How to Safely Exercise During Pregnancy

HOW TO SAFELY EXERCISE DURING PREGNANCY

Melinda Wenner Moyer

THE GIST

  • Exercising during pregnancy is generally safe and can reduce the risk for several conditions including excessive weight gain, gestational diabetes and preeclampsia.
  • Always consult with your doctor before starting any exercise routine, since certain conditions can make it more risky. 
  • Doctors recommend about 30 minutes of exercise a day — or 150 minutes a week — but no more than 45 minutes per day, which can increase your risk of overheating and dehydration. 
  • Aerobic exercise, including jogging, is safe during pregnancy, but you should be able to carry on a conversation while active. Start slowly if you rarely exercised before pregnancy or are obese.
  • Avoid inherently risky activities, such as scuba or sky diving, contact sports, horseback riding, gymnastics or downhill skiing. Hot yoga and hot pilates are also unadvisable since they can increase body temperature too much and endanger the fetus.
  • If you notice warning signs of early labor or pregnancy complications, such as vaginal bleeding, breathing problems, or painful contractions, stop and contact your doctor.

Both times I’ve been pregnant, I’ve felt conflicted about exercise. On the one hand, I was often tired and nauseous; napping felt way more appealing than sweating. On the other hand, I wanted to do what was best for my baby and ward off extra pregnancy pounds. So I began hunting for the perfect prenatal workout. I tried what felt like everything — elliptical machines, yoga, power walking and even weightlifting, which elicited a number of concerned comments from gym-goers to “take it easy.”

According to Dr. Margie Davenport, Ph.D., director of the Program for Pregnancy and Postpartum Health at the University of Alberta in Canada, the belief that it’s dangerous to exercise during pregnancy is common — but it’s wrong. “We recommend beginning exercise or continuing to exercise as soon as you become pregnant,” she said. In most uncomplicated pregnancies, exercise is safe and tied to a reduced risk for many complications including excessive weight gain, gestational diabetes, preeclampsia, back pain and depression. For anyone worried about the safety of exercise during pregnancy, like those judgey gym-goers, Dr. Davenport and her colleagues recently published a systematic review in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, which analyzed 46 studies, and concluded that prenatal exercise does not increase the risk of miscarriage or death of the fetus.

The research I consulted, along with the obstetrician and maternal-fetal medicine specialist I talked with for this guide, agreed with Dr. Davenport: In most circumstances, exercise is good for both mom and baby, although there are important things to keep in mind. 

WHAT TO DO

  • Understand the differences between safe and unsafe exercise

Most of the time, exercising during pregnancy is safe, but nevertheless “it’s really important that women speak with their health care provider to see if they have any contraindications, or medical reasons that they shouldn’t,” Dr. Davenport said.

According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, women with certain health conditions — including certain heart or lung diseases, cervical issues, pregnancy with multiples, persistent bleeding during the second or third trimester, preeclampsia or anemia — shouldn’t exercise while pregnant at all.

ACOG’s guidelines also note that if you have certain conditions or habits, such as heavy smoking, high blood pressure, overactive thyroid or are morbidly obese or underweight, consult with your doctor before exercising, because the benefits of exercise may not outweigh the potential risks.

  • Recognize how exercise can help you

Exercising during pregnancy isn’t just about keeping off extra pounds (although it also does that). According to a recent review published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, pregnant women who exercised in various ways had about a 40 percent reduced risk for gestational diabetes, gestational hypertension and preeclampsia. Studies also suggest that women who exercise during pregnancy are less likely to become depressed and develop less severe low back and pelvic pain. Regular exercise can help with labor and post-delivery recovery, too, by reducing the odds of having an instrument-assisted delivery — a delivery in which forceps or a vacuum device is used — and lowering the risk for urinary incontinence after birth. 

  • Take precautions before and during exercise — and avoid risky types

To reduce the chance of developing low blood sugar, you should eat before exercising, said Dr. Raul Artal, M.D., a professor and chairman emeritus of the department of obstetrics, gynecology and women’s health at the St. Louis University School of Medicine. Smoothies, fruits, nuts or whole-grain crackers are good choices. Drink water to stay hydrated, too, and don’t exercise outdoors at temperatures above 90 degrees. That’s because heat stress in the first trimester, such as from saunas and hot tubs, has been linked with birth defects of the brain, nervous system or spinal cord. According to recent research, though, exercising when it’s not really hot out does not increase core body temperature enough to cause problems. In fact, research suggests that exercising during pregnancy is linked with a reduced risk for neural tube defects.

ACOG recommends that pregnant women avoid the following activities, which could pose health risks:

  • Contact sports such as ice hockey, boxing, soccer and basketball
    • Activities with a high risk of falling, such as downhill skiing, water skiing, surfing, off-road cycling, gymnastics and horseback riding
    • Scuba diving
    • Sky diving
    • Hot yoga or hot pilates 
  • Choose activities you can do regularly

“Oftentimes, women think that exercise means going to a gym, and it doesn’t,” said Dr. Diana Ramos, M.D., M.P.H., an obstetrician and medical director for reproductive health at the Los Angeles Public Health Department. “It’s as simple as walking.”

Other activities ACOG recommends include swimming, stationary cycling, yoga, pilates and low-impact aerobics such as jogging and pool aerobics. What’s most important is that you choose an activity that you’ll be able to do regularly. My favorite prenatal workout ended up being one I did in my basement — where I was conveniently shielded from intrusive bystanders and just a few steps away from the essential re-fueling station (aka my kitchen).

ACOG’s guidelines recommend that pregnant women exercise for 150 minutes a week, or about 30 minutes a day, five days a week. They caution against exercising for more than 45 minutes at a time because doing so can increase the risk for low blood sugar, which can make you lightheaded or dizzy. If you didn’t exercise much before you got pregnant, or you are obese, it’s O.K. to start with as little as 10 minutes of activity a day and “build it up at a rate that is going to be sustainable,” Dr. Davenport said. Dr. Davenport also pointed out that some activity is better than none at all — exercising for fewer than 150 minutes a week still provides some benefits.

Aerobic exercise, such as jogging, is safe for women who were active before they got pregnant. Guidelines recommend that women be able to pass the “talk test,” meaning they can carry on a conversation while exercising. More intense exercise may also be O.K., but Dr. Gregory Davies, M.D., a professor and chair of the Division of Maternal-Fetal Medicine at Queen’s University in Canada, pointed out that very little research has been done to address this question. “Most, if not all, our knowledge about safety and pregnancy benefits is based on research protocols that reflected moderate exercise, at most,” he said. The same goes for strength training, so if you’re going to lift weights, don’t overdo it. A 2015 trialfound that pregnant women can safely lift 10 pounds or less, but studies haven’t evaluated the safety of heavier weight-lifting. 

  • Remember that your body is changing

During pregnancy, a woman’s joints become more relaxed, so it’s important not to overstretch, Dr. Davenport said. It’s also wise to avoid activities that require jumping or quick directional changes, which can stress the joints, too. Balance becomes less stable after the first trimester, which is why it’s also important to avoid activities that require careful balance, such as skiing. To stay safe, invest in supportive shoes — don’t go for your daily walk in flip-flops — because “you really need the right support for your feet,” Dr. Ramos said.

ACOG also suggests avoiding exercises that require you to lie on your back during pregnancy. Doing so can restrict blood flow to the heart, which might also restrict blood flow to the fetus. Usually, if this happens, you will feel light-headed and nauseous, Dr. Davenport said, which you can take as a sign to sit up.

WHEN TO WORRY

According to ACOG, women who experience any warning signs while exercising such as vaginal bleeding, regular painful contractions, amniotic fluid leakage, difficulty breathing, dizziness, headache, chest pain, muscle weakness, or calf pain or swelling should stop and contact their health provider immediately.

SOURCES

Dr. Margie Davenport, Ph.D., associate professor of kinesiology, sport and recreation and director of the Program for Pregnancy and Postpartum Health at the University of Alberta, Dec. 5, 2018

Dr. Diana Ramos, M.D., M.P.H., medical director for reproductive health for the Los Angeles Public Health Department, Dec. 5, 2018

Dr. Raul Artal, M.D., professor and chairman emeritus of the department of obstetrics, gynecology, and women’s health at the St. Louis University School of Medicine, Dec. 6, 2018

Dr. Gregory Davies, M.D., professor and chair of the division of maternal-fetal medicine at Queen’s University in Canada, Dec. 10, 2018

Prenatal exercise is not associated with fetal mortality: a systematic review and meta-analysis,” British Journal of Sports Medicine, October 2018

“Impact of prenatal exercise on maternal harms, labour and delivery outcomes: a systematic review and meta-analysis,” British Journal of Sports Medicine, October 2018

“Effectiveness of exercise interventions in the prevention of excessive gestational weight gain and postpartum weight retention: a systematic review and meta-analysis,” British Journal of Sports Medicine, November 2018

Prenatal exercise for the prevention of gestational diabetes mellitus and hypertensive disorders of pregnancy: a systematic review and meta-analysis,” British Journal of Sports Medicine, November 2018 “Exercise during pregnancy and the postpartum period,” UpToDate.com, November 2018

The Foods to Avoid When You’re Pregnant

THE FOODS TO AVOID WHEN YOU’RE PREGNANT

Rachel Meltzer Warren

THE GIST

  • Pregnant women are more susceptible to foodborne illness than most people because their immune systems are weakened. 
  • Microbes like salmonella, campylobacter and Toxoplasma gondii can be harmful to a pregnancy, but experts are particularly concerned about Listeria monocytogenes, a bacterium that can cause infection that can have devastating consequences. 
  • To minimize listeria risk, avoid foods most likely to carry it, such as certain types of processed meats (unless they’ve been thoroughly heated), smoked fish, soft cheeses and unpasteurized milk and dairy products. 
  • Although research on moderate alcohol consumption during pregnancy is mixed, experts have said that abstinence is the safest bet.
  • Unless your doctor suggests otherwise, you can keep your morning coffee, as long as you limit yourself to 200 milligrams of caffeine or less per day. 
  • Worried you ate the wrong thing? Don’t stress. Discuss it with your doctor, who can give you tips on what, if anything, to do next. 

