Call her the kinder, gentler Tiger Mom, offering advice based on years of talking with mothers and being one herself. Meg Meeker is physician practicing pediatric and adolescent medicine, mom of four, and author of The Ten Habits of Happy Mothers: Reclaiming Our Passion, Purpose and Sanity. She talks with NRO’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about the joys of family life that’s simpler, grounded, and saner than the world frequently dictates.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: You wrote this book because if momma ain’t happy, no one is, right?
Meg Meeker: Yes! After 25 years taking care of kids, I have realized one very important truth: One of the best things that I can do to help kids is to help their parents. If mothers live on an even keel, life at home is much more stable for everyone in the home. In most families, mothers set the tone of the home. If Mom is stressed, everyone feels it. Dads can feel stressed, but often mothers serve as a buffer for other family members.
Lopez: Someone is looking at this Q&A and thinking: “I’m a busy mother with NO TIME TO READ THIS INTERVIEW NEVER MIND YOUR BOOK. What do you want out of me besides my Amazon purchase? How exactly do you suggest I find time to take all your advice?
Meeker: The reason that you have no time to read, spend a few moments relaxing, or play Monopoly with your kids is that your life is out of control. You, like many mothers in America spend a whole lot of time doing a whole lot of things that you don’t need to do. We mothers succumb to more peer pressure than our kids do. We over-schedule ourselves and our kids — making us all crazy — because we feel that’s what successful mothers do! Where does that thought come from? The subculture of mothers around us. We have jumped aboard the hyper-performance train where each of us feels that we need to raise stellar kids, perform as outstanding mothers (be home-room Mom, bake cookies from scratch), advance in our careers, and — of course — hit the gym four times per week for 45 minutes to battle that last ten pounds. The course we are on is unsustainable and we are stressed to the max.
Lopez: If you believe we overschedule ourselves, you’re not a Tiger Mom, are you?
Meeker: My biggest problem with Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is the focus on producing high-performance kids rather than kids who are solid and good citizens, loved by parents who can accept them as they are. Though I do accept her observation that we wrongly parent our kids as though they are fragile, not strong.
Lopez: How are there fundamental truths about mothers? Aren’t we all different? How can you pretend to have a blueprint for motherhood?
Meeker: The Ten Habits of Happy Mothers isn’t a book on how to be a better mother — it is a book about how to reclaim our joy in being moms. It is meant to make mothers of differing socioeconomic backgrounds, marital status, and employment situations take a big breath, stand back, and ask ourselves why we do what we do. It operates on the belief that many of us need to take a keen look at our priorities and ask ourselves some hard questions like: Are we living the life that we want to live or are we living one that we don’t like but feel pressured to live?
The “habits”: To spend more time in solitude, simplify our out-of-control lives, pay attention to our faith, stop competing with other mothers, etc., are habits which are applicable to all moms. Fundamentally, our struggles have many common threads. We all struggle with wanting to push our kids and ourselves and the recommendations address the felt needs which are common to all mothers.
Lopez: How did you narrow your habits down to ten?
Meeker: I chose these ten because I wanted to sift out the habits which are most important to changing the deeper current of our lives. These ten exhort mothers to pay less attention to the superficial aspects of life and focus on the deeper issues. At first glance, they appear simplistic, but the truth is, the hardest and most rewarding changes we make are the most simple, i.e., to love our kids better.
Lopez: How can parents “get it right”? Is there a template?
Meeker: No — there is no template for parenting, but again this isn’t a parenting book per se. It is a book to help any mother reclaim her sense of passion and purpose in life — to live in her sweet spot. Can every mother come to understand her true value as a mother? Yes. Can every mother trust her instincts more and pay less attention to what other mothers are doing? Yes. Does it benefit every mother to cut stuff out of her schedule and her kids’ schedules in order to enjoy time with her kids more? Yes.
Lopez: How tiring are the “mommy wars” headlines? How harmful?
