As a single mom by choice, I pride myself on being strong. I’ve made decisions I know others wouldn’t, forging what could be seen as a more difficult path, and I’ve never once regretted it. Was being a single mom something I dreamed about as a child? No. But has it turned out to be the biggest blessing of my life? Absolutely.
I take a lot of pride in the relationship I have with my daughter and the ways in which I’m able to support the both of us and provide a fulfilling and happy life for her. Her happiness means everything to me. The fact that this child of mine goes through life with a palpable joy (and a heart of gold) is all the proof I need that I’m doing my job right.
I’m raising a kind child. A loving child. A happy child. And helping her to retain those traits into adulthood (when the kindness and love and happiness is so often stripped away by the realities of life) is something I am deeply committed to.
And maybe that’s why a recent parenting article hit me as hard as it did. I clicked initially because of the title: Are Parents Sabotaging Their Children’s Future Relationships? I mean, if that’s not a loaded question, I don’t know what is.
The gist of the piece revolves around how working so hard to maintain our children’s happiness could actually be setting them up for failure in the future. Because people need to find happiness in themselves, and relying on others for that happiness is a recipe for disaster.
It was a reminder I probably needed, and something I did find myself nodding along to. But then, there was this line: “The best way to raise a happy kid is to be happy yourself.”
And … oooof. That one stopped me in my tracks.
Look, I generally consider myself to be a pretty happy person. But the last year has been hard. A series of difficult events piled on top of me, as sometimes happens in life, and the reality is I fell into a pretty dark place. I still got up every day. I still took care of my child and worked to pay the bills. But I was not happy. I was hurting. Depressed even. And fighting like hell to hide that depression from my little girl, even as I knew I was failing daily in that battle.
I struggled with a lot of guilt over that fact while in the midst of it. I was here. I was present. But I wasn’t the mom I wanted to be. I wasn’t the mom my daughter deserved. And that was hard for me; one more difficulty piling on top of the rest.
As I came out the other side, I had to admit something new to myself: I may be more pre-disposed to bouts of depression and anxiety than I previously would have owned up to. I want to consider myself a happy person. A strong person. And the truth is, I am those things — but I’m also someone who sometimes struggles. Especially when life gets hard.
And in those times, I’m not as strong as I would like the world to believe. As I would like myself to believe. As I would like my daughter to believe.
So where does that leave me? Where does that leave her? I can’t model happiness all the time. I may not even be capable of doing it most of the time. And it’s also possible I’m more invested in providing for her happiness than I should be. Because I find joy in her joy. And dammit, some days I just need that.
Basically, according to this article, I’m a failure on both ends. At least, that’s how I walked away feeling after reading it.
Being a mom comes with a lot of guilt. Every mom I know spends a fair amount of time questioning just about everything she does. We all want to be the best fit for our kids. So, yeah … this one hung over me a little. When I was honest with myself, I knew I was guilty of sometimes teaching my child to come to me for happiness. And I also knew I was not capable of forever modeling happiness for her.
But then a friend said something to me that stuck: “Maybe we need to let go of our death-grip on happiness and model actual full-spectrum human emotions, so that our children can cope with the good and the bad and everything in between.”
And there it was. The response I needed to hear.
I knew the original article was essentially trying to say the same thing — reminding us as parents that our children’s happiness isn’t on us. It was meant to relieve the guilt, but for me it only created more guilt — both over the ways I was working to guarantee my child’s happiness, and the fact that I’m not capable of forever mirroring the happiness I hope she finds for herself.
But with just one sentence, my friend shifted that view for me and changed everything. If we’re trying to forever be happy so that we can then model happiness for our kids, are we maybe then doing them a disservice by not letting them know that it’s okay to sometimes fall apart? I grew up in a home where strength was awarded and emotions were diminished. My tears often shut those around me down. I was accused of being hysterical or unreasonable or even manipulative if my emotions ever got too intense. So I stopped crying. I stopped showing those emotions. I decided no one wanted to see anything but my strength.
I don’t say this knock my childhood; it’s just the truth.
Sure, I want my daughter to be strong, but I also want her to know that her emotions are valid. Even when those emotions are hard. And I want her to know that we can be sad and still swing back to happy again. How many kids are being sent out into the world today with absolutely no idea how to navigate complicated emotions? How often do we, as a collective, feel shame in our unhappiness, mostly because no one has ever shown us that unhappiness can be a normal part of life?
I think there’s something to be said for letting our kids see us experiencing the full spectrum of emotions, modeling instead what it looks like to sometimes wade right on through life’s ups and downs.
My friend reminded me that it’s okay, maybe even preferable, to sometimes show my child that being happy isn’t always possible. “Happy” is not the only set-point. We’re so much more dynamic that.
But I have a feeling my kid has already learned the basics of this. (After all, isn’t that what Inside Out was all about?) But for me, it’s a lesson I suppose I’m still trying to remember.
I can’t always be happy. But maybe that’s not what my kid needs to see from me anyway. Maybe what she really needs is to see Mommy fall apart from time to time, to see me wade through that, and then to see me put myself back together again.
Because inevitably, the day will come when she falls, too. And I don’t want her to ever think that’s not okay.More On