WHAT TO DO

Take care with certain types of processed meats

  • There are dozens of bacteria, viruses and parasites that can linger in foods and cause illness. Experts are particularly concerned about listeriosis — a bacterial infection that can cause seemingly mild or even nonexistent symptoms in pregnant women, but which can be especially dangerous to an unborn baby — including causing miscarriage, preterm labor or stillbirth. 

Listeria infections during pregnancy are rare. Between 2009 and 2011, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were just 227 cases in pregnant women in the United States. But research suggests that pregnant women may be up to 20 times more vulnerable to a listeria infection than the rest of the population. 

“Your immunity is altered when you’re pregnant, and that makes you more susceptible to serious consequences of foodborne illness,” said Dr. Zoe Kiefer, M.D., M.P.H., an ob-gyn at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. Nearly one-quarter of all listeria cases in pregnant women in the United States result in fetal loss or death of the newborn, according to the C.D.C. 

Listeria outbreaks tend to occur in certain ready-to-eat meat products such as hot dogs, sausages, and store-bought, meat-based salads such as those made with chicken or ham. Cold cuts and deli meats are a common source, too. In fact, on April 17, 2019, the C.D.C. reported that at least eight hospitalizations and one death were linked to a listeria outbreak among sliced deli meats and cheeses at several deli counters across four states. Other outbreaks have been caused by refrigerated pâtés, meat spreads, smoked seafood, carpaccio, produce like cantaloupe and lettuce, and dairy products like ice cream and soft cheeses (more on cheese below). 

Instead of cutting these high-risk foods from your diet completely, Mary Saucier Choate, M.S., R.D.N., a food safety field specialist at the University of New Hampshire Extension, recommended cooking foods that can be eaten hot to an internal temperature of 165 degrees, or until steaming, since high temperatures kill the bacteria. A hot open-faced turkey sandwich or a fully cooked hot dog would do the trick. Or, consider making your own alternatives, such as freshly prepared salmon salad (made from canned salmon), egg salad or a peanut butter and banana sandwich.

Experts have said to keep fruits and veggies (with the exception of sprouts; more on that below), in your diet unless there’s an outbreak. Cooking produce is another way to minimize potential risk, said Dr. Haley Oliver, Ph.D., an associate professor of food science at Purdue University.

In general, keeping kitchen surfaces clean, thoroughly washing fruits and veggies and properly storing them (like keeping cut melon refrigerated) can help keep you protected. 

  • Be flexible with fish choices

Fish is packed with nutrition and is an important addition to many people’s diets, especially if you’re expecting. It’s not only high in protein and essential vitamins and minerals, but supplies healthy omega-3 fatty acids that aid in your brain and heart health, and in your baby’s brain and retina development. 

That doesn’t make fish an all-you-can-eat food when you’re pregnant, though. Most fish contain some level of mercury, a metal that can cause brain damage as well as vision and hearing problems for babies exposed in the womb. But certain types tend to contain more mercury than others. Large, long-living fish like bigeye tuna, swordfish, shark, king mackerel and orange roughy have the highest mercury levels and are best avoided. 

Federal health agencies recommend that pregnant women eat two to three servings (8 to 12 ounces) of fish per week, including a variety of low-mercury fish including cod, flounder, salmon, sardines, shrimp or canned light tuna; or one serving per week of moderate-mercury fish like halibut, snapper or albacore tuna. 

There is debate, however, over whether some types of tuna are safe for pregnant women to eat at all. In 2014, Consumer Reports analyzed Food and Drug Administration data and found that while canned light tuna on average was low in mercury, the amount varied greatly from can to can, with some containing unsafe levels of the toxin. Since there’s no way to tell which can is which, or which type of tuna the can contains, the group recommends avoiding all types of tuna while you’re pregnant. Talk with your doctor about the best diet plan for you.

  • Take care with raw foods

Raw fish known to harbor parasites (such as the anisakiasis worm, which can cause abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea) are typically frozen before they’re sold for consumption as sushi in the United States. Freezing can also halt the growth of bacteria like salmonella, which may be present. 

But freezing is not foolproof against foodborne illness, explained Dr. Christina A. Mireles DeWitt, Ph.D., an associate professor of food science and technology at Oregon State University. And it doesn’t prevent cross contamination. Most people’s immune systems can handle the temporary G.I. distress resulting from eating a contaminated food, said Dr. DeWitt, but pregnant women and their babies are at higher risk for complications (as are young children and the elderly or immune-compromised), so it’s best to avoid uncooked fish, such as sushi and raw oysters, when you’re pregnant.

It’s also best to avoid raw or undercooked meat. While most pregnant women are advised to avoid cleaning their cat’s litter boxes due to the increased risk of infection from Toxoplasma gondii — a parasite that thrives in cat feces — about half of the yearly toxoplasmosis infections in the United States result from eating food. Common sources include undercooked pork, lamb and wild game meat; as well as raw fruits and vegetables (which could contain infected soil).

Consult the F.D.A.’s “heat chart” for instructions on how to ensure your meat is fully cooked. And wash your hands with soap and warm water after touching soil, sand, raw meat, cat litter or unwashed vegetables. The F.D.A. also recommends thoroughly washing and, if possible, peeling, fruits and veggies before eating.

  • Abstain from alcohol

While some studies suggest that light-to-moderate drinking — defined as no more than one drink per day for women — is no big deal during pregnancy, there’s enough evidence to the contrary for many experts to agree that no amount of alcohol is safe. A 2013 review of 34 studies, for example, concluded that women who drank up to three drinks per week throughout their pregnancies were more likely to have children with behavioral issues like poor impulse control or difficulty interacting with other kids than women who didn’t drink at all.

Drinking during pregnancy has been linked to an increased risk of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, such as fetal alcohol syndrome, which can lead to facial abnormalities, improper growth and intellectual disabilities. A 2018 study published in the journal JAMA estimated that as many as 5 percent of children in the United States have an F.A.S.D. 

“We really don’t know what amount is safe,” said Dr. Kiefer. So for now, skip the booze.

  • Avoid unpasteurized drinks

Pasteurization, or the process of heating foods to kill harmful bacteria, has made many foods safe for pregnant women to consume. But be on the lookout for milks, juices, dairy and other products that haven’t gone through the process.

Raw, unpasteurized milk can harbor germs like listeria, salmonella, campylobacter or cryptosporidium. In 2014, the American Academy of Pediatrics said that since no studies have found any benefits of drinking unpasteurized milk, pregnant women who drink milk and milk products should only consume those that have been pasteurized. (The same advice goes for infants and children.)

Most juices sold in the United States are pasteurized, including all that are shelf-stable. But some refrigerated juices sold at certain types of stores like high-end chains, local organic juice joints, corner bodegas or farm stands may not be. If you don’t see a label stating a drink has been pasteurized, ask whether it has been. If they’re not sure if it has, skip it.

  • Be choosy about cheeses

As with refrigerated meat and unpasteurized dairy products, cheese can harbor listeria and other pathogens. But unlike the “cook it or skip it” recommendation for meat products, the advice on cheese isn’t always straightforward. 

In general, the softer — and wetter — a cheese gets, the more you have to worry about pathogens surviving and growing. Bacteria like moisture, said Dr. Dennis D’Amico, Ph.D., a professor of food microbiology at the University of Connecticut, so pathogens tend to grow on soft cheeses more quickly than they grow on harder ones. 

“As you go from a mozzarella with high moisture to something like a cheddar or a Monterey Jack, the risk is starting to go down,” said Dr. D’Amico. Dry, hard cheeses such as a traditional Parmigiano or a Pecorino Romano have virtually zero risk of foodborne illness, said Dr. D’Amico. 

Soft cheeses made with unpasteurized milk are by far the riskiest: C.D.C. estimates suggest they’re as much as 160 times more likely to cause foodborne listeria infection than soft cheeses made with pasteurized milk. But even pasteurized soft cheeses are not risk-free: A 2018 C.D.C. report revealed that there were 12 times more listeria outbreaks linked to pasteurized soft cheeses between 2007 and 2014 than there were between 1998 and 2006. One such outbreak in 2015 hospitalized 28 people — six of whom were pregnant. Latin-style cheeses, like Queso Fresco, have been implicated in more outbreaks than other types. 

While the F.D.A. says it’s O.K. for pregnant women to eat soft cheeses made with pasteurized milk, Dr. D’Amico and other experts have suggested that pregnant women consider avoiding them to be safe.

  • If you drink coffee, stick to one cup

Decades of research has linked consumption of coffee and other sources of caffeine to increased risks for miscarriage, preterm birth and low birth weight babies. But the research isn’t clear on how much is safe to consume. Most public health groups, including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, agree that limiting caffeine to no more than 200 milligrams per day will not majorly increase such risks. 

“I tell my patients it’s O.K. to have one cup of coffee daily,” said Dr. Kiefer, no matter your stage of pregnancy. 

