Parenting Blog

The official blog for Ann Douglas, parenting book author and weekend parenting columnist for CBC Radio. Ann is the creator of The Mother of All Books series and the author of Parenting Through the Storm. Her latest book, Happy Parents, Happy Kids, will be published by HarperCollins Canada in February 2019.

My Most Memorable Mother's Days

Sometimes Mother’s Day is sad. Sometimes motherhood is sad. Here’s what you need to know if your heart is broken this Mother’s Day.

Sometimes Mother’s Day is sad. Sometimes motherhood is sad. Here’s what you need to know if your heart is broken this Mother’s Day.

When you’ve been a mother for as long as I have (nearly 31 years, but who’s counting?), special occasions like Mother’s Day can start to blur together. It can be tough to try to figure out which child gave me which ceramic handprint on which particular Mother’s Day — unless, of course, the kindergarten teacher who supervised the handprint-making activity had the foresight to scrawl my child’s name on the back of his or her creation. (Thanks, teacher!)

But while most Mother’s Days tend to run together in my head — happy times spent in the company of my husband and my four kids — some Mother’s Days have proven to be a bit more memorable than the rest, for reasons both happy and sad.

Take Mother’s Day 1988, for example. I was 38 weeks’ pregnant and both hugely pregnant and hugely impatient to give birth. I couldn’t wait to meet my baby. I couldn’t wait to become a mother. I was excited and nervous about what lay ahead — and very conscious that my life would be radically different the next time Mother’s Day rolled around: I would actually be someone’s mother.

That was a Mother’s Day high point — a day spent in delicious anticipation of the birth of a much-wanted baby.

But I’ve experienced some Mother’s Day low points, too, years when I wanted to skip the day entirely because it was too painful to think about motherhood at all.

Take Mother’s Day 1997, for example. I was reeling from the stillbirth of my fourth child the previous fall. Or Mother’s Day 2003, when I was trying to make sense of the sudden and unexpected death of my mother just a few months earlier. On both of these occasions, I found myself going through the Mother’s Day motions for the sake of my other children while waiting for the day to end so I could forget about Mother’s Day for another year.

Sometimes Mother’s Day is sad.

Sometimes motherhood is sad.

When you love someone intensely and deeply, with all your heart, you leave yourself vulnerable to grief and pain and loss. Whether you’re a mother who has lost a child or a child who has lost a mother, the loss is searing and life-changing.

The upside of that pain, of course, is joy — joy that can find its way into your life again.

I remember the intense joy I felt on Mother’s Day 1998 — seven months after the birth of my youngest son and nineteen months after his sister was stillborn. As I cradled him in my arms and looked into his soulful little eyes, I savoured the fact that, on that particular Mother’s Day, I was basking in the sunlight of gratitude and happiness rather than shivering in the shadows of grief.

If you are a mother whose heart is breaking this Mother’s Day, here’s what you need to know:

  • You are not alone (even though it may feel that way). Other women are grappling with the same difficult mix of emotions as you are on this day that is dedicated to all things motherhood and moms.

  • And not every Mother’s Day will be as painful as this one. We’re a resilient bunch, after all, after all. You will find joy in your life again. And you deserve to feel that joy.

Ann Douglas is the author of numerous books about pregnancy and parenting including Trying Again: A Guide to Pregnancy after Miscarriage, Stillbirth, and Infant Loss and, most recently, Happy Parents, Happy Kids and Parenting Through the Storm: How to Handle the Highs, the Lows, and Everything in Between.

Spoiler Alert: The College Admissions Scandal is Actually About Economic Anxiety

I’m amazed how much time I spend thinking about the economy these days -- and how often I find myself writing about it and/or speaking about it, too. It’s gotten to the point where I feel the need to inject a note of explanation a few minutes into my Happy Parents, Happy Kids parenting presentation: “Hey, parents: if you’re starting to wonder if you accidentally stumbled into an economics lecture by mistake, please bear with me for a couple more minutes. I’m about to connect the dots between what’s happening in the economy and what we’re experiencing in our lives as parents: all the feelings of anxiety, guilt, and overwhelm.” At that point, I proceed to talk about the many ways that economic policy decisions spill over into our daily lives as parents in often-messy ways -- and in ways that only serve to make parenting so much more difficult and more stressful.

