Having children can be the most amazing experience in our lives, bringing moments of happiness that we didn’t think were possible as we get to know these new little human beings. But parenting can also be one of the most challenging things we ever do. Our parenting years often also coincide with big changes in careers and finances that accompany our midlife years (our 30’s and 40’s).

These big changes can result in tumultuous times for adults. While we celebrate every milestone with pride and revel in hugs from our little ones, parents may also find themselves sleep deprived, frustrated with parenting challenges, and financially strapped. In fact, some research has demonstrated that parents of young children are likely to report lower levels of well-being and happiness.  

All is not lost! There is also a body of research that demonstrates the potential for great happiness in midlife, despite these challenges. When life gets overwhelming we start falling into what some researchers call the U-Curve of midlife – picture a chart of our happiness trends that dips like a “U” in our 30s and 40s. How can we pick ourselves up and start heading back up that curve?  

Consider asking yourself the following research-backed questions:

Are you balancing “productive activities” with caretaking?

Christina Matz-Costa studied adults’ levels of engagement in volunteer, paid work, or caregiving activities defined as “productive roles” and found that those who reported high levels of engagement in paid or volunteer roles were more likely to report greater levels of psychological well-being.

Interestingly, when it came to caregiving activities those who reported mid-levels of engagement were more likely to be happier – too much or too little caregiving responsibility was associated with lower levels of well-being.  There is a necessary balance between caring for yourself – defined as participating in activities that make you feel productive or engaged – and meeting the needs of others.

We can’t give ourselves entirely to our kids or our parents who need care, likewise, we are less happy if we feel we are not providing the care we’d like. Don’t punish yourself for needing time away from your caretaking responsibilities. Remember: Make sure the flow of oxygen is activated in your own mask before trying to assist others.

Take Action:

  • Identify a volunteer activity that fits fairly easily into your busy schedule and aligns with your passions. Do you like food? How about a monthly shift at the local food shelf? If committing to a specific time and place is challenging, try finding a volunteer opportunity that can be accomplished indirectly, like writing articles for a nonprofit newsletter.
  • You are not alone! Join a parent playdate circle or set up a childcare exchange with friends so that you can work with other parents to find ways to balance caregiving needs with other pursuits. Going to an organized children’s activity with your young child can also help to fulfill some of your needs for adult interaction and socialization.

Are you being true to yourself?

Research has demonstrated that a sense of identity in midlife was more positively correlated to well-being than a sense of intimacy. Early developmental research by Erikson posited that identity development that happened in early adulthood and was followed by intimacy leads to more happiness than isolation.  

Yet this more recent research illuminates a need to return to developing a sense of self in midlife. Perhaps this is a time of life when exploring who you are and in what you believe takes precedence over the need to be intimate. This isn’t surprising, given the pressures that young children and tight finances can bring to a marriage and friendships. This isn’t to say we should give up on intimacy, but perhaps grounding and not losing our focus on ourselves is just as important as supporting and connecting with others.  

Take Action:

  • Take small steps to advance your career or pursue new interests.  Consider taking an online class on a topic that you’ve wanted to explore, or getting a certification in a new skill.  Even if it’s not the time to go back to school full-time, taking a small step can help you feel like you are making progress and learning more about yourself and your passions.
  • Commit to a regular self-care practice, such as yoga, meditation, or walking. Start small by trying to work it in on a weekly basis. When you find something that feels right you can increase the number of times you integrate it into your schedule.
  • Hold your “me time” as a precious commitment. When life gets overwhelming many parents have a tendency to soldier on in the face of debilitating exhaustion or frustration. Taking time for yourself, whether you are practicing the self-care mentioned above, or simply reading a book or taking a bath should be just as important as what you have to do for others.

Are you celebrating the potential of older age?

Psychologists Steven Mock and Richard Eibech conducted research to measure how one’s attitude toward growing old was related to their current sense of well-being. These researchers found that favorable attitudes toward aging were associated with higher life satisfaction.

Instead of looking back at our youth with longing, we benefit from thinking about all of the great things we’ll do when we’re old and perhaps exploring how we can begin to do some of those things now.

As our kids grow and become more independent we can return to some of the things that made us happy when we were young (either with or without our kids), but with the added wisdom and appreciation that comes from having made it through the more challenging years.

Take Action:

  • Don’t be afraid to start a new hobby, step-by-step. Dreaming of a huge garden when you have time to work on it?  Start with a few raised beds and grow your garden a bit year by year.  Want to travel the world some day?  Start with a few short, affordable trips that feed your travel appetite – you can expand what you’re able to do as your time and resources grow.
  • Get Inspired.  There are many successful people who began the pursuits for which they are famous later in life. Toni Morrison published her first novel at age 40; Laura Ingalls Wilder began writing the Little House on the Prairie Series in her 60’s, and Julia Child didn’t go to cooking school until age 36. Read Strenger and Ruttenberg’s 2008 essay “The Existential Necessity of Midlife Change” (in the Harvard Business Review) to learn more about debunking the myth of midlife decline. Even the psychoanalyst who first coined the term “midlife crisis” had what Strenger and Ruttenberg call a “second life” full of success.

Midlife can be hard, especially when we are parenting or when financial resources are tight, but taking small steps to focus on our own happiness can help to make the time and space to appreciate what we do have – beautiful children, career opportunities, powerful relationships with others, and the strength to find happiness amidst all of the chaos.