But caffeine content can vary depending on what you drink. At Starbucks, a shot of espresso has 75 milligrams of caffeine; whereas its Tall-sized brewed coffee drinks have closer to 190 to 280 milligrams. The English breakfast tea I ordered at the coffee shop that day probably had around 50 milligrams. 

Also keep in mind that caffeine can pop up in unassuming places, such as in decaf coffee, colas, iced teas, energy drinks, kombucha and chocolate. 

  • Avoid raw eggs

Eggs can carry salmonella, a bacteria that can cause infections resulting in fever, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and dehydration. And if you’re infected during pregnancy, symptoms can be so severe that they may lead to serious complications for both you and baby.

Salmonella can’t withstand high heat, so eggs cooked to 160 degrees or more will be safe to eat. Cook eggs thoroughly until the whites and yolks are firm and no clear or runny sections remain. 

Most liquid eggs sold in refrigerated cartons are pasteurized and likely won’t have the potential to make you sick. Pasteurized shell eggs probably can’t make you sick either, though these are harder to find. Also remember that raw eggs can be found in seemingly innocuous foods and drinks, too, such as Hollandaise sauce, Caesar dressing, eggnog, raw cookie dough, aioli, meringue, mousse and tiramisu. 

After handling raw eggs, wash your hands and disinfect surfaces they’ve touched to prevent cross contamination. 

  • Go nuts

Past A.A.P. guidelines have advised pregnant women to avoid eating peanuts — and to delay introducing them to high-risk children (such as those whose parents have allergies) until age 3 — so as to prevent peanut allergies in their children. But as peanut allergies increased despite this advice, and more research emerged, the A.A.P. rescinded that recommendation in 2008 (and reaffirmed their stance in 2019). 

However some pregnant women still haven’t gotten that memo. 

If anything, newer research suggests that allergen exposure may reduce food allergy risk. A 2014 study of more than 8,000 women and their offspring published in JAMA Pediatrics, for example, found that moms who ate peanuts and tree nuts (like almonds or walnuts) five or more times per week during, shortly before or shortly after their pregnancies had kids who were 69 percent less likely to develop nut allergies than those whose moms ate them less than once per month. 

That’s good news, since nuts are good sources of the protein, healthy fats and vitamins and minerals that pregnant women need. 

  • Avoid sprouts

All raw sprouts — including alfalfa, mung bean, radish and clover—are risky for pregnant women. “Seeds may become contaminated by bacteria in animal manure in the field or during the postharvest stage,” said Choate, the food safety field specialist at the University of New Hampshire Extension. These bacteria can grow to high levels during sprouting, and are impossible to wash out. To play it safe, ask for your sandwich with no alfalfa sprouts, and for the bean sprouts to be left off your pad Thai.

  • Review the recalls

Every few days it seems there’s another healthy food we’re told to avoid due to an outbreak, from romaine lettuce to tahini to sliced melon. To stay on top of the latest news, sign up to get notified about alerts and recalls from both the F.D.A. and the Department of Agriculture by email here. You’ll also get an email when the recall is over, so you won’t unnecessarily need to limit your diet for longer than you have to. 

WHEN TO WORRY

Ate something on the “do not eat” list? Don’t freak out. The chances that one slip-up will damage your pregnancy are relatively slim, said Dr. Kiefer. “If a patient calls me and says, ‘I had a ham sandwich,’ I try to reassure them that they’re probably O.K.” 

You do need to worry, however, if you experience symptoms that could signal actual food poisoning, such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fever, chills or dizziness; or any signs of preterm labor such as cramping or bleeding. If you have any of these symptoms or if you’re unable to keep fluids down for more than a few hours at a time, call your doctor or head to the E.R. so you can be monitored for hydration and treated as needed. 

As for that before-you-knew-you-were-pregnant party night, bring it up with your doctor. While experts have said that no amount of alcohol is safe, one isolated exposure to alcohol may not cause problems for you or your baby, said Dr. Kiefer. Talk with your doctor about concerns you have regarding drinking at any point in pregnancy, especially if you’ve had any significant alcohol intake since your last period. 

SOURCES

Dr. Zoe Kiefer, M.D., M.P.H., an ob-gyn at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, January 2019

Mary Saucier Choate, M.S., R.D.N., a food safety field specialist at the University of New Hampshire Extension, January 2019

Dr. Christina A. Mireles DeWitt, Ph.D., an associate professor in food science and technology and director of the Oregon State University Seafood Research and Education Center, January 2019

Dr. Dennis D’Amico, Ph.D., a professor of food microbiology at the University of Connecticut, January 2019

Dr. Haley Oliver, Ph.D., an associate professor of food science at Purdue University, March 2019

“A.C.O.G. Practice Advisory: Update on Seafood Consumption During Pregnancy,”The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, March 2019

“Talking About Juice Safety: What You Need to Know,” Food and Drug Administration, March 2019

“Consumption of Raw or Unpasteurized Milk Products by Pregnant Women and Children,” American Academy of Pediatrics Policy Statement, January 2014

Listeriosis Outbreaks Associated With Soft Cheeses, United States, 1998-2014,” Emerging Infectious Diseases journal and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, June 2018

“Cheese Microbial Risk Assessments — A Review,” Asian Australasian Journal of Animal Science, March 2016

“The Effects of Early Nutritional Interventions on the Development of Atopic Disease in Infants and Children: The Role of Maternal Dietary Restriction, Breastfeeding, Hydrolyzed Formulas and Timing of Introduction of Allergenic Foods,” Pediatrics, March 2019

“Listeria (Listeriosis),”Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, March 2019

Dealing With Interfering Grandparents

DEALING WITH INTERFERING GRANDPARENTS

Carla Bruce-Eddings

How to navigate a challenging relationship.

Parenting can often feel like trying to survive amid barely controlled chaos, so having a wise, experienced grandparent to help out can be lifesaving. But if that grandparent has trouble adhering to basic boundaries, it can feel as if the chaos has maddeningly multiplied.

When families expand, there is a significant shift in roles and responsibilities — one that is easy to make light of until conflicts emerge. Frustrating as these conflicts may be, it’s important to keep in mind that lots of families experience them. Joanne Gottlieb, L.C.S.W., a New York-based licensed clinical social worker, cited religious practices, disciplinary styles, technology and diet as some of the most common areas for intergenerational parenting conflict.

“I would place ‘intrusive grandparents’ in the general category of challenges that adults and couples face in managing relationships with their respective families of origin, and with parents in particular,” she said. “This is a constant theme of therapy.”

So how to best navigate the convergence of these new roles so that everyone feels respected and valued?

  • The moment you notice a negative pattern emerging, deal with it quickly. Don’t wait until you are ready to tear your hair out to approach Mom or Mom-in-Law.
  • Choose a time when everyone is calm to discuss conflicts — and remember that your parent or parent-in-law has your best interests at heart, and your child’s too. Put the child’s needs first – not your own.
  • Bear in mind that child-rearing advice often changes from one generation to the next, so there are bound to be some ideas that a grandparent subscribes to — most likely ones that you were raised with — that you find outdated now.

It’s vital to remember, in the thick of it, why grandparents’ presence in your child’s life is so crucial. “Grandparent love and knowledge is essential to a child’s self-esteem and self-identity,” said Roslyn Hunter, L.C.S.W., a psychotherapist in New York. “They need to see themselves as part of something larger than their parents. They need to find their place and feel part of a family that has a history.”

To try to resolve conflicts, therapists suggest you should say what you need to say — clearly, respectfully and, if necessary, more than once. Meagan Hammerbacher, mom to a 3- and 5-year-old, is committed to clear and consistent communication with her mother-in-law — even if it hasn’t yielded the desired results just yet.

“I have asked my mother-in-law multiple times to please refrain from giving my children sweet treats and sugary drinks, and to consider the food that she generally feeds my children. Sadly, she rarely listens to my requests,” she said. Enlisting her husband to join the discussion was difficult at first, but she encouraged him to attend a few therapy sessions to feel more comfortable about opposing his mother, and now they are on the same page.

Such harmony between partners is the ideal first step in approaching tough conversations with a parent or parent-in-law, but it has not led to harmony in this case. “In all honesty I do not see the situation being resolved because his mother is of a different era,” Hammerbacher said. “I have realized that she is never going to listen to me and follow my directive, and it is not worth the constant fight with my partner because he does not want to fight with his mother.”

Until she feels ready to re-approach this conversation, Hammerbacher has decided to back off: “The only other resolution is to teach my children about healthy eating so they can advocate for themselves,” she said. “It is more likely that she will listen to my children when they tell her ‘Grandma, that food is not good for me!’ ”

Other parents live with their frustrations for the sake of the overall relationship. For Tanya Copenhaver, 41, continual conversations with her mother about her 4-year-old have been stressful, but she has decided she can deal with the dynamic. “I often feel judged by my mother when it comes to my parenting,” she said. “I used to let these things really bother me, and often, I still find myself starting to defend myself.” But she has come to realize that her mother truly does have the best intentions, misguided as her efforts sometimes feel.

“Often I bite my tongue and remind myself she means well and loves my daughter dearly,” Copenhaver said. “And I remind myself that the benefits of having my mom so involved in our lives far outweighs the frustration I feel.”

