KJ Dell’Antonia on doing less to find more joy in parenting

When we create our stories each week, one of the most agonizing decisions is what to call people. How do you distill a life—in the case of our storytellers, an otherworldly life—into the three or four words of a title scroll?

Listen to the full conversation below:

“I’d been a parent for close to twelve tears by the time it occurred to me to ask myself if the whole thing had to suck quite as much it seemed to most days” begins KJ Dell’Antonia in How to Be a Happier Parent: Raising a Family, Having a Life and Loving (Almost) Every Minute.

A lover of lists, strategies, and Gretchen Rubin-inspired year-long projects, KJ began her exploration of becoming a happier parent exactly as I would have:  with a list of more stuff to do. More, yes, but all in the name of F-U-N. Roller coasters . . . candy-making . . . adventures!

Starring at her list week after week not only wasn’t fun, it made KJ want to cry.  She didn’t want to do more, she wanted to enjoy the life she already had.

Dell’Antonia has been at the center of the modern parenting conversation for a decade. As editor of the New York Times “Motherlode” blog, co-host of the insanely addictive #AmWriting podcast with writer Jessica Lahey, and in her extensive research on parenting, she’s discovered that when it comes to parenting, less is more.

I completely agree. In theory. Mike and I guard the last week of the calendar year ferociously. By saying no to schedules and work and planned activities, we say yes to precious, unstructured family time, joy, and renewal.

Doesn’t that sound lovely?

Except by day two of Operation Downtime: Holiday Edition I start pacing.  Nagging kids to get off devices.  Shouldn’t we be going into the city for some festive cheer?  Or at least organizing the basement, people?

Since my mother-operating system is most often set on task-master mode, I am out of practice being. “It’s not doing your day with joy, KJ gently counsels me during our conversation, “but finding joy in this day.”

Parenting, arguably the most important undertaking of our lives, can be more joyful and effective when let go.

“My friend [child development psychotherapist] Lisa Damour once said she wished there was a study that proved that parents spending time doing nothing useful with their kids would pay off big,” Dell Antonia laughs in this clip.

Doing feels productive and important: exactly what the massive responsibility of good parenting requires.  But letting go isn’t giving up. Letting go isn’t avoidance. Letting go isn’t passive.

Letting go is one-part intention, one-part mindful awareness, two-parts fortitude. It’s active and sweaty and hard. But unlike the tight grip of control masked as doing, letting go is a soft place to land.

Letting go requires commitment. You can’t half-ass it.  Kids can sniff out our proclivity to swoop in to save the day and will miss out on discovering their own resourcefulness.  Our commitment to let go must be bigger than our discomfort watching our kids screw up.  Dell Antonia wants no part of being revered for her wisdom, somehow making her more trustworthy. And she’s blunt about inevitable screw-ups.

What do we trust is waiting on the other side of letting go? Reclaiming our time and finally opening that etsy shop?  Following our gut that parenting is more than an exhausting treadmill of carpools, sibling squabbles, and homework? Realizing our children will model their lives after ours . . .and questioning if this is the life you’d want for them?

Lucky for me, Mike was more than ready with a d’oh slap to wake me up from my post-holiday to-do trance. I gave myself over to my longing for rest and solitude.  Inside my clenched fist were silly, joyful moments that held me as I melted into the delicious spaciousness of being.

I think KJ would be proud.

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Follow KJ at @KJDellAntonia

Get the How To be a Happier Parent book, and for tons of great tips and resources go to: https://kjdellantonia.com/home/

For all you writers out there, check out #AmWriting Podcast with Jess & KJ. It’s available on iTunes and AudioBoom and you should subscribe. Really.