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I think we need to be doing this more often -- connecting the dots between economic policy and what we’re experiencing in our day-to-day lives. Because when we fail to take into account the many ways that economic decisions impact on our lives and experiences, we fail to pick up on the real story -- what’s actually driving people to behave in extreme, seemingly illogical, and/or self-defeating ways.

Take what happened this past week, for example. One of the biggest news stories of the week was about the US college admissions scandal: how wealthy parents have been trying to rig the system in order to give their children an unfair advantage at college admissions time. Needless to say, the majority of stories were fuelled by a tidal wave of outrage at those parents. But, in the majority of cases, the stories failed to grapple with the bigger picture: why even incredibly privileged parents feel such tremendous pressure to try to rig the admissions process on behalf of their kids.

So why are those parents feeling that pressure? The answer, of course, is economic anxiety. While these super-wealthy celebrity parents may not be worried about losing their home or being unable to put groceries on the table (the kind of stuff that tends to come to mind when most of us think about “economic anxiety”), they’re worried about a loss of status. They dread the prospect of watching their children tumble downward into the ranks of the merely garden-variety wealthy as opposed to the super-wealthy, for example. In other words, the economic anxiety is real for these parents, even if their worst nightmare scenario (“My kid might have to settle for an upper middle class life!”) is the stuff of which parental fantasies are made for the rest of us. After all, at a time when precarious employment is on the rise, a more typical dream might be considerably less lofty (“My kid has a full-time job with benefits and he can even afford to pay his own rent!”)

This whole opportunity-hoarding phenomenon is something I wrote about in the previous issue of my bi-monthly newsletter newsletter The Villager -- and it’s a point I made again this week in an interview with a reporter from GlobalNews.ca. I hadn’t expected the reporter to include my comment in her story, given that the piece she was writing was focused on how the college admissions scandal is likely to affect the lives of the young people affected, but, to my surprise and delight, she did:

Douglas says we should be looking at why parents feel this immense pressure to assist their kids in the first place. She says today’s economic realities and “dog-eat-dog” world makes parents do everything in their power to help their children get ahead. “All parents are feeling that pressure right now, it’s not limited to any certain economic group,” [Douglas] explained. “Until we grapple with some things that are happening on the economic and cultural level, I think we are being really hard on the parents who are engaging in this behaviour because it makes so much sense… in terms of the pressure they’re feeling.”  

I think we need to be talking a lot more about this stuff. I, for one, will certainly be continuing to do so, even if my efforts leave a few parents scratching their heads, wondering if they accidentally stumbled into an economics class instead of a parenting presentation.

I’ll be doing so because looking at the bigger, structural factors that are making life harder for parents is the path forward to a happier and healthier future for families and communities.

In other words, this conversation matters a lot.

What Parents Love -- and Hate -- About Parenting Books

This may seem like a strange thing for me to write about the very same week that my latest parenting book is hitting the bookstore shelves, but there’s actually a very logical explanation. I just finished drafting an email to a group of parents who had responded to a survey of mine on this very issue. You see, back when I was just starting work on my new book, I had invited them to offer their best advice on what makes a parenting book helpful, not harmful. And, let me tell you, they definitely came through for me.

Here’s what I learned from them about what makes for a great — or a not-so-great — parenting book.

They told me that they were looking for parenting books that are diverse in every conceivable sense of the world: parenting books that reflect the fact that there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all experience of parenting—or even a one-size-fits-all definition of family. Here’s how one parent put it: “Share recipes for good parenting, but make it clear that parents can—and should—substitute different ingredients in order to create their own special recipe for parenting: one that may be different from yours, but that’s still amazing.”