Grandparents find navigating this relationship tricky, too. Keesha Davis has strong opinions when it comes to her 1-year-old granddaughter, but over the course of her first year, she has intuited the best times to speak up and to remain silent. “I’m still adjusting … I’ve learned to just be quiet, observe and chime in when I really think I should chime in,” she said. Recently she had a disagreement with her daughter and daughter-in-law about giving their daughter apple juice while babysitting. While the mothers stood firm — no juice — Davis told me that they are open to advice in other areas. “I think they’re coming to terms with saying, ‘You know what, my mother is very logical when it comes to certain things,’ ” she said. “I’ve raised kids, I babysit kids. … So they do sit back and say, ‘Wait a minute. What she is saying is correct and we can benefit from listening.’ ”

Try to bear in mind that each generation has its own parenting beliefs, and parenting advice has changed over the years. Today’s grandparents put their babies to sleep on their stomachs and used crib bumpers — practices that are no longer followed. Parental bans on corporal punishment can also be perplexing for grandparents, many of whom adhered to the “spare the rod” justification for spanking.

In these cases, making your stance crystal clear from the start is of utmost importance, Gottlieb said. “The parent needs to communicate clearly that physical discipline is not permitted,” she said. “If the parent is not sure that the grandparent, or any caregiver, will respect this wish, then I would advise that the parent not leave their child alone with that person.” Try to avoid long explanations or arguments; your rationale can be as short as a simple reminder that cultural norms have changed, so much so that a child’s mentioning in school that he was hit could prompt a call to child protective services.

“I would say that one of the frequent issues is cultural, particularly for immigrant families,” Hunter said. “Grandparents expect parents to follow cultural traditions from the old country. Parents often resist because old traditions are not practical for modern life.” In these cases, it’s important to avoid the instinct to be dismissive or overly critical of a practice that you may not understand. After all, your parent raised you. Talking through the reasons for your parenting decisions, and listening to grandparents talk about their own philosophies, may not lead to a quick solution, but it will help promote understanding and reduce discord.

Hunter reminds parents that they have the final word. “It’s important to remember that grandparents do not actually hold more power than the parent — even if the grandparent in question is providing some kind of support,” she said. If a parent asserting herself to advocate for her child jeopardizes the relationship with the grandparent, or vice versa, that is a different issue. “In either case the child’s needs are not being put first,” Hunter said. “The adult’s needs are being put first with the child being used as a tool.”

Parenting is a lifelong job; it doesn’t end when a child has entered adulthood. You are charged with creating a safe, nurturing environment for your child, as well as learning from the wisdom and, yes, missteps of your parents. A three-generation dynamic should feel fluid and mutually supportive, especially during times of conflict, experts stressed. Demonstrating positive examples of communication and compromise with a parent or parent-in-law will help your child navigate her own approach to problem solving, as these are skills that “make emotions and the world feel manageable,” Gottlieb added.

Finally, it always helps to take a deep breath and remember that your child has different needs from the other people in her life. Despite Tanya Copenhaver’s occasional misunderstandings with her mother, she is willing to turn a blind eye from time to time for the sake of offering her daughter a crucial childhood benefit: “Grandma’s house isn’t home, and grandparents get to have a different relationship with our children than we do,” she said. “When I’m not there, it’s O.K. if my daughter eats an extra candy or gets to eat applesauce, graham crackers and a marshmallow for lunch. Those are memories she will have forever.”

Remembering her own loving relationship with her grandmother, she added: “I can only hope that my daughter gets to experience that special bond with my mom.”

How to Be a Supportive Partner During Pregnancy (and Beyond)

HOW TO BE A SUPPORTIVE PARTNER DURING PREGNANCY (AND BEYOND)

David Howard

THE GIST

  • Numerous studies have shown the benefits of having a partner who is supportive or perceived to be supportive. Conversely, having a partner who is perceived to be unsupportive is a predictor of depression and anxiety both before and after a child’s birth.
  • Start early. Being a supportive partner begins in the months before delivery, when an expectant mother’s anxiety levels may be rising about giving birth and the changes a baby brings.
  • Make a plan for your supportive role both during and after the baby’s arrival, but be flexible. There’s no script for how things are going to go.
  • New research indicates that supporters may need support of their own: They can feel isolated or rejected but question the legitimacy of their experiences.

If you’ve watched any movies with birth scenes, you may have noticed that the partner’s role often fits into one of two categories: He — and it’s always a he — is a comically inept second fiddle, fainting just when he’s needed most, or else absent entirely, inhaling a cigar in a nearby pub. 

These dated archetypes exist for a reason. What actually comprises a supportive partner has only come into focus in recent years, as fathers and same-sex partners have become more central to the birth and all that comes after. But the research is resoundingly clear: A strong mate makes a difference. Having a supportive partner is good for everyone involved, including the baby.

The scientific literature is less clear on what specific strategies best support pregnant women — it’s tough in a clinical setting to isolate the benefits of, say, a well-timed hug or a promise to handle 3 a.m. feedings. But the three researchers I spoke to distilled their studies into some real-world advice.

WHAT TO DO

  • Connect with each other well before the due date.

This should be even more of a priority than buying the right stroller. “The focus is so much on practical needs,” said Dr. Pam Pilkington, Ph.D., a perinatal psychologist who practices at the Centre for Perinatal Psychology in Melbourne, Australia, and founder of Partners to Parents, a resource site developed by a team of researchers and psychologists at Australian Catholic University to provide guidance for partners. “During pregnancy, people perhaps don’t focus on the couple relationship, or supporting each other emotionally as much as they could.”

In practical terms, this means talking often and openly about how you’re both feeling — anxious, excited, uncertain, whatever it is, Dr. Pilkington said — then validating each other, making sure you both feel heard and accepted. An example: After a month at home, a new mother might say, “I feel trapped here all day while you’re at work.” The supportive answer here is not, “I need to work so we can pay the bills. Why don’t you get your mother to come help?” Rather, a validating answer would be: “I’m sorry that you’re feeling pinned in place. It sounds like you’re missing seeing your friends at the office.” 

Trying to build mirroring-and-validating skills during the relative calm before your child’s arrival will help cement your bond for the challenges to come, Dr. Pilkington said.

  • Make your good intentions known.

Making yourself of service to another is what’s known in scientific vernacular as “offering social support.” Researchers call it a mysterious force that has tangible benefits. “There’s a magic about social support,” said Dr. Christine Dunkel Schetter, Ph.D., a professor of psychology and psychiatry at UCLA who has studied its effect on stressful situations, including pregnancies. “And the magic is that when it’s really working in these kinds of situations, it’s about things that take place between two people. And it’s about what one person says to the other, or does, that makes them feel better.”

Part of the magic of social support?Even when an expectant mother merely perceives that she has a supportive partner, she’s more likely to come through pregnancy happy and healthy, research shows. Studies have variously found that partner support is associated with better birth outcomes and lower levels of distress and depression among both mothers and infants.

But follow-up is key, too, said Dr. Dunkel Schetter. If you don’t actually come through on a promise to assume half of the diaper-changing duties, the benefits of perceived support quickly trail off.

Sometimes, supportive partners will learn that the best kinds of support are nonverbal — offering a hug during a low emotional ebb. And the support should be offered unconditionally. “The person giving it can’t say, ‘Now you owe me, you’re obligated, I’ve done so much for you,’ ” said Dr. Dunkel Schetter.

CenteringPregnancy, a program developed by the Yale School of Nursing, provides social support instruction, among other services, in a group setting for women and their partners; it’s now available in health-care facilities around the United States. (You can find a nearby location on the website.)

  • Take a birthing class — but be open-minded when the day arrives.

Classes like the Bradley Method, which teaches that childbirth can be managed through deep breathing and the support of a partner or labor coach, can be helpful in making you feel more prepared, and offering a sense of what to expect. But Dr. Pilkington pointed out that birth is not the same as being a cast member in a play. The baby sometimes rewrites the script. Things take unexpected turns, or the mother’s preferences before going into labor might change 12 hours in. The partner should avoid rigid thinking about how it was supposed to go, and instead help the mother roll with whatever’s happening and support her choices along the way, Dr. Pilkington said.

  • Have a plan for the weeks after the baby arrives…

Specifically, the partner can draw up an action plan in which he or she commits to executing certain helpful tasks. Maybe it’s late-night feedings if the mother is going to pump breast milk or your baby is on formula. Maybe it’s a daily break that the mom can count on, like taking the baby out for a walk so she can nap or take a bath, said Dr. Pilkington.

  • … But be flexible.

Planning to do those 3 a.m. feedings is one thing. The searing exhaustion that kicks in after four weeks of doing that is another. During your child’s early life, it’s best to expect some meltdowns. (The baby will cry sometimes, too.) Revisit the plan anytime based on whatever challenges you might face at each stage of your baby’s life. It’s O.K. to ask for extra support from friends and family, Dr. Pilkington said. Both parents can use a break in the first couple of months of their baby’s life.  

  • Know your role with feeding.

One task the mother generally handles alone is breastfeeding. But a 2015 studyled by the University of Ontario Institute of Technology suggested that a partner’s active involvement —learning how breastfeeding works and providing encouragement — leads to “significant improvements” in breastfeeding duration. Then think of simple, commonsense ways to step up: Helping the mother stay hydrated by offering a glass of water, bringing healthy snacks and providing a comfortable environment, Dr. Pilkington said.

For parents who can’t breastfeed or choose not to, Dr. Pilkington says it’s important to remember they haven’t failed. “How parents feed their infant is a personal choice that should be based on their specific situation,” she said. If the mother is pumping, you can help maintain the equipment and offer to bottle-feed using the milk. Parents feeding their baby with a bottle — whether it’s formula or breast milk — can split overnight duties, one taking the 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. shift, the other holding down the 2 a.m. to 7 a.m. slot, for example. Partners using formula can make sure there are adequate supplies on hand at all times and know how to mix it. Some formulas can be premixed and stored in the fridge for up to 24 hours, which could save an exhausted mom from having to drowsily scoop powder in the small hours of the night.

