The Surprising Heart of Joyful Parenting

I had been raising my own children for at least two years before I discovered a secret that transformed my parenting forever. Today I’m sharing this surprising secret to joyful parenting.

The memory that changed the way I parent forever.

The Day that Changed Everything

My husband was out of town for work, leaving me as a lone parent to our toddler and baby – both of whom woke several times a night. One night, while rocking my teething baby who just wouldn’t stop crying, a vivid memory caught me by surprise.

I’d been a teenager, looking after my baby sister while my mom attended an evening work function. My baby sister was very attached to my mother, and she hadn’t been left this long at night before. Her teeth probably hurt. She wouldn’t drink her bottle, so she was starving. She wouldn’t fall asleep. For five hours, she cried. I cried. We were both exhausted by the time my mom got home.

As I relived the memory, I caught myself smiling. Treasuring it. Why love the memory of such a miserable evening?

The Opposite of Joyful Parenting

Up until that point, motherhood had been anything but easy. My first pregnancy was full of physical pain and insomnia. My half-time teaching job brought in much-needed income, but juggling it on top of a full-time PhD schedule overwhelmed me.

Still, I seized every moment of that pregnancy because Emma was my miracle baby. And when she arrived I lived every moment of her not-sleeping-more-than-fifteen-minutes-at-a-time.

Then I got pregnant with my second child. Both my  baby and my toddler were waking several times every night, and exhaustion set in. My husband Mike’s work required a lot of travel, leaving me as a lone parent to two very needy children.

I caught myself watching slow minutes crawl around the clock. Willing time to pass more quickly.

The Secret I Discovered

Why was that night with my sister different? Turning the memory over in my mind on that difficult night with my own baby, I saw something unique in that evening.

That night, I really listened to my sister.

I understood that she was genuinely finding life difficult, and – since I understood – I was able to stay with her. Without frustration, and without numbly counting the hours. For that one evening, I was mindful to both my sister’s needs and my own exhaustion. She still cried. I remained exhausted. But we were there together, living.

A Switch Flipped in My Mind

I decided to live it all: the beauty, the fun, the joy, the silliness, the dirt, the frustration, the exhaustion, the embarrassment.

  • I decided to focus on my relationship with my kids when they acted out in public, instead of worrying what anyone else thought. They stopped acting out as much. When they did, I listened.
  • I learned how to help my children express themselves, and how to help them calm down.
  • I learned that sometimes I do things when stressed that make my kids stress out – and then act out. Now more aware of my own emotions and needs as well as those of our children, I worked to eliminate unnecessary stress from our lives.
  • As part of this process, I decided to make sure every day had time to live – without running around or checking off to-do lists. Before, I tried to fill our days. Now, with time to spare I stopped watching the clock, because the minutes no longer dragged along.

A Suprising Gift

We still experience hard days.The kids argue and whine. I get upset about little things that don’t really matter. My to-do list keeps us away from a wonderful afternoon at the park.

Life remains imperfect, but I’m learning to see the beauty in the flaws. Mistakes and imperfections keep us learning, growing, and discovering.

And I’ve discovered abundanceAbundance in the form of patience with my children, as well as forgiveness for myself. I’m learning that giving my children an abundance of kindness, forgiveness, time, and love transforms all of our lives. Best of all, they translate these gifts into acts of kindness towards me, Mike, and one another. They forgive one another, and prioritize family time. They love our family, and are growing confident as unique individuals.

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The Truth We Need to Accept as Parents

We are never going to be a perfect family. There will always be moments when we snap at one another, when priorities slip, when forgiveness is hard.

My love and caring wasn’t enough to stop my sister crying that night, all those years ago. As moms, love and caring aren’t always enough to solve our children’s problems. Those are painful moments.

Sometimes you accept a tantrum in the middle of the grocery store. Sometimes you accept a stressful season of life, like work travel or a tough pregnancy. And sometimes you accept that your baby just needs to cry, even while you hold her.

Other times, you may accept an unexpected hug, your child’s first “I love you,” or your upset baby melting into your loving arms.

Accepting your own limitations opens the door to joyful parenting within an imperfect life. Live it all.

How has parenting surprised you? Drop a comment here or on my Facebook page, or tag me on Instagram.

MaryAnne lives in Silicon Valley with her Stanford professor husband Mike and their four children. She writes about parenting through education, creativity, and play. Mama Smiles - Joyful Parenting is a space to share crafts, hands on learning activities, and family outings that enrich lives and bring families together.

10 thoughts on “The Surprising Heart of Joyful Parenting”

  1. Elisa | blissful E

    Oh this is beautiful, MaryAnne! Thank you for sharing your hard-won secret. I try to do this, too. The more I do, the better things go.

  2. Such a wonderful post. Of course as I stop to think about how parenting has surprised me I can’t think of any, beyond super cliched ones like suddenly having twins, but parenting is always full of surprises.

  3. Thank you MaryAnne for writing your secrets of parenting. So vivid, and so honest! After having 3rd child last year, I am still struggling at live-in-the-moment parenting. But your heartfelt words are encouraging!

  4. Beautiful post. It’s amazing how a simple perspective shift changes everything. I think, for me, I’ve tried to focus not on the whining or whatever it may be, but on what is causing it. It has definitely helped me to be more understanding and help rather than just be frustrated.

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