By Amy Senk | Contributor


Photo credit courtesy of Kristen Howerton

I knew a lot about Kristen Howerton before I ever set up our interview. How could I not? The Costa Mesa-based family therapist, writer and activist has been popping up everywhere. There she is on Fresh Air on NPR, there’s her opinion piece in The New York Times. She blogs about her divorce, about her children, about her life. She’s published a book, Rage Against the Minivan, which came out last summer.


Most articles and interviews with Kristen begin with how she became a mother of four children, who now range in age from 11-16 years old. She decided to adopt after several miscarriages, and her first child was a six-month-old who had been in foster care. Later, she adopted an infant from a Haitian orphanage who was three years old by the time details were final. And there’s a whole story about being in Haiti for the adoption when a 7.0 earthquake struck, forcing her to leave her son behind and fly home via military plane. When she’d given up hope of having biological children, she gave birth to two daughters.


Family life means something different to each of us, but for Kristen, it’s a complicated combination of work, parenting, self-employment and creativity (She makes time for social media pet projects like “Pinterest, You Are Drunk”). Add in a global pandemic and hybrid schooling, a heaping layer of national racial tension and the spotlight on the Black Lives Matter movement when you’re a white mom rearing Black teenagers— and you may begin to understand the wild ride that is Kristen Howerton’s life.


The pandemic lockdown, she said, affected all families, throwing them into chaos and putting more pressure than ever on moms. And if you’re feeling guilty because you weren’t completely content, bundled up in a Little House in the Big Woods sort of way — stop.


“Even in cultures or time periods when there was a lot of family time, there was still a lot going on outside the house,” Kristen said. “People would be working or going out. I don’t think we’re really built for this. We need time away from others to recharge and refuel, and when we’re operating on a deficit, which I think most of us are right now, our patience is lower.”


Her family, she said, did make time to attend Black Lives Matter protests (in masks) last spring. But that wasn’t a token nod to having a racially blended family.


“Even though my family is built through adoption and is multiracial, as a mom, I’m still dealing with all the same things that every other mom is dealing with,” said Kristen. “We’re dealing with motivation to finish homework and figuring out what sports we’re going to play and getting them to clean their rooms. We do have these additional issues of being a multiracial family on top of that, but I think my general experience is pretty relatable to most other moms.”


With this, I feel as if she’s given me permission to ask any question, to go beyond the topics of adoption or race. As a fairly recent empty nester, here’s my chance to ask a true expert about some of my nagging concerns: regrets, relationships with adult children, how to create lifelong meaningful connections.


“I don’t think it’s possible to parent without regrets,” Kristen said. “I think a life that is devoid of regrets is a life that is not being reflected upon. All of us are human, and all of us are fallible. I almost feel like, as parents, we need to be constantly evaluating ourselves, just like we would in any other avenue of our lives.”


Don’t berate yourself, she said, but look at yourself with grace and insight. Let yourself say, “I could have handled that better,” or “I’d like to show more empathy the next time something like this happens.”


“It’s not a life sentence if we’ve made a mistake,” she said. “It informs us, and it pushes us to be better next time.”


According to Kristen, it’s never too late to think of parenting as a ground-up process.


“Connection and empathy,” she said. “That’s it. Everything else on top of that is extra. If you have connection with your children, where they really feel loved, and if you have empathy so that they really feel heard and understood, that’s the foundation of all of it.”


Another huge part of parenting is to figure out how to rear children who will become connected adults.


“We want to be raising kids who are going to be relationally whole,” she said. “That starts in the family. We can’t raise kids who are not connected to us who will then go on and be connected to their spouses and their children.”


Resist the urge to obsess about what your kids will become, which college they will attend, what sport they will excel in.


“We don’t know who our kids are going to become — we don’t,” she said. “If we can maintain a posture of curiosity and discovery about our children, it’s much better for them, and it’s much better for us.”


And, because PTA meetings and Little League games and birthday parties ultimately wind down, parents — particularly mothers who have put careers on hold — should also consider their futures.


“In the same way that we are raising our kids to slowly build their independence from us and launch, we also have to be working on ourselves so we’re also ready to launch into our new phase,” she said. “My biggest fear would be to get to that finish line, so to speak, that youngest child’s graduation, and to then look inward and think — I don’t know who I am. What that looks like for me is making sure that I’m creating space for myself, that I’m not just completely wrapped up in only mothering. And I am excited. Because I have aspirations and dreams that go beyond just being a mom.”