  • Expect that your sex life will change — for a while, at least.

This is a biological imperative, so expect the temperature to be dialed down in the marital bed post-birth (for a duration that depends on the circumstances of the delivery; consult a professional). And even after you’re medically cleared, that doesn’t mean you’ll feel the same or have much energy for sex early on. Make a point to seek out alternate forms of intimacy, like hand-holding and cuddling, Dr. Pilkington said. The key, again, is to maintain an emotional connection and strong lines of communication.

  • Look for signs of your own stress, and act on them.

The psychological effect on partners after a baby’s arrival is mostly a black hole in the scientific realm. Dr. Pilkington noted that only 19 of the 120 recent studies around pregnancy touched on outcomes for fathers or partners, and researchers openly acknowledge the need for more research. But the few studies that have been done show that fathers can struggle to navigate this interlude. Dr. Zoe Darwin, Ph.D., a lecturer in maternal health at the University of Leeds in the U.K. who has conducted some early inquiries in this area, found that men often feel stressed and detached but want to keep the spotlight on the mother and child. “The research that we’ve done,” she said, “found that although some of the men we spoke with felt excluded by maternity services, and had experienced significant stress in this period, they often questioned the legitimacy of their experiences and their entitlement to support.” If you feel yourself struggling, let your partner know, and consult a caregiver.


WHEN TO WORRY

If you’re struggling with depression or anxiety, you may need more than a hug or the sage words of a parenting class. Seek professional help from a counselor.

SOURCES

Dr. Pam Pilkington, Ph.D., perinatal psychologist who practices at the Centre for Perinatal Psychology in Melbourne, Australia.

Dr. Christine Dunkel Schetter, Ph.D., professor of psychology and psychiatry at UCLA, expert on stress processes in pregnancy

Dr. Zoe Darwin, Ph.D., lecturer in maternal health at the University of Leeds in the U.K. who specializes in mental health and wellbeing during and after pregnancy.

My Marriage Has a Third Wheel: Our Child

MY MARRIAGE HAS A THIRD WHEEL: OUR CHILD

Jancee Dunn

Jancee Dunn, left, with her daughter Sylvie and husband Tom.Creditvia Jancee Dunn

An only child can make the relationship between Mom and Dad uniquely complicated.

Here’s a typical weeknight scenario in our household: My husband, Tom, our 9-year-old daughter, Sylvie, and I feel like ordering in, and after a lengthy debate, we decide on pizza. Later, while the three of us are eating pepperoni slices and playing Bananagrams, Sylvie reminds Tom that our wedding anniversary is coming up and offhandedly mentions that my favorite flowers are peonies. After a few rounds of the game, we consider a movie. Sylvie proposes “Escape From New York,” a film that has piqued her curiosity after hearing her father repeatedly imitate Kurt Russell as Snake Plissken.

“I’ll look it up on Common Sense Media to see if it’s appropriate,” she volunteers, opening my computer. Unfortunately, she reports gravely, it’s for ages 16 and up. “‘Except for a severed head,’” Sylvie reads aloud, “‘there’s little explicit gore. An atmosphere of cynicism and darkness pervades, including a negative depiction of a U.S. President.’”

Tom points out that this sounds like his Twitter feed. But I balk at the severed head, which is a pretty big except for.

I would never have predicted that the hardest part of parenting would be that our only child would come to fully believe she is the third person in our marriage. This arrangement began roughly as soon as she learned to talk.

As family psychologists such as Dr. Carl E. Pickhardt, Ph.D., point out, only children often feel like one of the adults. As with our tripartite system of government, they view the daily running of the household as a three-way power-sharing agreement. This is an issue more parents may have to deal with, now that one-child families are gaining ground. According to a Pew Research analysis of 2015 U.S. Census Bureau data, today 18 percent of mothers at the end of their childbearing years have an only child — up from 10 percent in 1976.

Tom and I have fully enabled Sylvie to feel like one of the gang, because we go almost everywhereas a trio. We’re usually too cheap to hire babysitters, and tend to travel with Sylvie, too, as she slots fairly easily into our itineraries. As a result, Sylvie has gotten used to being included, consulted, part of our in-jokes. This is not uncommon, says social psychologist Dr. Susan Newman, Ph.D., who has spent decades studying only children — a term I loathe, as it calls to mind a kid alone in a shadowy room, whispering quietly to his sock puppet “friends.” (I think we should revive the much more sprightly “oneling,” used by 19th century author John Cole in his book “Herveiana.”)

But our efforts to “empower” our oneling and make her voice heard have begun to backfire. To paraphrase Princess Diana when asked about Camilla Parker-Bowles: There are three of us in this marriage, so it’s a bit crowded.

One reason for our fluid boundaries is physical. It’s almost impossible to maintain them in a Brooklyn apartment a realtor would euphemistically call “charming and cozy,” one with bizarrely porous doors that actually seem to amplify sound. But it’s also emotional: Tom and I, like many parents of our generation, make an effort to be open and communicative with Sylvie. (“You can tell us anything, sweetheart!”)

When I was growing up, I would never have dreamed of sharing anything remotely personal with my parents. I had two siblings, and our family dynamic was solidly Us vs. Them — my sisters and I were one unit, my folks another. I wanted a different kind of relationship with our daughter.

But one consequence of all this closeness is that our child feels insulted if Tom and I go out to dinner alone. If we’re on vacation, she balks at being “dumped,” as she puts it, in the Kids’ Club. She would be happy to Photoshop her picture into our wedding photos. If Tom and I give each other a hug, she has gotten in the habit of jumping in between us.

Jancee Dunn and her family. 
Jancee Dunn and her family. Creditvia Jancee Dunn

At least she doesn’t referee when we fight, as she did when she was smaller. A couples’ counselor put a stop to that when he advised me to put a photo of Sylvie in a drawer by my bedside table. Whenever I was about to lose my temper with Tom, he told me, I was to run to the bedroom, pull out the photo, and say to it: I know that what I’m about to do is going to cause you harm, but right now, my anger is more important to me than you are. I only had to repeat that brutal phrase a couple of times.

But Tom and I still squabble about minor stuff, like whose turn it is to empty the dishwasher — and when we do, Sylvie jumps in and takes sides. (“Mom, you did it last time.”)

As a self-flagellating parent, I was recently drawn to a book with the dire title “The Seven Common Sins of Parenting an Only Child.” Ooh, sins — what am I doing wrong? Among other iniquities — overprotection, overcompensating — Sin No. 6 resonated with me: Treating Your Child Like an Adult.

“It can become so pleasurable for parents of an only child to have a miniature adult by their side that they may lose sight of the fact that their kid needs to be a kid,” writes author Carolyn White, former editor of Only Child magazine. I read this aloud to Tom as Sylvie, nearby, perused the latest issue of Consumer Reportsready to counsel us on our next car purchase.

Sylvie may be comfortable around adults, but she is still a child, one who lacks the reasoning abilities and experience of a grown-up — so I must catch myself when I absently reply to her questions about money, or other parents, before realizing, whoops, shouldn’t have told her that.

As Newman advises, “Before you allow your child to weigh in, take a pause and ask yourself, ‘Is this really a topic or an issue that a 9-year-old should be involved in, or is this a decision for adults?’ ”

Sylvie needs time away from us to be a kid — time to act silly and make jokes about butts and drone on about the intricacies of Minecraft. She has a group of good friends, but I do see her picking up on her middle-aged parents’ habits, such as calculating how many hours of sleep she got every morning. Her posse at home is squarely in midlife, as evidenced by her choice of songs for her ninth birthday party — among them, Barbra Streisand’s LBJ-era “Don’t Rain on My Parade.” We are not the kind of posse a 9-year-old needs. Maybe she hasn’t yet subbed out her school backpack for a WNYC tote bag, but the danger is there.

And all of this coziness hurts our marriage, too. So I have to remind myself, sometimes daily, to cordon off our relationship. Our marriage has needs that deviate from my needs as an individual, as well as our needs as a family. I have to constantly ask, what would be good for the marriage? It’s important, as a couple, to have your own roster of in-jokes. It’s refreshing to drop F-bombs with impunity, and to gossip freely about other parents without having to hastily turn it into a teachable moment for your eavesdropping child about How Gossiping Is Really About Feeling Insecure About Your Own Life Choices. And it’s nice — no, essential — to go out to dinner, just the two of you, and speculate on which members of the waitstaff are sleeping with each other. You know, grown-up stuff.

A Better Me Makes A Better We: An Interview with Ellyn Bader, Ph.D.

A BETTER ME MAKES A BETTER WE: AN INTERVIEW WITH ELLYN BADER, Ph.D.

Kyle Benson

Interview Guest: Ellyn Bader, Ph.D., is a co-founder of The Developmental Model of Couples Therapy, which integrates attachment theory and differentiation. Through her work at The Couples Institute, she has specialized in helping couples transform their relationships since 1984.

The idealized relationship where partners are fused at the hip is not a healthy relationship, as it doesn’t allow for the unique differences of each partner. Bader highlights this fusion as a conflict avoidant stance that happens when one partner feels anxious or uncomfortable and attempts to merge with their spouse.

One way of doing this is becoming more like your partner in hopes of being loved. There’s a deep fear that says, “If I express my needs and have different needs than my partner, I’m going to be abandoned.”

The other conflict avoidant stance is loving your partner at arm’s length. The fear in this stance says, “If I become more open and vulnerable, I’m going to get swallowed up and lose my sense of self.”

As Dr. David Schnarch states in his book entitled Passionate Marriage, “Giving up your individuality to be together is as defeating in the long run as giving up your relationship to maintain your individuality. Either way, you end up being less of a person with less of a relationship.”

