One woman discovers that her sense of happiness does not need to come from her children.
"Children don't make you happy," a CNN headline reads, and I know I should feel offended, but I don't. Because I've yet to down my morning cup of coffee and I've got three lunches to pack. Not to mention that book I've been meaning to write for the last seven years turned into delivering three babies instead. Am I happy? Yes, but not because of our children. It's not their job to make me happy.
I fell into that trap once. I got sucked in with our first born. Did he make me happy? I don't know. Nor did I care. I was tired and anxious, in love and utterly tethered. Was our boy hungry? Tired? What did each cry mean? And then later, greater fears: How would his life unfold? Who would he become? Rocking him to sleep, his eyes fluttering shut, I felt so sure of my purpose in my life. It was like I'd become Mother Earth; I alone could sustain him. My job was to love him and protect him, even if it meant killing somebody. (Sleep deprivation makes you crazy; after all, it's a recognized form of torture.)
Last fall, our beautiful boy started kindergarten. We walked to his school together, as my younger two jabbered in the stroller. He picked up sticks as we went, snapping each in half. Together he and I stood, yards from the entrance, where he watched children enter. Meanwhile, I wondered where their mothers were. "I think it's time," I said. I kissed his lightly freckled cheek. I could tell he was anxious—he walked slowly, eyes secured to the ground—and so was I, wishing I could send him off with an instruction manual.
And then, one day, while walking to school, he stopped me at the corner. I had come up on the curb when he put his hand out. "Mom, I want to walk by myself," he said. He lifted his dimpled chin, reminding me of his dad, so strong and sure when his mind locked in.
I stood there in my sweatpants, a bit disheveled, wanting to cry out, "No! You and I belong together!" But that was my need, not his. He walked off, his Bakugan backpack shining in the sun, without turning his head. I tightened my jacket around me. He caught sight of his friend, and slung his arm around his shoulders, a gesture that seemed more mature than he was. They disappeared into the school, laughing, tilting their faces towards one another. And just like that, the cord was severed.
I smiled; I teared up. He'd done it: He'd found confidence; he'd found friends. But as I trudged back up the hill, I found my fears taking over. I knew how hard it could be for him to feel, how he clamped down on his jaw to stop tears. He was like me: full of emotion, trying to show so little of it. But then I realized: It wasn't my job to be our son's emotional caretaker. It was his. As my mom always put it, "You are responsible for you." And I am responsible for me. Young Couples Without Kids Are Happiest (Says Science)
Only I'd stop believing that. I lived for our children; they brought purpose and meaning into my life. They made me feel needed. But now our son had spread his wings, and it was my job to let him fly, unweighted.
I sunk into a bit of a depression then and turned inwards, knowing only I could find my way out of it. So much had made me happy before our children arrived: running, soccer, writing, friends—late nights at a wine bar with my husband.
It was time to rediscover some of it. I began laying the groundwork: I hired sitters, found a running partner, and signed up for a writing class. And my spirits buoyed. There was a calm place within me to which I could retreat when I felt overwhelmed, friends to boost my mood. I was thankful for every moment I spent with our son, but my happiness wasn't hinged to his.
And then one day our son came home angry at his friend for cheating at chess. With flushed cheeks he sat down on a counter stool. "I'm never playing with him again!" he said, and, as I sliced an apple, I could feel his emotion stirring within me. He shared the same logical mind as his dad. Ever since he'd turned two, he expected fairness, demanded it. I'd prided myself in understanding him best, but now knew there was a danger to that: where was his incentive to know his own mind if I always read it for him? Why Selfish Parents Are The BEST Parents
He bit into his apple, chewing slowly, methodically. "What are you going to do about it?" I asked, and I could see his wheels churning as he stared off into space. He set his apple on his plate.
"I could tell him I won't play with him if he cheats," he said moments later, brightening.
"That sounds like a good idea," I said, drying my hands on a dish towel. He slid off his stool and wandered off in search of his sword. And this time, as I loaded his snack plate into the dishwasher, I smiled without tears. Because every test we undergo strengthens us, and teaches us of our own character. And this incident had tested us both: Could I let go, and would he pick up the slack? I had, and he did. I'd let go of my expectation that he was responsible for my happiness, and therefore let go of him. We'd both grown because of it, and I'd argue spiritual growth trumps happiness any day.