Can Stoicism Make You A Happier Parent?

Confession time

I feel guilty.

Why? Because there are times I feel I’m failing at my most important job: being a mom.

My son hurts all the time – and I can’t protect him.

He is having a hard time transitioning gracefully to adulthood. He struggled to make it through high school – it’s tough when you miss over 100 days of school a year. It’s been hard for him to work regular hours. Pain spikes are tough when professors are unforgiving. His bad days are what his good days used to be (pain rehab works). But despite my pride in what he’s accomplished and the man he has become, I’m not the mom on Facebook humblebragging about my kid’s million dollar startup.  He’s struggling. Could I have done something more?

I try to find that perfect balance between challenge and support – nudging him out when he needs to get out and encouring him to rest when that’s the best option.  But do I get it right? I never know.

And I study parenting. When I feel bad about myself as a mom, I feel like both a personal and professional failure.

Stoicism 101: Focus on what you can control. 

I learned many things from my mom, a woman who raised five kids from the ’50s through the 90s. Humor. Discipline. How to make a great fruitcake. When to say “Because I said so.”

Most importantly, I learned an attitude that is profoundly Stoic: “That is not my problem.” 

This year of the pandemic, I’ve started a reading project on Stoicism.1 A Greek philosophical school embraced by the Romans, Stoicism has had profound influences on the early Christian church and was formative in the development of cognitive-behavioral therapy. It resonates deeply with Buddhism.

What Stoicism is not:

The first thing I learned about Stoicism is that most of what I thought I knew about it was wrong.

Stoicism is not about keeping a stiff upper lip, believing everything happens for a reason, burying your emotions, or sucking it up.  Stoics aspire to be rational, altruistic, and pragmatic. They don’t aspire to be cold or emotionless.

Stoicism is about investing in what you can control

The core element of Stoic philosophy is focusing one’s energy and well-being on that which you have entirely within your control. Many things are beyond our control—if the pandemic has taught us nothing else, it should have taught us that. Bad things happen to good people.  

One thing we lack complete control over is our health.

The operative word here is ‘complete’. Our health depends on our genes, random events (virus exposure, getting hit in the face with a softball), the quality of our diet, accessibility to health care, the weather (don’t get me started about the weather).

We can’t control those things. 

Therefore, say the Stoics, I should let go of my desire to be healthy and pain free. That GOAL is out of my control and I’m bound to be disappointed. (Don’t abandon me here – I’m not saying give up.)

Instead, I should focus my time, attention, and happiness on changing what is in my control.

  • I should feel satisfaction in my efforts to maintain health.
  • I should strive to find the best possible information about my illness.
  • I should take advantage of support groups and strive to make myself the kind of person who elicits positive regard and support
  • I should work to do things that are worthy of respect.

In other words, I should focus on:

  • Doing my best
  • Observing what affects my health & trying to align my life with what makes me better
  • Helping myself
  • Helping others
  • My progress

If I’ve done all I can, I should be content. (Note the similarity between this and having a growth mindset.)

Bottom line: My satisfaction with myself should rest on my efforts – which I can control. If it rests on the outcome of those efforts, which are beyond my control, I’m bound to fail.

Stoicism and parenting. 

My mom worked hard at her parenting. She gave us advice, set rules that seemed stricter than most at the time (but entirely reasonable now), and arranged things so that it was easy for us to make pretty good choices.

She was honest about what she thought but wise enough to be quiet and let us talk. She gave advice when asked for, but didn’t jump in to solve our problems. I swore she could read minds, but now, as a parent, know she just knew us well and was a great observer of the obvious.

However—and this is where we get to Stoicism—she knew what she couldn’t control. 

She had thoughts on our careers—practical thoughts like how we were going to keep a roof over our heads or what kinds of hours we would work in different jobs. But what we did with that information and the decisions we made? That was on us. 

She had hopes for our futures and helped us to get there. But whatever happened was what happened. 

What she did have control over, she controlled. She gave support. She pushed and (definitely) nagged. 

She absolutely, positively, and unconditionally loved us and expressed that love all the time. She was always there when we needed her. That was something she could control.

But she also always kept sharp boundaries. What she could do. What we could do. What was outside both of our control. Her happiness focused on what was on her.

Parenting, Anxiety, and Joy

One of the hardest things for me about parenting is anxiety. I worry—all the time—about my “kids.” My kids when they were little. My kids when they were really sick. My now-adult kids. I want joy and love and satisfaction for them. I really want them to be healthy. But all of those things are outside my control.

Some of that is at least partly in my kids’ control—their efforts to find the things that will give them good lives and bring them about. But a lot of it isn’t even on things they can control. They can control their efforts. They can’t control what happens.

Knowing that helps me be more tranquil as a parent. Just like it helped my mom keep her cool. I think it’s also made all of us happier. 

Most of the time. I am still a Stoic in training. Letting go of what I want that is out of my control is still a work in progress.

1. I am reading A Handbook for New Stoics by Massimo Pigliucci & Gregory Lopez. It has 52 short readings and exercises – designed to be done one a week for a year.

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