Fusion happens when a person is fearful of encountering differences. These can be minor differences including how one spends their time or their hobbies, or major differences such as conflict style and desire for togetherness. The opposite of fusion is differentiation.

The Risk of Growth

Bader describes differentiation as an active process “in which partners define themselves to each other.” Differentiation requires the risk of being open to growth and being honest not only with your partner, but also with yourself.

  • If you’re anxious, it could mean realizing that you lean on partner so much that if they become unstable, you both fall down. Your demands on your partner and the way you discuss conflict may be pushing your partner away, which is the very thing you fear.
  • If you’re avoidant, it could mean noticing that you neglect your partner’s needs and prioritize yourself over your relationship. As a result, you perpetuate the loneliness you feel.
    To grow in your relationship requires a willingness to stand on what Bader calls your “developmental edge” and differentiate yourself as an individual. To risk getting closer to your partner without pushing them away.

What Differentiation Looks Like

In conflict, a differentiated lover can give space to their partner who is emotionally overwhelmed while also remaining close enough to be caring and supportive, but not so close that they lose themselves emotionally. Instead of reacting with overwhelming emotion, a differentiated partner, according to Bader, expresses curiosity about their partner’s emotional state:

“Can you tell me more about what’s going on?”
“Can you tell me about these feelings?”

The more differentiated you are, the less likely you are to take things as personally. As a result, you can soothe yourself or reach out to be soothed by your partner in a helpful way. Instead of saying, “You’re such a jerk. You never care for me,” a differentiated partner would say, “I’m feeling really overwhelmed and lonely. Could you give me a hug?”

To differentiate is to develop a secure way of relating to your partner. This earned security, as highlighted by Bader, is created both internally and developed within the context of a relationship. This requires being authentic with your feelings and needs.

You can cultivate a secure and functioning relationship by recognizing and taking responsibility for your part in creating unhealthy dynamics in your relationship. When you do this, you can then express your needs, desires, and wishes in a way that allows you and your partner to work together to meet each other’s needs.

When both partners are whole, not only is there more flexibility in the marriage, but there is also more intimacy.

12 Insightful Lessons to Help You Have a Better Life

12 INSIGHTFUL LESSONS TO HELP YOU HAVE A BETTER LIFE

Team Lovepanky

Can you change your life for the better by changing the way you think? Here are 12 insightful lessons that can lead you to a happier, better life.

There are many things that people must learn to accept about life in order to be truly happy, and lead a better life.

While it is difficult for most of us to admit many uncomfortable truths, once we do, we are able to lead a much more fulfilling life.

Accepting many of these things takes time, and often doesn’t happen until we feel unsatisfied in our current situation.

Take, for example, my own experience with learning to accept a few particular things about life.

My personal confusion and life wanderings

After finishing my undergrad, I landed a decent job as an assistant project manager at a university office for sustainability. In terms of entry-level positions it was a good one, and of course, it would look great on my resume.

I was where I was supposed to be. In a relevant job position, gaining valuable career experience, working to save money for those looming student loans, in a relationship, meeting up with friends after work, buying various consumer products, visiting my family at least once a month, and generally meeting most of society’s other expectations.

The problem was I would sit at my desk from 8am until 5:30pm staring at my computer screen. While I knew the projects I was working on were important for improving sustainability on campus, I found it difficult to connect with what I was doing.

Most of my friends seemed to be focusing on buying the latest fashion trends, and drinking away most of their income. While I also participated in these entertaining behaviors, I continued to feel disconnected from the people surrounding me.

My relationship was only average. At first I thought it was true love, and then over time, I realized it was a safe situation for both of us. We were just sitting on the truth that neither of us was getting what we needed or wanted.

Nevertheless, I was an example of a successfully functioning individual. Yet I felt unsatisfied with my life, even though according to most people it was exactly where I was supposed to be.

While my experience might start to sound cliché, what happened next led to an important learning curve in my life, and to something completely different and absolutely satisfying.

I left my assistant project manager position and headed off to travel Southeast Asia. Over three months I visited amazing places, met very interesting people, ate partially developed duck eggs, drank local alcohol, volunteered with rescued elephants, and did some other typical travelers things.

Insightful life lessons that can lead you to a better life

Where I went and whom I met wasn’t all that different to what many people experience while traveling. But what was really vital was the time away from my “supposed to”life.

I had some serious time to reflect on where exactly I was in my life, and where I was headed. I noticed that many things I was doing didn’t actually make me happy.

This learning curve and time for reflection led me to 12 absolutely crucial things to learn and accept about life. They can lead you to a happier and much more satisfying life.

#1 You will never be able to please everyone

It is absolutely impossible to satisfy everyone else’s expectations and demands. You will drive yourself mental if you don’t accept the fact that you cannot live your life tailoring every move to please other people.

This goes for family, friends, and even bosses. Of course, you need to perform certain tasks and fulfill expectations of your role in an organization, or even relationship.

But, for example, that does not mean living up to your manager’s belief that you should be available seven days a week to answer various emails, or your mother’s perspective that you will only be happy once you own a white picket fence on your well-manicured lawn.

You must let go of the idea that you can please everyone around you. You will ultimately end up sacrificing something that is essential to your own happiness.

#2 There are many definitions of success, find your own

Each of us is responsible for defining what represents success for ourselves. To some people success is a six-figure paycheck, mortgage on a two-story home, and new car, while to others it can be something completely different.

You need to map out and understand what you personally need to achieve in your life to be considered successful by your own standards. If that is a nonprofit job that doesn’t rake in the big bucks, but allows you to follow your passion and purpose, then so be it.

#3 You friends will most definitely change over time

Not many of us keep the exact same friends into adulthood. Of course, you may find a soul mate in one or two of your friends. But you are also bound to lose friends, and gain new ones.

We change friendships over time because we are constantly changing and growing. Interests evolve, and people transform into very different individuals. Changing friends usually isn’t a negative thing, and instead, is a reflection of your personal growth.

#4 Despite what you’ve always been told, you can choose your family

I often read that you cannot change you family so you should figure out how to deal with them now, or you’ll lose your mind trying later in life. Yet, I don’t fully believe this. You are absolutely stuck with some people who you are related to by blood. But that doesn’t mean you have to consider them important people in your life.

There are some family members that we absolutely can choose. What about our life partners? We are fully able to choose the person we want to spend the rest of our life with. We get to hand select that person, and assure that they hold most of the qualities we desire, and meet our fundamental needs and wants.

So, in fact we can choose our family. While some relations might be set in blood, others are up to us.

#5 Relationships take a lot of hard work

Building off on #4, relationships take a lot of work in order to be happy and healthy. Whether this is a relationship with a friend, family member, professional, or life partner, you are going to need to work at it.

Working at a relationship means taking the time to understand the other person and their goals, finding out how to be a positive presence in their lives, and vice versa – and how to compromise.

Human relationships are absolutely necessary to feel connected to your world, and to feel happiness. But you need to make the effort in these relationships in order to reap the benefits.

#6 If you want to see change, you need to make it happen

Don’t sit around waiting for great things to happen in your life. If you want and need something to change, you need to be actively involved in pursuing results.

This can be in terms of relationships, jobs, personal well-being, and a lot of other things. You must be proactive in doing. Simply thinking about change is not enough. You need to take the steps involved with altering your current situation.

#7 You need to get healthy

Your body is your own personal sanctuary. If you treat it like it’s not important and fill it with toxins and chemicals, it will start to resist you. You need to find a balance that works for you and your lifestyle. Not all of us want to be at the gym five days a week, but that doesn’t mean you should never lift a finger.

Whether it is a walk down your street, or a full on cross-fit workout. You need to move, and after you move, you need to fill yourself with fresh food meant for human consumption. Not the boxes of human manipulated ingredients. Feel good about your body. It will change over time, but it’s what you’ve got.

#8 You should care about things happening around you

There are buckets of social, political, economic and environmental problems facing our generation, and many future generations to come. You need to stop living in your comfortable bubble and start becoming educated on important matters around you. War and conflict continues to plague countries around the world, resource exploitation and climate change are real issues happening now.

You cannot avoid these things any longer, and you need to take some form of responsibility in making our world a better place. That doesn’t mean starting a multi-million dollar charity, or donating 40 hours of your time a week. But it does mean you need to take small steps towards becoming a knowledgeable and more sustainable human being.

#9 If you want something, take it

If there is something that you want, you know you deserve, and you will take full responsibility for, then you need to take it. Stop worrying if you are going to offend someone, and go for it.

If this is a promotion you know you deserve, or a relationship you know is bound for greatness, take the risk and make it happen.

#10 You need to find a purpose

Having a passion is half the battle, but what allows your passion to translate into effective action is purpose. You must define your purpose in order to pursue meaningful life goals. That can be career related, or just in general what you strive to achieve in your lifetime.

#11 You define your own happiness

Well, I am not a huge Kanye West fan but he makes a valid point, “I refuse to accept other people’s ideas of happiness for me. As if there’s a ‘one size fits all’ standard for happiness.”

If you can clearly outline what allows you to be happy, then you’ve accomplished what some people strive towards, for their entire lives. Know what makes you happy, because if you try to live someone else’s life, you are bound to be unsatisfied.

#12 Take the more difficult route and be yourself

Defining purpose, finding passion, knowing what makes you happy and defining your personal vision of success are extremely difficult to comprehend and achieve.

But if you can organize just exactly how you want to live your own life, and truly be yourself, regardless of other’s expectations and judgments, you are going to find fulfillment and happiness. It’s your life, and we really only do have one chance, so it’s better to be yourself.

