7.09.2010

Happiness Runs In a Circular Motion

Last week, I elicited gales of laughter from my two year old. Gales. Buckets-full of laughter. And I did it again and again. And I couldn’t believe how stupidly easy it was. We played the high-five game – you know: gimme five, on the side, up high, down low – too slow! But instead of down low/too slow, I introduced, cut the pickle – tickle, tickle! It was really quite bizarre, actually, how amusing this was to my daughter. We played it for a good 10 minutes straight, which is a long time for a two year old. And every time we played, she laughed. And every time she laughed, I laughed.

And then, on Sunday, another article came out, talking about what drudgery parenting is, how disappointed you’ll be with your life after kids, and how much you would rather be doing things like oh, shopping or cleaning house than providing child care.

I don’t know how much more of this I can take.

Ostensively, the piece was about how having children would bring you joy but would not make you happy, and to whit, went on to provide many, many examples of the unhappiness parents face – with their looks, with their spouses, with their leisure time, with their financial situation, with their expectations, with their lives. All these things, of course, being made so much the worse by the decision to have children, and the false expectation that all of the above would be – what? magically unchallenged and filled with rainbows simply because you now have the privilege of changing someone’s shitty diapers?

Really? Who ever believed that? No one I know, not one person at all, so why should there be a six page article refuting such a thing?

There are some truths in the article. Yes, parents are usually tired, often overtaxed and would probably agree that the really cool thing about parenthood and having children is that it transcends happiness. They call it joy.

I call it love.

But really, back to the gist of the thing, the thing that got my sensible white cotton panties in a knot (because everybody knows that sexy undies are only for the childless): the idea that our children are supposed to make us happy at all.

Since when? Just as kids are not born with an instruction manual, they are also not born with a resume. The only expectations we should have of our babies is that they will poop a lot, eat a lot, keep us up at night and eventually learn to hold a brush so that they can at least brush my hair, damn it, while I read Barnyard Dance to them for the gazillionth time.

A while ago, in my more energetic days (read: when I only had one child), I wrote a really heated piece in response to that other great disservice to moms and dads, Parenthood Is Boring. The basis of my entire post was, hey fools, what the hell did you expect?

This time, that’s maybe the subtitle of my initial response, but the headline would be: Happiness – It’s Not Just For Parents Anymore.

And what I mean by that is, wade through all the harsh realities of parenting – which (and here I will also agree with a point in the article) only we seem to consider harsh, and every other generation and culture seems not really to consider at all – and where we are left is in a circle.

A family is a circle, where joy, happiness, pride and struggle is learned and shared. If you ask my mother, the only thing you inherit from your children is insanity. The rest you’re supposed to teach to, and share with, each other.

And hey, I’m still getting there. Trust me, in my family there are expectations about happiness – my children seem to think that it is my job to make them happy. It’s true: they shout, dance! and this monkey dances. But then they smile and laugh, so the dance monkey smiles and laughs. See? It’s circular. And a circle is balanced. And it rolls. Find the balance in parenthood, and if it temporarily eludes you, roll with it. It’s not forever, it’s for now, and since you had the kids anyway, think about what you’re going to look back on and regret. Are you going to regret that you couldn’t buy a pair of gladiator sandals because your kid needed glasses, or are you going to regret that you were so preoccupied with feeling overwhelmed and sorry for yourself that you didn’t notice that your child no longer runs into your arms when she needs comforting, because it’s circular, and she can sense your preoccupation and unhappiness.

Instead of bemoaning all the reasons we are unhappier people because we sprung a few kids from our loins, let’s try concentrating on all the very simple ways we make our children happy every day, and all the very simple ways they make us happy – from a reluctant giggle to a heart-bursting joy, every day. Don’t believe it’s possible? Seriously, try stroking your child’s arm, soft as velvet, or laying with them and feeling their sweet breath slow as they fall asleep. It’ll make you happy. It’ll make them happy. Or just teach your kid the ‘cut the pickle’ game. I guarantee you’ll at least crack a smile, and hey, it’s gotta be better than doing housework.


These people make me happy. I must be an idiot.


Postscript: Another item in the article that I wouldn’t refute is that Scandinavian parents have less worry than American parents. Sounds true. At the very least, Scandinavians get a year’s maternity leave paid, during which time they can bond with their child, breastfeed for more than a week, get to know their child as a person, and get to know themselves as a parent. If I’m not mistaken, Americans are forced back to work after 6 weeks unpaid leave. Full disclosure: Canadians get the Scandinavian treatment. I stayed home, getting paid more than $400 a week, for at least a year after each of my children was born. I was not forced to go back to work still blurry-eyed and shell-shocked from the birth, unable to ever find my footing or balance as a result. I will completely agree that those circumstances can eff up a parent’s perspective on happiness. Mobilize and fight for change, oh parents of America.

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19 comments:

  1. I think those Scandinavian's get guaranteed leave until the kids are 5. The US system is so brutal.

    stroking your child’s arm, soft as velvet, or laying with them and feeling their sweet breath slow as they fall asleep. is so delicious and lovely. and, maybe, what it is all about.

