"I could bring that joy back into my parenting by paying attention to what we were doing in each moment," Katia Hetter writes.

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Story highlights

Recent parenting books can cause already anxious parents to worry even more

Accepting powerlessness over much of my child's life frees me to focus on joy

Always having a plan for neighborhood ice cream gatherings increases happiness

CNN  — 

I am exhausted from the middle of the night “Will she or won’t she throw up?” session.

She did not, but still, it’s probably not the perfect time to ask myself if I’m parenting from a place of joy or a place of fear.

It’s my divorce that forced the question, helped along by a recent onslaught of terror-generating books by Tiger Moms, American Moms in France, American Moms Feeding Their Children as the French Do and Survival Moms preparing me for actual disasters – all of them fresh reminders of how I might fail my child. Even without a breakup, parenting is a marathon with little down time to rest or refuel. Spiritual leaders’ and therapists’ offices are filled with parents who are burned out by the task.

Slogging through this difficult time doesn’t make for happy parenting. I lived in survival mode at first, pretty much satisfied when we left the house with brushed hair and teeth, washed faces and clean clothes. Add her packed lunch to the list and I was jazzed we got to school on time. (I am told by veterans of divorce that I aim high.) It felt like the prologue to a life of keeping my head above water. I knew I wanted something different.

The kiddo and I were at the local burger joint a few months ago when the opportunity presented itself. My 4-year-old had the crayons and paper that are always in my bag, and I decided to join her. At first she couldn’t see that I was drawing her favorite thing in the whole world, so every color I added to my rainbow was a surprise. She made me feel like Matisse when she figured it out. That’s when I saw her pure joy at our joint art project. I saw I could bring that joy back into my parenting by paying attention to what we were doing in each moment.

If I thought about it too much, the weight of the responsibility could crush me. Did I serve too much pasta? Use too many time outs? Put her to bed too late? Would I sink from all the fear about everything I couldn’t control and everything else I could screw up in my child’s life? Or would I celebrate the journey I’m taking with my kid and raise her with joy?

As I considered the immediate benefit of our 10-minute drawing session, I decided to choose joy, and not just for my child’s sake. It’s become a philosophy of life. I’m doing it because it’s the only life I’ve got, and I want a good one. And even more, I want my daughter to create a good life for herself. Here’s how I’m doing it.

I accept my own powerlessness. The first step of many 12-step programs, it’s my first rule of parenting. I have so little control over my child’s life. Acceptance of that fact is key to my happiness. I first turned to it when we were potty training (you can guess why). But I can still freak out when I realize how little power I have to keep my kid safe. She could be knocking herself out in her school’s wilderness of a playground. (Look, I’m freaking out right now.)

The next step is to figure out what I can do to address my fear. If I fear she might drown, I can sign her up for swim lessons. (I did.) But I can’t protect her every minute of every day. When we are apart, I can do my job, be good to myself and have a sane, rested mama welcoming her when I see her again.

Now I’m free to think about what makes me happy. The kiddo loves to cook, and she’s more likely to eat what she makes. Pasta with a meat sauce? Asparagus, spinach or broccoli? She literally yells “YUM!” at the dinner table. When is the last time I yelped with such happiness about asparagus? Ten joy points.

I choose community. Without any extended family living nearby, I picked our new neighborhood deliberately. Our neighbors’ kids walk into our house after a polite knock, and mine jumps out of the car into their homes without looking back. In case of emergency, every kid knows he or she can walk into any of our houses and ask for help. I host pizza parties, make amazing chili and always have ice cream cones on hand. (Neighbor Bonnie always has the best ice cream to top the cones.)

I also picked a faith community. My religious background is a complicated mix of faiths, so we landed at a Unitarian Universalist congregation that celebrates nearly everything I have ever celebrated. Our basic values focus on the integrity and worth of all people, but the individual path is left up to each person. There’s nothing like shopping for Passover and Easter meals and explaining each holiday to a child asking questions about everything at the grocery store.

I come back to present. Whose brain hasn’t checked out after the umpteenth version of “The itsy bitsy spider?” I can tell my brain has left the room when my kiddo starts to yell my name. When I complained to my mom about the yelling, she asked, “Do you answer her when she asks you a question the first time?” Indeed, she is as worthy of respect as any adult. If she interrupts, I ask her to wait until I can speak with her. (She doesn’t always listen but we’re working on it.)

Whenever my brain starts to go somewhere else, I ask my mind to come back to the present and ask, “What are we doing here?” Play-Doh, paint, Gak! (a fabulous silly putty like substance), dribbling a soccer ball, sprinklers. That’s what we’re doing, so I do it. It’s usually a better place than wherever my brain just went.

I ask for help. If something isn’t going right, whether it’s tantrums or not sleeping through the night, I try to talk to my ex, my child’s teacher, pediatrician or other parents going through the same stressors. Even if I don’t get the “right” answer, I get some sympathy and relief from asking the question. And I ask for help. The three other families on my block have happily picked the kiddo up at school or taken care of her while I bought last-minute groceries before the storm of the century.

I’ve also turned into a parenting geek. Reading all those parenting books actually can help me parent if I take what I like and leave the rest. As the daughter of a scientist, there’s something about research that calms me down. In “Mindless Eating,” Cornell University’s Brian Wansink says that forcing a kid to eat when she’s not hungry teaches her to override her own internal signals for when she’s full. “NurtureShock” by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman lays out the science behind children’s need for lots of sleep.

Yale Parenting Center director Alan Kazdin has convinced me that punishment (corporal or any other kind) is not likely to be effective unless some effort is made to develop the positive behavior as a replacement. If what they’re saying makes sense to me, I try to implement some of their advice. (Not all at once.)

I also read divorce books and get more relief. “The Good Divorce” by Constance Ahrons has simple, straightforward advice, backed by her groundbreaking research interviewing children going through divorce and decades after the divorce: Put the kids first. Don’t fight in front of them. Try to do some stuff together as a family. Live the values you want your child to learn. We’re still a family.

I decide what I like. After nearly 10 years of marriage gone, I’m revisiting the question, “What do I like to do?” It’s perfect timing for the kiddo, for whom everything is a new adventure. We’re figuring out that we like grilling with the neighbors, kicking a soccer ball, listening to music outdoors and throwing dance parties in the living room. We might start taking piano lessons or biking together.

Whatever we choose, she is getting a more present parent. With practice, I can now feel when the light switch in my brain quietly clicks off. It’s OK. I know other parents feel the same way. I can rest for a minute. Then I can go back into my brain and turn it back on, quite deliberately, and be present for the next mundane or sad or joyful moment.