Meeker: The “mommy wars” headlines are very harmful to mothers for two big reasons. First, the attention that we give them pits mothers against one another and thus undermines our ability to have meaningful friendships with other mothers. And we need friendships with women in order to stay sane. Second, the “mommy wars” serve to devalue the role of mothers of all types — whether employed outside the home or not. Competition between moms is a real problem and focusing on it only heightens the tension. We must stop competing with one another because when we do, we all lose.
Lopez: Is there a mother’s recipe for successfully raising a daughter?
Meeker: Yes — show her how to love her life. The best way to raise a daughter who values herself, realizes her strengths, and has the courage to act on them to better the world around her is to do all of this ourselves and let our daughters watch. The most powerful way to teach a daughter how to enjoy life and find her true purpose is to let her see her mother do the same.
Lopez: Why solitude now and again might be important seems obvious. But how is that doable in the busy life of a mother?
Meeker: Mothers need moments of solitude so that we can hear ourselves think, figure out what we really want out of life, and most importantly to learn to like our own company. Many mothers with young children have very little time for solitude, but there are simple ways to start. They can steal a few minutes while kids are napping, wake up 15 minutes earlier in the morning to start the day with quiet, prayer, or meditation. Mothers who do this consistently say that starting their day this way makes the day much smoother. Working mothers can opt to stay alone in their offices at lunch time, turn off the computer, Blackberry, or iPod, and enjoy even 20 minutes of quiet. Spending time in solitude means shutting off all outside noise and allowing our minds to settle. The old adage that “we find time to do what we really want to do” is true when it comes to solitude.
Lopez: Why are friendships with other women essential? Aren’t a husband, kids, and family more than enough?
Meeker: Women need women friends so that we can decrease our expectations of our husbands and kids. This always improves those relationships. All too often mothers expect too much from spouses because we don’t take time for friends and this can kill a good marriage. For instance, many mothers expect husbands to listen to their problems and comfort them routinely. The truth is, women friends listen very differently than men do. Women offer women things which husbands and kids can’t — understanding, comfort, and often physical help. This doesn’t demean what husbands give us. In fact, good women friendships can serve to strengthen marriages by providing a sort of release valve.
Lopez: Overcoming fears is one or your recommended habits. Isn’t that just solid advice for anyone?
Meeker: Of course, it’s good for everyone to confront her fears, but I am speaking very specifically of the fears we mothers harbor (subconsciously) which drive much of our parenting. For instance, we sign our kids up for too many activities because we “fear” feeling like a failure if we don’t provide every opportunity for our kids. Many mothers drive ourselves to work compulsively because we “fear” that we will feel like failures at work.
I strongly believe that we mothers should never live our lives out of fear and we should most certainly never parent out of fear. In my chapter on fear, I address the specific fears that most mothers face which, I believe, are sapping us of energy and joy.
Lopez: Is trust somehow especially hard for mothers?
Meeker: Yes. Trust is hard for mothers because when we love someone, we want to be in charge of their lives. We want to be the protectors, the comforters, the providers, and we don’t want to abdicate any part of our roles to anyone else.
Lopez: How does one decide to hope? I thought that meant to vote for Barack Obama.
Meeker: A lot of hope he has brought us.
Having hope is extremely important because when we are stressed, we focus only on the present and the past, and we fail to look forward. Hope forces us to look forward with a positive attitude. Hope also causes us to question what we put our hope in and this challenge prompts us to dig deeper and ask ourselves serious questions. For instance, if we choose to look forward with positivity, can we trust that someone or something greater than ourselves is at work guiding and helping us? These are extremely important questions that we think about but are never pushed to answer. Choosing to live with an attitude of hope forces us to answer these deep questions: Can we put our hope in God? If so, are we sure that He exists, and if we decide that He does, is He good? These questions are foundational to our core values.
Lopez: Another impossible one seems to be your mandate to live simply. School. Lessons. Homework. Birthday parties. Never mind the unavoidable and routine and mundane errands. Who has time to live simply?