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  2. I agree with you, but I do think the article was also questioning all these studies that say we're so unhappy.

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  3. Nothing gives me more without having to do anything than my kids, but I was also interested in the many studies of unhappiness in parents (which may have nothing to do with being parents, and I sometimes struggle with myself) who obviously are not as self aware or at least as grounded with it all as you seem to be.

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  4. Auntie JennoJuly 09, 2010

    Our relationship with our children is really no different than that with anyone else, no one can make you happy. It is not their responsibility. But we can see parenting as a beautiful gift and a chance at creating a better future one child at a time.

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  5. I think maybe the underlying issue behind this article is how we (our culture, our socioeconomic position, our media)quantify happiness. Happiness is often seen as contingent on that what is tangible; the square footage of our homes, the cars we drive, what's in our bank account. Its hard to quanitfy the happiness we get from parenting especially when much of parenting requires a loss, loss of sleep, loss of time. How do we measure the happiness we feel when little arms reach for us and wrap around our waists, or what you must feel when looking at that picture? And is happiness the right term, I think more around the idea of being fulfilled and being involved in something greater than. Also I try not to read NY mag. because as a happily tired, at home mom, who thinks her job is meaningful and with purpose, I'm rarely represented in its pages.

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  6. Despite the crap leave here, I've been able to find that sense of balance before returning to work full-time, thanks to being in education and my births timing well enough to get me to summer vacation. We've also had less common set-ups, such as Trillian staying home with Scooter for a school year and her working from home now. Those have made it easier for me to go back to work at 5 or 6 months without additional worry.

    I also have to agree wholeheartedly with you on "what the hell did you expect?" I can honestly say that none of this has been a huge surprise or outside of "what I signed up for," even with Scooter's special needs.

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  7. I wonder how much of this is linked to that overemphasis on self esteem and self fulfillment. It seems like a huge swath of the population is loath to accept that we are all pretty average and just going through our lives. Most of us won't write the greatest novel or be the star at this or that. And that is all okay.

    There is also a lot of honour in doing the mundane tasks of parenting with acceptance - perhaps it's zen parenting.

    If at the end of my life I can look back and see that I was a good wife to the man, did the best that I could parenting the girl, had some laughs with friends - well, what more could you ask for?

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  8. You know, there ARE times when I wish I had a bit of time to myself, or even to do the housework and so on, times when the state of my house drives me nuts, but at the end of the day, I'm too tired to pick up the toys anyhow, so I tell myself that's only the state for now, and the house will still be here when my kids are old enough not to need as much attention.

    I think a lot of it IS just our generation, and comes from the way people don't seem to want to take responsibility anymore, and feel entitled to be entertained, to have everything they want all at once, and so on. We were raised, our generation after all, with the Rights of the Child, but not the accompanying responsibilities. We were all taught how very IMPORTANT we were in the 70s. Apparently, too important to take the back seat to our own kids like every other parents do? BS, I say.

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  9. Oh, how I love your style and I couldn't agree more!

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  10. I found the piece quite well-balanced actually - it didn't strike me as yet another go-round of the kids-make-you-miserable theory - more of a critical response to all the previous articles that did that. It seemed in the end that the results of these studies depend a lot on how happiness is defined. The kids-make-you-miserable theory seems to work best if you define happiness as MOOD. As soon as you introduce concepts like meaning, satisfaction, purpose, etc., the picture changes. So having kids does not reliably and permanently boost your mood. Not exactly a controversial claim. If you want to boost your mood, what you need is not children - it's lots of illegal drugs.

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  11. The only regret I have is in choosing the wrong husband. Now every second weekend my heart feels ripped out of my body while they are with him and I'm enjoying all the luxuries that supposedly make life so exciting.

    This is so wonderfully written! Love it.

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  12. I am happy. And reading this post made me even happier!

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  13. Now I'm supposed to be happy? I have two kids, I don't need yet another thing on my to-do list! ;)

    Seriously, though, I think that family-friendly policies go a long way. I'm so glad that I live in Canada for this reason. No, it's not all sunshine and roses. But the more supported I am in parenting, the happier I am. As much as I enjoy living in my single-family house, I really don't think that we were meant to raise children this way, all alone all day with no one to help us.

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  14. The US maternity leave system is disgusting.

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  15. I think the expectation that we be happy all the time is very unrealistic and sets us up for disappointment. I am just aiming for content most to the time, with small bits of pure job and utter despair (hello, I've got an almost 2 year old and almost 4 year old at home with me!).

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  16. Fantastic post- I have yet to read "the article" but I love what you have to say.
    Exactly what I needed to hear at the moment too.
    When I pick Lulu up from Camp Grandma's this week the first thing I'm going to do is play Cut the Pickle.
    Those belly laughs really are addictive.

    BTW- Your writing keeps getting better & better.
    Love it.

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  17. Sensible white cotton panties!!! And I thought I was the only one who wore them.

    Great post!

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  19. To those parents who are unhappy after having children...turn off the t.v. and have some play time with your kids! Refreshing article...now dance monkey...dance. :)

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