Ann Douglas is the author of Happy Parents, Happy Kids, which was published by HarperCollins Canada this week.

Ann Douglas is the author of Happy Parents, Happy Kids, which was published by HarperCollins Canada this week.

They urged me to steer clear of pat solutions and quick fixes—and to recognize that “not everything works for every family — and that’s okay.” They also cautioned me to avoid giving parents the message that “they’re doing it all wrong.” Parents are already feeling anxious and guilty enough, they explained. What they need is more kindness and compassion and less judgment.

They challenged me to grapple with some really big-picture issues. Issues like the lingering affects of trauma (and how that affects both parents and kids); the many ways that public policy makes parenting harder; race; class; gender; neurodiversity; and the challenges of parenting in a rapidly changing and often very scary world. Above all, they urged me to confront my own privilege and to challenge myself to write for a range of readers, not just readers with experiences similar to my own: “Talk to a diverse range of parents! Not just people like you!” they said.

“Parents don’t have to be perfect. No one gets parenting right all the time." - Ann Douglas,  Happy Parents, Happy Kids

“Parents don’t have to be perfect. No one gets parenting right all the time." - Ann Douglas, Happy Parents, Happy Kids

They spelled out what they loved about parenting books they’d read — and what they just plain hated. The books that they loved were books that taught them something: books that provided them with new insights and strategies that they could apply to their lives as parents and that were kind, compassionate, and real at the same time. And, as for the books that they quickly tossed aside? Those were the books that tended to serve up impossibly high ideals: “Parenting is messy and exhausting and just plain hard sometimes. Reading about the perfect parent or the perfect kids just feeds that sense of failure,” they said. They also urged me to bring my own glorious imperfection to the table. “We need to throw out the idea of the perfect parent. And parenting book authors need to acknowledge the limitations of their own parenting abilities and knowledge.”

As you will see if you happen to read my book, I took the parents’ comments to heart. In fact, if you take a moment to skim through the book’s introduction, I think you’ll spot their fingerprints on every single page. (Or at least I hope you will.) I am grateful to these parents for inspiring me to write the bravest parenting book that I am capable of writing: a book that isn’t afraid to connect the dots between what’s happening in our communities and what we’re experiencing in our own families—and to talk about what would actually help to make things better for parents and kids.

Ann Douglas is the author of Happy Parents, Happy Kids, which was published by HarperCollins Canada this week.

A Guilt-Free Guide to Becoming a More Active Parent

Yep. I’m putting the “guilt-free” thing right in the headline for this blog post. That’s because I know how easy it is to feel weighed down by guilt about not being as physically active as you’d like to be (and as the world keeps telling you that you should be). For entire decades of my life, I was the poster child for self-neglect. I had pretty much given up any hope of ever getting to a healthy weight or becoming a physically active person. And yet I was able to turn the situation around, gradually, over a period of time, with a whole lot of support from family and friends. So that’s the perspective I bring to this conversation. And I think it’s a timely one to have during New Year’s Resolution season. Here are some thoughts about all that! - Ann

New Year’s resolutions season has rolled around yet again – a time of year that is too often characterized by sky-high expectations followed by crushing regrets. The guilt of failing to follow through on a New Year’s resolution can be particularly crushing if you’re a parent who is trying (and so far failing) to encourage your kids to be more physically active. The good news is that there are things you can do to increase your odds of making your family’s new active living resolution stick – and in a sustainable, guilt-free way. Here’s what I’ve figured out along the way.

You’re not the only parent who is struggling to be more active (although it may feel that way).

Happy Parents Happy Kids will be published by HarperCollins Canada on February 19, 2019.

Happy Parents Happy Kids will be published by HarperCollins Canada on February 19, 2019.

