"Mommy, are you happy?" asks my two-year old son on an almost daily basis. Right before I'm about to uncover something he wasn't supposed to do but mostly when I make that face -- the one where I clearly show how disappointed I am in the mess, the fights with his sister over toys, or his stubbornness towards eating his dinner.
The ongoing question has no doubt made me wonder: what is it about me that has my son guessing whether or not I am happy? And why am I burdening him with such a monumental emotional virtue that yields the very definition of what it means to be happy?
The pursuit of happiness is an ongoing task, flying at us at various points in our lives -- sometimes in crisis mode when there's a major shift, but most often in a constant stream, where we are just living our lives the best way we know how (in mini-crisis modes). The most common major cornerstones in our lives, such as marriage and parenting, naturally hold a poker deck of expectations that we sometimes throw down mystified and ask, Am I happy?
Where do these expectations come from? How do we invent such calibers to measure ourselves against? And the even bigger jackpot question: why?
In my first year of motherhood, packing a simple diaper bag drove me to near insanity. I went through diaper bags like my daughter went through diapers. I'd pack lightly in a purse to avoid the already full arms in which I was donning a baby, a camera, a stroller (you get the idea). But then found myself frustrated when I didn't have that extra blanket for the unexpected cooler weather. I'd over-pack in a bag with twenty compartments, thinking I was so smart to organize myself and have everything on hand, only to find myself even more frustrated when I couldn't remember which pocket exactly the wipes were in before my son blew a snot rocket onto my shirt as I walked into a dinner party.
I also thought I'd be the kind of mom who wouldn't bribe with sweets, give my kids chips, or bring home boxes of processed sugar and artificial this and that -- even if it had Dora's picture on the cover. I'd roll my eyes when I'd catch my sister giving her kids soda, and even threatened her (more than once) that if she ever gave even a sip to one of mine, there would be war.
In the beginning, I prepared myself with the essentials with specialty cookbooks and blenders in order to help my plight of giving the kids a healthy start run smoothly. I made menus in Excel, kept a journal, and laminated a cheat sheet list of good foods to have and posted them on the kitchen fridge. But even this circus didn't go as planned. I used ice cube trays to organize the pureed fruits and vegetables, but the kids didn't like the mush, and eating vegetables proved futile as I burned most of them in my efforts to try to reheat the square cubes. (I don't have the cooking gene, unfortunately.)
As a working mom, the skills I learned in my field naturally crossed over into my parenting. And perhaps this is where my expectations spiraled out of control. I found myself confused, depressed, and worse, hitting rock bottom and not enjoying my role as a mother because parenting wasn't like my job. It wasn't organized and color-coded. And it didn't quit at 5:00 p.m.
After a hard look at me, I realized that the expectations I had engraved about parenting were based out of ads I had seen in magazines and role models who appeared to have it all, and this insatiable desire to be and do everything for our children.
The truth is we can't. There are limits -- and part of growing up (meaning us adults) is to learn what those are -- and to be OK with it. In fact, it's even better to embrace it and creatively work it towards our advantage.
For example, I am now OK with not being Julia Child and embrace that my husband has taken this role instead (even when he does make green beans), and I no longer feel guilty for letting the kids watch The Backyardigans while my husband and I talk about our day uninterrupted (even if it's just for 30 minutes). Things that were once a stigma are now necessary choices, which sometimes include recruiting the help of extended family. Because the time and energy we put into focusing on all the things we aren't or can't do should be spent discovering who our children are: these tiny compassionate beings who help shape who we all are as individuals and as a family.
Our children have an inherent ability to love and learn, a strong desire to express themselves, and an exorbitant amount of wonder for the world around them, including looking to us as their parents to help guide them. Our only expectation, therefore, is to love these beautiful beings in our lives unconditionally and with respect.
Anxiety over unmarked check lists or spaghetti on the floor should never take precedence over letting our kids know (with conviction and consistency) that we are truly happy because they are ours.
Footnote: It took me close to a year before I finally figured out how to pack the perfect diaper bag. It's a sling backpack -- and my husband wears it.
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