Before I had children, I thought I knew everything there was to know about parental happiness. I knew some of the reasons why some parents are more or less happy than their childless counterparts, and I knew to care about my happiness; I swore allegiance to the idea that if parents aren’t happy, then their children aren’t likely to be happy either.
But it wasn’t until my oldest daughter started asking about my happiness that I really began thinking about what any of it meant for me.
“Mommy, are you happy?” she first asked a month after her second birthday. In that particular moment, I was preparing a “last resort” dinner of pancakes for her and her younger sister. My head pounded with a migraine that I assumed was an aftershock from the mystery illness I picked up a week earlier. I wanted to go to bed and cry about how unfair my life felt in that moment. But as the only parent on duty, I couldn’t. So I flipped the pancakes while choking back tears caused by all the reasons I had a right to feel that my life was so miserably unhappy.
“Mommy, are you happy?” my daughter asked again.
With my back to her, I looked down into the lumpy pancake batter and up at the ceiling in an attempt to dry the tears welling in my eyes.
“Uh … mommy?” she asked again. “Are you happy?”
I knew what I wanted to say — and should have said easily: that I was happy. But in that moment, I couldn’t.
Although I’ve never considered myself unhappy as an adult, I have never labeled myself “happy” either. That title was always for people that had “happy” figured out, I assumed. Those people had all the external signs of happiness: clear, glowing skin, success, a thriving social life, a beautiful home, the ability to fit into size-2 designer jeans, and the like. And, most importantly, they were always and only happy — never sad, doubtful, or angry.
I can’t help but think that my idea of happiness stems from a conversation I had with my own parents when I was 14. We were celebrating the news that the tumor on my dad’s prostate was benign, until my mom started crying and slowly drifted into her grievances over all the things that weren’t going right in her life.
I should say that, until that moment, I assumed my parents were happy. They smiled enough and seemed to enjoy their lives as parents. But my mom’s revelations seemed to indicate something else, so I asked her, “Mom, are you happy?”
She laughed and responded, jokingly, “Happiness? What’s that?”
My dad, seeing I was confused, chimed in with all the reasons he, too, wasn’t happy. But I was still confused; I didn’t understand how the reasons they listed (job stresses and missed opportunities among them) affected their happiness. Back then, I understood happiness the way my 2-year-old does now. Happiness meant chocolate ice cream, watching the snow fall, and playing freeze tag.
But over the years, things changed. Somehow, with age, I began to see happiness like my parents: as a seemingly impossible summit I could never climb. As a scorecard that wasn’t complete until all the boxes — job, house, lifestyle, etc. — were checked off.
I always thought I couldn’t call myself happy because my life didn’t measure up to the perfect picture I held in my head. But as I flipped the pancakes that evening with my daughters watching, it occurred to me that perhaps the real reason I never called myself happy was because the kind of happiness I imagined didn’t exist. Perhaps the only kind of happiness that does exist is the one I knew back then at 14, the one my 2-year-old had been talking about all along — or ever since she learned to string together “Mommy, I happy” in a sentence.
I was thinking of all this when my daughter asked for the final time, “Mommy, are you happy?”
By then she was careening her neck to the side to see my face, which was streaked with tears. I knew I had to answer her. So I wiped away my tears, took a deep breath, and said, “Yes, I am happy.” Then, seeing her raised eyebrow of skepticism, I added, “Yes, I am crying. I’m crying because my head hurts right now. But I’m still happy.”
As she stuck her fork into her pancake and smiled, placated, I stood facing her in silence, letting the words and the weight of this revelation settle in.
I cried in front of my children, admitted to it, and said I was happy — out loud. And while I didn’t feel perfectly happy as I imagined I should, I started to take comfort in actually believing what I said. That in itself was a huge step.
After some talk about the funny moon shape of her pancake, my daughter seemed to relax, sitting back in her booster chair and smiling. A few minutes later she said, “Mommy, I love you.” And then, almost as a consolation prize, “Mommy, I happy, too.”
Since that exchange in the kitchen, my daughter, now 3 years old, has asked about my happiness dozens of times, usually when we’re doing something cool, like watching soap explode in the microwave. And each time, in response to her question, I tell her I am happy, because even with the few botched dinners and headaches along the way, I’ve decided that’s what this is. And the more I call myself happy, the happier I feel.
I am happy. I am happy. Yes, this is happy.