Sure, your Instagram feed is overflowing with photos of parents doing all kinds of active things, but that’s not how things are playing out in the lives of every single parent. Some parents find it really tough, particularly during the early years of parenting. So if you’re finding it tough, too, please know that you’re not alone.

When I was researching my forthcoming book, I stumbled across some rather mind-blowing research about how becoming a parent impacts on a parent’s physical activity levels. (Spoiler alert: it’s not good news!)

Becoming a mother for the first time typically leads women to become less physically active — and that dip typically lasts for the next four years! And it’s not just moms who miss out on their workouts. New dads/partners often feel pressured to cut back on time spent exercising on their own in order to meet the increased demands of parenthood and to avoid triggering feelings of resentment in the couple relationship.

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But it’s not all bad news. Not by a long shot! Some parents choose to treat the transition to parenthood as an opportunity to become more active. They see it as a turning point in their lives—and opportunity to become more (as opposed to less) healthy. They’re highly committed to making these changes, so they find ways to troubleshoot the barriers that might otherwise prevent them from being as active as they’d like. They have a plan for working around time constraints, fatigue, childcare challenges, and the other things that can derail even the best of intentions – a plan that works at least some of the time!

Don’t set the bar impossibly high for yourself. Think progress, not perfection!

Start small and build on your successes over time. Don’t expect yourself to start running marathons over night (if, in fact, that’s even a goal for you). Measure success on your terms and think progress, not perfection. That’s the kind of mindset that helps to sustain you over time—as opposed to black-and-white, all-or-nothing thinking.

Look for tiny chunks of time in your schedule when you actually have a hope of making physical activity happen. This is something I was speaking with Eileen Kimmett about recently. She’s a Peterborough, Ontario, mother of three school-aged children who made the transition from being completely sedentary back in 2012 to being someone who has totally embraced physical fitness — and who has helped her husband and her kids to do the same. She told me that what allowed her to become physically active for the first time in her life was identifying a chunk of time that she could devote to physical activity on a regular basis. For Eileen, that meant first thing in the morning, when her husband was available to take care of the children before heading off to work.

For other parents, it might mean squeezing in a walk during their lunch hour at work — when their kids are in childcare or at school. Given that childcare is one of the major barriers to being physically active when you have young children (one group of researchers found that an astounding 98.6 percent of mothers cite time commitments related to childcare as a major barrier to physical activity), this is a really practical way to make physical activity happen: by zeroing in on a chunk of time when you don’t have to worry about finding someone to take care of the kids.

Remind yourself that it’s okay to treat your own health as a priority. Self-care isn’t selfish. It’s self-preservation. And it’s an act of kindness toward your child.

Not only will you be giving your child the gift of a happy, healthy parent: you’ll also be modeling the kinds of lifestyle habits that will help your child to arrive at that happy, healthy place, too. It’s the ultimate win-win.

Parents who are able to be physically active on a regular basis tend to be happier and healthier. This is because exercises boosts your energy, improves the quality of your sleep, leaves you calmer and better equipped to deal with stress, improves your focus and alertness, and makes you feel better about yourself. It has far-reaching effects on your physical and mental health, to say nothing of your parenting.

And kids who have physically active parents benefit from some pretty powerful role modelling. There’s a solid body of research to demonstrate that more active parents have more active kids — and that more active kids become more active adults. (By the way, having one parent who is physically active is good. Having two parents who are physically active is great. Children are most likely to participate in sports themselves when both parents (as opposed to one parent or no parents) do likewise.)

And here’s an interesting twist: More active kids have more active parents. Active living seems to beget more active living in families. The top three tips to be gleaned from the research on what actually encourages kids to be active? Be active as a family; make it fun; and head outdoors!

Don’t rely on motivation alone. Motivation tends to fade pretty quickly.