My epiphany

So after having time away from my “supposed to” life I came home thinking about what changes I needed to make, and what exactly I needed to accept.

I ended up saving money working at a retail job, that for two months was actually quite rewarding, and moving back to Southeast Asia to find my own success and happiness.

It wasn’t exactly what people in my life were anticipating from me, although my ex-boyfriend wasn’t all that surprised. I did lose quite a few friendships because of their unwillingness to make the effort over such physical distance. My family however, has been extremely supportive for the most part.

Overall, I am extremely happy and successful. I feel like I am growing into an individual that I can be proud of. Although I am in my late twenties and I still don’t have a mortgage or a car, and rent a small studio and ride a bicycle, I feel liberated from what I was supposed to do, because now I am doing what makes me happy.

Well, it can be easier said than done, but if you are willing to learn to accept a few lessons about life, then you will set yourself up for a completely personalized journey, one that you’ll be proud of.

Paternity Leave Has Long-Lasting Benefits. So Why Don’t More American Men Take It?

PATERNITY LEAVE HAS LONG-LASTING BENEFITS. SO WHY DON’T MORE AMERICAN MEN TAKE IT?

Nathaniel Popper

Men who take leave are less likely to get divorced, and have better relationships with their children, research shows.

In 2017, my family and I began an unintended experiment, testing the effects of paternity leave.

When my first son was born in 2012, I had only recently joined The New York Times and all I got off was the week of vacation I had stored up at the time.

By the time my wife and I had our second son in 2017, the newspaper had significantly ramped up its support for new fathers, and I got 10 fully-paid weeks to spend with our growing family. For my wife and me, those first two months of life with a newborn were just as sleepless as they’d been the first time around. But there were fewer fights and less resentment, and my wife got back to her own work more quickly.

Long after I returned to the office, I noticed little differences in the way I related to my second son that seemed most easily explained by the extra time I’d spent with him. To this day he regularly calls out for me in the night in a way that my first son rarely did. And when I am with him, I feel a certain intangible sense of ease that has only come more recently with my older son. This feeling of ease, along with my growing comfort with wrangling both kids at once, have had predictably positive effects on my wife, reducing her stress levels, and making us both happier.

While I’ve always been hesitant to attribute too many of the subsequent improvements in our family life to the parental leave I took in 2017, a growing body of research suggests that paternity leave does, in fact, have far broader effects than we might have anticipated, including some which endure years after the leave period itself.

Men Who Take Paternity Leave Are Less Likely to Get Divorced

Over the last two years, Richard Petts, a sociology professor at Ball State University, and Chris Knoester, a sociology professor at Ohio State University, have co-authored a series of papers, analyzing data from long-term surveys of thousands of American families. Their research demonstrates that paternity leave provides lasting benefits, not only to relationships between fathers and their children, but also to mothers and to relationships between the parents.

In their most recent paper, published in May 2019, Dr. Petts and Dr. Knoester found that, even nine years later, children whose fathers took at least two weeks of paternity leave after they were born reported feeling closer to their fathers than children with fathers who did not take leave. In research on married parents for a forthcoming paper, the sociologists found that even relatively short periods of paternity leave caused couples’ divorce risk to drop and to remain significantly lower for as many as six years to come, even as their children reached school age.

“The big news in the U.S. is that the boost is not just in the year or two after a child’s birth,” Dr. Petts told me. “It seems to be more sustained.”

This new work on American families builds on several earlier papers, mostly from Europe, where paternity leave is more common, which found that fathers are, in the long term, more likely to remain involved in parenting and to equitably divide household chores with their partners if they take time off after their children arrive. A recent study from Swedenfound that mothers whose partners were offered flexible paid leave in the year after a child’s birth were less likely to need antibiotics and anti-anxiety medication.

Despite mounting evidence of the benefits of paid parental leave for fathers as well as mothers, occasional high-profile news about a major international company offering paternity leave, and legal wins such as the settlement in which JPMorgan Chase agreed to provide equal benefits to fathers and mothers, the expansion of paternity leave programs in the United States remains slow.

Public enthusiasm for paternity leave has been growing: A 2016 Pew Research Center study found that nearly 70 percent of Americans support some form of paid leave for new fathers. There are signs of a rapid cultural shift as well. Though, in 2014, New York Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy faced widespread criticism for taking three days off for the birth of his son, just four years later, basketball player Dwayne Wade was showered with support when he missed six games following his daughter’s birth in 2018.

Nevertheless, recent surveys suggest that, while most American men take some time off work after the birth or adoption of a child, most take no more than a few days’ leave.

Why Aren’t American Men Taking Leave?

There are several reasons new fathers in the United States return to work so quickly, the most obvious being the lack of a national policy mandating paid leave for all workers. The Family and Medical Leave Act guarantees 12 weeks of unpaid parental leave, but its eligibility requirements are strict (to qualify, an employee must have worked at least 1250 hours during the 12 months before the start of the leave period, for an organization employing at least 50 people within a 75-mile radius), and many American workers do not meet them.

Even fewer American parents have access to paid family leave. Though six states — California, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, Washington and Massachusetts — as well as the District of Columbia have passed paid family leave laws, their provisions vary. A March 2018 national survey conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that only 16 percent of workers in the United States have access to some paid family leave through private-sector employers.

And research suggests that, even when fathers do gain access to paid parental leave, they may be reluctant to take it. After California’s paid family leave law, the first such law enacted in the United States, took effect in 2004, economists Charles L. Baum and Christopher Ruhm found that the percentage of men taking time off after a child’s birth rose only modestly; the average period of parental leave taken increased by nearly five weeks for mothers, but only two to three days for fathers.

California fathers’ caution about embracing paid paternity leave wasn’t entirely irrational. Some studies do show that taking paternity leave can damage a man’s professional reputation and affect his future earning potential.

“Men who take paternity leave do tend to be stigmatized and viewed as less committed employees,” said Rebecca Glauber, a professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire.

How to Make Paternity Leave an American Norm

The successful expansion of paternity leave programs in other industrialized nations suggests that these cultural barriers can be overcome. Certain policies have been shown to be especially effective in encouraging men to take full advantage of paternity leave benefits. The adoption of a so-called “daddy quota,” for example — a use-it-or-lose-it period of paid leave earmarked for new fathers — has successfully boosted paternity leave participation rates in several Scandinavian countries. In 2006, in a departure from the rest of Canada, Quebec adopted a “daddy quota” similar to the Scandinavian model, offering five weeks of dedicated, non-transferable, government-paid leave to new fathers in the province.

Within two years, 75 percent of new fathers in Quebec were taking paternity leave, up from 22 percent before the use-it-or-lose-it “daddy quota” was implemented, according to research by Ankita Patnaik, an economist at Mathematica Policy Research in Washington, D.C.

Dr. Patnaik found that men in Quebec who’d taken the “daddy quota” continued to spend more time on household work, even one to three years after completing their paternity leave. Further, Dr. Patnaik’s research found, these fathers’ increased participation in household tasks appeared to free up their children’s mothers to pursue their own professional ambitions. One to three years after childbirth, mothers in Quebec whose partners had taken the “daddy quota” were working an hour longer per day, on average, and were 7 percent more likely to be employed full-time, Dr. Patnaik found.

Richard Petts, the Ball State University sociologist who researches the impact of paternity leave on American families, said that he did not find solid evidence that paternity leave boosts mothers’ careers, but that may simply be because American fathers take much shorter paternity leaves than their Canadian counterparts.

For my part, I came out of my own paternity leave with an easy ability to take both of the kids as soon as I was done at work, or to handle sick days when they came up. That allowed my wife to transition back to her own job more quickly, and to commit with more confidence to new projects. We are both still as overwhelmed as most other parents of little kids, but at least we feel like we’re muddling through it together.

Life as A Parent: What Kind of Father Will You Be?

LIFE AS A PARENT: WHAT KIND OF FATHER WILL YOU BE?

Dedan K. Bruner

Growing up without a dad was my first lesson in parenting.

I was 35 years old when my mother gave me the box. It was during my first visit home to California from Washington, D.C., after sharing the news that my new girlfriend and I were expecting a child. The contents were sparse. Among them was a telegram that my mother sent to my father, who had been away in Botswana serving in the Peace Corps, announcing my birth. Also included was a letter my father wrote to my mother a few years later, stating that he was moving back to the United States and that my mother and I, along with my father, his new wife and their children, should all live together upon their return.

At the bottom of the box was a small stack of checks — these I remembered well. Right around New Year’s when I was 5 or 6, I received an envelope with almost a dozen $25 checks, each predated for a different month, plus a $50 birthday check for July.

Seeing the checks brought back a flood of memories. I’d hotly anticipated each one, and felt frustrated at how long it took for my mother, whom I called Bobby, to hand over my “birthday money.” I’d clung to those checks as evidence of my father’s ongoing support. So imagine my embarrassment as a teenager when Bobby confessed that the checks began bouncing a few months in, and she’d started paying me their value out of her own limited budget. Until that day, I’d naively believed my dad’s promise to fund my college education.

Bobby and I never talked about the box. We didn’t need to. My mother’s message was loud and clear: “What kind of father will you be?” The answer seemed simple. I had been thinking about the type of father I would be since I was a kid growing up without one.

Embraced by a circle of dads

When I found out I was going to be a father, I was working on Capitol Hill in a fast-paced congressional office. In the moments that weren’t consumed with congressional votes or meetings, one of our favorite pastimes was getting updates from the three office dads. There was Joe, our 30-something military liaison, who would tell stories about his twin daughters and his son who was born with cerebral palsy. Then Riley, our elder statesman, who along with his wife had decided in his 50s to adopt Ethiopian siblings. Finally, there was our boss, James, a father of three teenagers, the eldest of whom was diagnosed with autism.

