Be Content if the Smallest Thing Goes Well

When I got pregnant for the first time, I naively thought that having a baby wouldn't impact my lifestyle that much. Before children, I used to enjoy international travel, spontaneous dinners out, day long hikes in the wilderness and uninterrupted evenings with my husband spent reading or watching movies. I had a lot of time and freedom to do as I liked.

Having a child is one of the most joyful experiences I have had, and the first few months of my son’s life were the happiest I can remember. But I was somewhat unprepared for the amount of sleep deprivation, challenge, and loss of freedom that having a baby would entail. An infant makes your world become as tiny as it is. Even the simplest things like taking a shower, cooking a meal, or going out of the house for an hour became Herculean tasks. I was more exhausted than I had ever been in my life. Some days were a struggle. I realized that I needed to radically shift my perspective.

The Stoics thought that we should view life’s challenges as opportunities to excel rather than as disasters. So that’s what I tried to do. Certain Stoic verses really helped me during this time.

For example, I originally thought that I would be able to get some projects around the house finished in the months immediately following my son's birth. What I didn't quite get was that stuff that would have taken a few hours for me to accomplish before - when I was well rested and without interruption - took me weeks or months to get done after our baby was born. Now I had to wait until I actually had energy, and the baby was napping for a good stretch of time…a hard combination of factors to come by.

In the Mediations (IX, 29), Marcus Aurelius implores us to:

“Do what nature now requires. Set yourself in motion… and do not look about to see if anyone will observe it…but be content if the smallest thing goes well, and consider such an event to be no small matter…Be satisfied with success in even the smallest matter, and think that even such a result is no trifle.”

Rather than getting frustrated at not being able to accomplish my to-do list items, I would be happy if even one thing got done, and unperturbed if nothing at all got done. The newborn period is precious. It’s not the time to be piling on projects and responsibilities. I realized that it was better to be relaxed and carefree as I cared for my baby.

As a new parent, it’s easy to struggle with the fact that having children means giving up the lifestyle, hobbies, freedom that you once had. I can say that I sometimes experienced feelings of deprivation, but when I changed my expectations about what life with a baby would be like, my attitude transformed.
Rather than ruminating on the fact that I couldn’t easily go hiking, mountain biking, or out for dinner like I used to, I remembered Epictetus’ instruction:

“Endure and renounce.” (Enchiridion)

By bringing my values into accord with the Stoic virtue of moderation, I tried to remember that life isn’t about being entertained and having fun. Only virtue is necessary for happiness, being good and doing good. Our lives shouldn’t be spent in pursuit of indifferent distractions. I came to feel that I wasn’t missing out on anything. I was able to be of service to my child and that was enough. I tried to make life as simple and unstressful as possible for my husband and I by saying no to unnecessary obligations and finding satisfaction in small things.

Many aspects of parenthood are out of our control: our child’s temperament, his sleep, his health, and so on. While it was easy to feel frustrated after pulling myself from my warm bed in the middle of the night for the fifth time, I tried to keep my emotions in check even though operating on such little sleep was difficult.

According to Marcus Aurelius,

“When you have been compelled by circumstances to be disturbed in a manner, quickly return to yourself and do not continue out of tune longer than the compulsion lasts.” (Meditations 6:11).

So instead of thinking, “Why won’t my son sleep?” I tried to remind myself that not only is this is phase quite temporary, but it’s in a baby’s nature to wake up at night. I cannot control his nature. I found it helpful to keep my thoughts confined to what I could control; how responded to him. Since I cannot change my son’s nature, I also didn’t worry about comparing his sleep habits to those of other babies, or about trying to “train,” him to sleep. I tried not to become frustrated each time the situation changed, because like everything in life, it was transitory.

Babies and small children require non-stop care. Rather than grumbling about the amount of work that involved in taking care of my child, I tried to focus on present moment, on being with him and feeling joy.

Marcus Aurelius states (Mediations 2:5):

“Concentrate every minute like a Roman on doing what’s in front of you with precise and genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice. And on freeing yourself from all other distractions…”

Focusing on the present moment helped to prevent me from being overwhelmed by responsibilities and anxieties about the future. Rather than the endless mental chatter of “Will the baby go down for his nap? Will I be able to get anything done today?” I concentrated on doing each thing one at a time. I was able to enjoy what I was doing more and not get bogged down by a list of tasks and concerns.

The present moment is all that we have. If we are not happy in the moment then when are we happy? I didn’t want to miss out on the joy of the moment, of spending irreplaceable time with my child.

Leah Goldrick became a practicing Stoic as a result of her ongoing inquiry into the Western wisdom traditions. Her website is Common Sense Ethics.