Sure, use that motivation to blast off with great enthusiasm — but then anchor that resolution on something a little more solid, by creating a predictable habit or routine. Better yet, automate that habit so that you don’t have to waste any time thinking about whether or when you’re going to be physically active. You’ll just know you’re going to be active in the morning, in the evening, on the weekend, or whatever the case may be. And at some point down the road, with enough repetitions, being active will feel as automatic as brushing your teeth.

Embrace your new identity as an individual and as a family. Start to think of yourself as a physical active person and a physically active family, even if you’re relatively new to this thing. You’ll find it easier to honour your commitment to get out of bed a little earlier or to drag yourself off the couch after dinner if you remind yourself that, “I’m the kind of person – or we’re the kind of family – that is committed to being physically active on a regular basis.” You’ll want to live up to that image of yourself!

Don’t be afraid to tap into support from other people. Instead of feeling guilty for asking for that support, look forward to the day when you will be able to pay that favor forward by offering encouragement to the next physical activity newbie you encounter when you’re out for a run or a walk.

Finally, hold on to hope. Who cares how many times you’ve struggled to become active in the past. Maybe this is the time your new active living habit will stick! I know this can happen because it happened to me. Six years ago today (yes, today), I embarked on the journey from card-carrying couch potato to physically fit person — and I’ve never looked back. I’m living proof that it’s possible to make this shift — even if it feels completely impossible when you’re first starting out. Bottom line? You can find your way to that happier, healthier place.


This blog post is based on my most recent parenting column for CBC Radio. Want to listen to the entire thing? You can tune in to my conversation with Nana aba Duncan, host of CBC Radio’s Fresh Air, right here!

Ann Douglas is the weekend parenting columnist for CBC Radio and the author of numerous bestselling books about pregnancy and parenting. On February 19, HarperCollins Canada will be publishing her latest book, Happy Parents Happy Kids. This month, Ann is volunteering to lead Project Active Family for the physical literacy non-profit group Active for Life because she wants to encourage other parents to make the shift to becoming more active with their kids (and to make that shift in a sustainable, guilt-free way).

Family Games Night is Supposed to be Fun. So Why is Everybody Crying?

It seemed like such a good idea at the time: scheduling a family games night. Back when you first added “family games night” to the calendar, you had a picture in your head of how much fun this night would be for you and your kids, with everyone talking and laughing as you moved your game pieces around the board. Of course, that fantasy only lasted until the moment you actually started playing. Then, before you knew it, one kid was crying, another was stomping out of the room, and you were left wondering how it could all go so wrong so fast….

As it turns out, this is a pretty common scenario. It’s not just your family that has a hard time playing board games. Almost every parent I’ve talked to about the supposed joy of family games night has a board game horror story to share with me. Kids crying, parents trying to convince them that there’s nothing to cry about, kids crying harder. It’s the stuff of which not-so-great family memories are made….

Fortunately there are things you can do to put the fun back in family games night.

One option is to make a point of playing cooperative games (games that encourage players to work as members of team that is pursuing a common goal like solving a puzzle). Now I have to say, I didn’t have a lot of success getting my kids excited about playing cooperative games during their growing up years. Some of the games I purchased at the time were (dare I say it?) pretty boring! But apparently cooperative games have come a long way since then. In fact, according to a couple of parents I have spoken with recently, the current generation of cooperative games (games like Codenames, for example) are challenging enough to actually be fun for adults and kids alike. Trust me: that’s a big improvement!

Another option is to tweak the rules of traditional games to make them a little less cut throat. This is the approach my friend Cathy chose to take when her two daughters were growing up. I have fond memories of our two families playing Cathy’s kinder, gentler version of Monopoly. Here are a few examples of how the game would work. If a player was down on her luck, the other players could help that player out by paying her tax bill or picking up the tab for her rent as opposed to gleefully driving her into bankruptcy. Likewise, a player who was lucky enough to land on “Free Parking” and who got to scoop up all the free money was expected to share that financial windfall with other players. Cathy’s version of the rules didn’t make the game any less enjoyable — but it certainly cut back on the tears. I don’t have a single memory of any player crying. Not ever!

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with another parent, Jenny Raspberry, who has found other creative ways of tweaking the rules of traditional games to make them more fun and less cut throat for her two school-aged kids. Starting when her kids were really little, she gave them the opportunity to play grown-up board games, but in a way that wouldn’t be too discouraging or too frustrating. She started out by giving her kids the chance to join a team led by an adult. A five year old’s role as a junior member of the team might be to role the dice or spin the game spinner or to move the game piece around the board (the actual fun stuff when you’re a five year old). Being part of a team gave her kids a way to be part of the game and to learn the rules in a non-threatening, age-appropriate way. And if the team lost, it was no big deal because it wasn’t the child’s loss, it was the team’s loss, and so it felt a whole lot less personal.

Of course, some people may wonder if it’s a good idea to dial back on that element of competition. After all, don’t kids have to learn how to hold their own in a fiercely competitive world? Sure, they do have to learn that lesson eventually — but I don’t think we have to go out of our way to look for opportunities to teach them that lesson. Life has a way of delivering those kinds of learning opportunities on a fairly regular basis, after all.

Jenny has found some sensible middle ground. She tells her kids, who are now eight and ten, that they won’t always have the opportunity to play by their family’s kinder and gentler board game rules. There will be times when they are playing board games at someone else’s house when they’ll have to play by the official (and inevitably harsher) rules. She also tells them that they’ll have to practice being gracious losers and gracious winners so that other people will actually want to play games with them again.

So it doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition (you don’t have to raise kids who are only willing to pay cooperative games or competitive games) and the rules can evolve over time, as kids get more practice at being good winners and good losers.

Another way to reduce the amount of crying during board games is to ask yourself upfront what kind of experience you want your family to have while they’re playing the game — and to choose your board game accordingly. This is something Jenny thinks about a lot. She loves playing board games as a family, but that doesn’t mean she’s necessarily a fan of every kind of board game. Frankly, she’s not…. She explains: “I feel like any game where you can be purposefully malicious to another player….[tends] to lead to more harsh feelings.” These types of games also tend to trigger a desire for revenge — and those aren’t exactly the kinds of feelings she wants to be promoting when the goal is to have a fun time as a family.

That’s not to say that you want to avoid playing cut-throat games entirely, but, if you do decide to play that kind of game, maybe you want to talk a bit about what’s happening in the game. Is it fair that a few lucky rolls of the dice can give a particular player a huge advantage? How does it feel to be one of the other players in the game — say a player who is really down on his luck?

As it turns out, that was one of the original intentions of the inventor of the 1904 board game The Landlord’s Game – the game that inspired Monopoly: to spark these very types of conversations. The inventor of that game, Lizzie Magie, had envisioned her game as a critique of capitalism. In fact, at one point her game came with two very different sets of rules: one set that promoted widespread prosperity (a world in which every player had the potential to do well) and one set that created a winner-takes-all situation (the version of the game that inspired Monopoly).

Is it worth the effort to have these kinds of conversations – and to put so much thought into the types of board games you choose to play with your kids? Jenny Raspberry thinks it is. She told me that her family is already reaping the rewards of being mindful of their approach to playing board games. “The best for me is when my daughter is having a hard time in the game and my son says, ‘It’s okay’ or ‘Yay, good for you!’ when she [makes a good move]: to see them copying what I’m trying to instil. Yes, they are sometimes still poor sports, but when the positive comes out, I really feel like, ‘Oh, they’re going to have each others’ backs in life.’ And, for me, that’s the best.”

So it’s all about finding that sensible middle ground: a way to make family games night fun as opposed to a source of mutual dread.

Let the board games begin!

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Ann Douglas is the author of numerous books about parenting including, most recently, Parenting Through the Storm. Her brand new book, Happy Parents, Happy Kids, will be published by HarperCollins Canada in February 2019.