoirse was born. And throughout the year when I started to get overwhelmed, my partner gently reminded me of my actual responsibilities, not my imagined ones.
Here’s a classic exercise from a mindfulness training to get you started: energy givers and energy takers. It works by making a list of daily returning activities. And then for a few days you monitor which ones give you energy, which are neutral, and which cost you. You can look at factors that contribute to the giving and taking. And the next step is to see what is necessary and worthwhile, and what can use a cut or a make-over. I do this all the time in my mind, and it has made it a whole lot easier to make decisions. A good resource on this topic is Non Violent Communication as it centers around needs instead of obligations.
It can be a bit daunting but it is worth it. Because that first year?
It is never coming back!
The girls are great, aren’t they?
Factor 5: gratitude and celebration.
I’ve got the most wonderful family in the world. And I hope you have too.
Not that my family is perfect at all. But we are exactly who we are, and we love each other just the way we are. And we’re enjoying each other. Every day. And that is our focus.
It has become a habit to say to myself: that was great.
This is a wonderful sunset and just the break I needed. I love this cuddle I want to savour it. That laugh just warmed my heart. This shoulder rub is just what I needed. I miss the sauna, but this shampoo sure takes me there.
It happened to me today. I tried to get things done. Didn’t happen. So I gave up, and sat down with the kids. Just taking a break helped me to let go. I joined in the fun. The girls are great, aren’t they? I thought. Now I look back on a happy day.
Gratitude is a shortcut to happiness.
If we look through our eyelashes, more things are going right than wrong. Pretty big chance that goes for you too. Your kids grow, you love each other, you’re safe and secure. You’re hopefully healthy and you’re probably a good parent.
Gratitude can bring you back to the beauty of it all, especially when you are lost and worn out.
The negativity bias is a fact. But we can choose what we focus on. We can rebalance our perception and squeeze every drop of joy out of our lives. Our mind loves it. Our body loves it. Our family members will love it if you do.
I can’t remember who said it, but ultimately:
Gratitude is a shortcut to happiness.
And it is contagious…