Meeker: Those mothers who have no time to look at how to simplify their lives are in the greatest need of doing so. The best thing that we can give our kids is time with us. They need card games with us more than they do more ballet lessons. Teen boys need to wash their cars with their fathers more than they need another video game or football practice. Our kids need to live life beside us and they are drifting further away because of the glut of electronics in their lives. They need face-to-face time with us, not more texts. They need more touch from us and they need to be in the same room with us as we work out our disagreements so they can learn to solve problems.
We need to be bold in cutting activities from our kids’ schedules. Whether it’s hockey practice, flute lessons, or tutoring, we need to realize that kids simply aren’t getting enough time with us. And time with us is very important because sound identity formation in kids comes from being with parents, discovering what we think about them and expect from them, and then internalizing what they glean. If we don’t simplify their lives and ours in order to open up more time for our kids, the results from kids can be poor identity formation. The bottom line is that if our kids don’t find their identity by spending time with us, they will find it elsewhere — and those other places are usually very dangerous (gangs, forming a new “family of their own,” etc.)
Lopez: As a pediatrician, what do you believe you uniquely bring to the table: to the “how to” shelf, perhaps, as well as public-policy discussions?
Meeker: As a pediatrician, I have listened to literally thousands of parents over my 25 years of practice. And when parents come to me, the conversations we have are deep because parents are worried, anxious, and in need of help. I am privileged to talk with mothers and fathers on a very intimate and confidential level because they are vulnerable and often scared. In short, I see a very “real” side of life. I know what depression looks like, what fear looks like in the eyes of a pregnant teen, and how grief distorts the face of a parent when his child is dying.
Since I believe that my work is my calling in life, if you will, I take it seriously and put my heart and soul into it.
Lopez: Can a mother be happy without a husband?
Meeker: I would never tell any group of individuals that they can’t be happy because clearly happiness is something that we choose. Mothers who have good marriages live with far less stress because they enjoy physical and emotional help. Single mothers contend with some extremely difficult challenges — particularly when their kids hit the teen years. In my experience, single mothers suffer from anxiety and depression much more frequently than married mothers.
Lopez: You’ve written a book on fathers and daughters and a book on boys. What have you learned from your readers?
Meeker: I have learned that many men feel sabotaged by our culture. They are depicted by the media as saps and fools, in desperate need of correction by their 13-year-olds, and this bothers them terribly. I have learned that teens (particularly boys) don’t feel that we adults respect them as thinking, feeling, capable young men, and that mothers feel very stressed. In fact, one mother told me that I should have titled this new book Mother Never Good Enough.
Lopez: Is any of your advice on habits more important than the rest?
Meeker: I have a strong faith and I believe that faith in God serves to make us feel loved and secure. We spend far too little time attending to our spiritual lives and studies show that mothers who nurture their faith and belief in God are indeed happier moms. In addition, studies show that kids who grow up in homes where their parents go to church or synagogue, stay away from all the bad stuff (sex, drugs, alcohol, etc.) are happier. Bottom line — I believe (and studies support my belief) that God is good for us. This habit is the most important for me personally.
Lopez: You have tips for making habits stick. Is there one overall trick for such a thing, besides doing it again and again?
Meeker: The only way we can make any habit stick is to understand what the habit involves, why we need it, and how it is important to us. In short, if we don’t feel that we need it, we will never make it stick. So I believe that understanding our need is the first step in making it stick. Then it is simply a matter of making a plan for how to change. Communicating love to our kids better, for instance is a deliberate and repeated choice. It, like the other habits, must be repeated consciously over and over. I recommend that mothers start with the one habit in the book that they feel is most important and start there. Change can feel overwhelming, so we must each start with small bites.
Lopez: Is this a book fathers should read, too? For his sake and his wife’s?
Meeker: Absolutely. Fathers should read the book because many dads struggle with many of the same stresses that mothers do. Also, if there are any fathers who see their wives ready to go over the edge, they should read this book, then slide it onto their wife’s bedside table — with a gently written note of encouragement of course!
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.