These men loved being dads. While their journeys were different, their stories of breakthroughs, tiny victories and comic setbacks connected them and entertained us all. When I announced that I was going to be a father, they welcomed me to the club with the kind of love and support that I had never seen among men. They showered me with tips about car seats and college savings plans, and tons of little ideas to make each day special. Their energy was infectious and edifying. I knew I would be O.K.

Months later, when my daughter Ella was born, James showed up at the hospital with a copy of the local newspaper and the February 2011 issue of Essence magazine so my daughter would, as he put it, “always know exactly what was going on when she came into the world.”

Nine months after my daughter was born, her mother moved out. While difficult for both of us, it was for the best. At the time, she was a first-year law student with a rigorous schedule. There was no custody battle. We crafted a schedule that worked, splitting Ella’s time evenly between the two of us with built-in flexibility to absorb her mom’s studies and my busy seasons at work. Eight years later, while much has changed, the same plan is still in place.

Society does not expect a whole lot from dads, much less single dads. The bulk of the nurturing, and most of what we consider “raising” a child is said to be the work of mothers. Dads “provide,” give the occasional bit of “fatherly wisdom” and do all the “outside stuff,” like camping. As it turns out, toddlers need less fatherly advice and more clean diapers. Children do not require us to be “baby whisperers,” but they do require resilience. I discovered that running warm water through Ella’s hair was a sure-fire way to get her to fall asleep not because I’m good at being a father; on the contrary, I learned the hard way that changing a baby girl on an incline at 3 a.m. can cause pee to run down her back and into her hair — requiring an early morning bath.

Fatherhood means trial and error

Ask the average dad for advice on how to raise a son, and you’ll get tips on the proper age to start sports and how to deal with bullies. He might share his dreams for his son, strategies for discussing sex, and the proper way to grip a hand and lock eyes during an introduction. Ask the same guy for advice on raising a daughter and he’ll wince his silent condolences while recommending that you get a gun and forbid her from dating until she turns 30.

I adopted the philosophy that it didn’t matter if my kid was a boy or a girl — at least until puberty. There are no lessons that I would teach a son that I would not want my daughter privy to. Self-respect, consideration, compassion, kindness and good citizenship serve each gender well and can be modeled by either parent. While her mother is adamant that Ella not use “bad words,” I care more about making poor language choices — howshe uses her words. Every now and then, I offer my daughter amnesty — 10 seconds to get any curse words she really wants to say out of her system. The first time I offered, after I pinky swore that I wouldn’t tell Mommy, she said the “S-word.” Months later, when I offered again, she passed. While her mom and I may not always agree on strategies, our goals are the same.

No matter how hard I try, not everything I do will be right. My inability to style my daughter’s hair was frequently criticized by the women in our lives, and apparently nearly every kid on the playground. Several friends tried to teach me; I watched YouTube videos and bought expensive products, to no avail. One day after picking her up from school, my daughter hugged me and whispered in my ear, “I don’t think I want you to do my hair anymore.” The statement crushed me, not because of what she said but because I could imagine the ridicule she’d endured before reaching that conclusion.

A few days later, a neighbor called me over as we were returning home from school. Still sensitive from Ella’s rebuke, my guard was up. I was working through the best way to tell my neighbor to mind her own business when she said she appreciated seeing me as a father. She said she knew a lot of fathers but that she liked seeing me. Sometimes you don’t know how empty you have been until someone or something fills you up. Relieved, I thanked her. As we turned to walk away, she told me to bring Ella over Saturday morning so she could “figure out that head.” I laughed and dutifully agreed. To this day, she is still our go-to hair guru.

There is no secret (that I could find) to fatherhood. Being there and being engaged matter most. There are times when I cannot be there, but I remain engaged. When my daughter is with her mother, we chat before bed and again before school. While I enjoy my own pursuits, I also spend time planning activities and adventures to ensure that we get the most out of our limited time together.

On New Year’s Day this year, I launched On Fathering, an online destination that celebrates fatherhood the way the dads in my old office did. The goal is not to make money or hold myself out as an expert on being a dad, but rather to give fathers and fathers-to-be a safe space to explore the beauty of parenthood. With any luck, we’ll help banish the days when the best advice a new father of a daughter could receive is to “get a gun.”

The Surprising Benefits of Relentlessly Auditing Your Life

THE SURPRISING BENEFITS OF RELENTLESSLY AUDITING YOUR LIFE

Amy Westervelt

We tend to think that good marriages and happy families are born of love and care, not spreadsheets. But what if that’s wrong?

My husband had been trying to sell me on his method for years before I finally relented. An efficiency consultant who had once worked in the car industry in Japan, he wanted to “Toyota Way” our lives. I wanted him to keep his spreadsheets to himself.

But a house, a baby and some career changes later, as I was folding tiny T-shirts while doing an interview and rocking the baby’s chair with my foot, I gave in. I was overwhelmed. Maybe a spreadsheet could help after all.

The method, as my husband would be shouting right now, is of course more than just a spreadsheet. It’s based on the Japanese notion of “kaizen,”or continuous improvement, made famous in 2001 when Toyota singled it out as one of the pillars of the company’s success. You pick a goal, figure out the main components behind it, collect data on those components and work out what you can do to move closer to the goal.

In the case of Toyota, the goal was higher quality and increased profits. When we translated the idea to our home life, the goal was a little simpler but also a lot more complicated — happiness. We weren’t sure what drove it, so we decided to collect data on everything: how many hours we were sleeping a night, how long we spent on housework or child care, the amount of alone time, social time, commuting time, you name it. We assigned a score from one to 10 to each day, and then gave a primary reason for each score: not enough sleep, work sucked and, sometimes, “relationship bad feeling.”

Soon enough, we began to spot patterns: It turns out that the minimum number of hours I can sleep without wanting to run away from my family is five and a half. Less than an hour a week of personal time also sent me to a dark place. My husband found that his happiness rose and fell with hours spent hanging out with friends or sitting in traffic.

And so we started trying to improve our scores. We started small. I tried to shift around my workload to include more time to read and think. My husband began commuting by train so that he could bike from the station to work, incorporating exercise into his day and eliminating time spent in traffic altogether.

The project led to a major life change. Our spreadsheets hammered home that what contributed most to our happiness was time spent together or with friends — while, crucially, not working — and there was no way to get more of that if we continued to live in the Bay Area, one of the most expensive parts of the country. So I proposed an idea that would have seemed radical were there not so much data backing it: “I think you should quit your job, we should sell our house, and we should move somewhere cheaper,” I told my husband matter-of-factly one day. So we did.

Feeling uncomfortable right now? I get it. There’s a lot to feel anxious or eye-rolly about. I fully admit that in the first weeks of the project, I found it preposterous. I groaned about the time required to type in data, assign a score, all of it.

But a funny thing happened as I huffed through weeks of data collection. In addition to leading to a better understanding of what made us happy as a family, I also found the spreadsheet to be an incredibly useful tool for expressing things I might have otherwise avoided. It made the invisible visible. Instead of arguing about housework, for example, both feeling like we were doing more than our fair share, we could talk about it relatively objectively. On a day where I spent 14 hours taking care of the kids and doing house chores while my husband spent three, I was going to be unhappy, obviously. But we could just look at the numbers and then divvy up the chores evenly. Easy. No fight, no resentment. (Others have recently attempted more high-tech versions of a similar approach: One man, for instance, invented a chore-splitting app intended to keep track of who’s doing the bulk of the household work.)

It also enabled us to talk about what the transition to parenthood had meant for both of us — fewer work hours and loss of alone time for me; an intense commute and loss of social time for him — in a way that helped us stay away from competition or blame.

Before the spreadsheet, I had an idea I think many share: Marriage and family should more or less work. If you’re with the “right” person and you’ve made the “right” choices, your family life shouldn’t require a lot of discussion or effort. Your spouse should know that you need alone time and should give it to you. The appointments you keep in your head, the family social schedule you juggle — all of it should be noticed and appreciated. Good marriages and happy families are born of love and care, not spreadsheets and a daily happiness score.

But in the years since, I’ve reconsidered. Far from making our marriage seem cold and robotic, the spreadsheet sparked more honest conversations than we’d had in years. It also reminded us that we had more control over our lives than we had been exerting.

We stopped the project after a year or so, but started again last month. It’s five years since we first tried it, and we’re both feeling overwhelmed again. We’re in a much more precarious place financially now, after a few non-spreadsheet-related surprises, but we’re still determined to make whatever decisions we can to improve our lives.

In the course of researching a book on the history of motherhood in America, it occurred to me that this sort of exercise might be helpful for a lot of families, onerous as it may seem. Because the really intractable problems — like the social expectations placed on mothers, the gendered division of labor in homes, the invisibility of all sorts of care work — are not going to magically disappear. They’re not going to be erased simply by getting the right politicians elected or the right policies enacted (although those things will help).

People’s weird ideas about gender, about mothers and fathers and marriage and nuclear families, about who should do what and how much of it, about what really makes us happy, are deeply entrenched, often in ways we don’t even recognize. And so sometimes, when the baby is crying, when no one has thought about dinner, when bills need paying — when we’re caught, in other words, juggling some of the most fraught areas of our family lives, feeling emotional, ready to lash out — sometimes it really helps to have a set of calm, cool numbers on a spreadsheet.

%d bloggers like this: