When babies are born, our entire existence becomes about making them happy. At the first sound of a cry, we immediately go in to full SWAT team mode, armed with diapers, pacifiers, bottles, blankets, bouncy seats, rockers and swings. We adjust thermostats and experiment with foods. We send dogs outside and keep our music low. We hold them at night and pace the floors until they’re asleep. And if we cannot staunch the tears? We sit back and wonder what we are doing wrong – because clearly a good parent would NOT have a crying baby.
On the flip side of that coin, once we manage to minimize the tears, we make it our life’s mission to make them laugh. We pull faces. We play peek-a-boo. We make weird noises that no self-respecting adult would make. We fake sneeze and fake falls. We do whatever it takes to evoke that magical sound that is a baby’s laugh – and in doing so, we sigh a sigh of sweet relief, for a laughing baby is a happy baby. And a happy baby means a good parent.
It never ceases to amaze me that before we have even had the chance to do any actual parenting, because let’s be honest, in the beginning we are little more than glorified butlers, we somehow decide that an unhappy child is a direct sign of our failure as a parent. From the get-go, we condition ourselves, and them, to believe that their happiness is the most important thing. And, of course, we want our babies to be content, cared for and loved. But the idea of their happiness as the ultimate goal is something that, once taken on, can become a burden. Ask any parent what they want for their kids (of any age) and you’ll most likely get a response that reads along the lines of, “I just want for them to be happy.”
And it’s true. We all DO want our kids to be happy – and we should. But kids aren’t going to be happy all the time. We learn this as they progress from giggly babies into toddlers. Some days it seems that no matter how much we do, they are miserable. They are unhappy when we feed them certain things. They are unhappy when we tell them not to do certain things; like pull all the books off the bookshelf or…I don’t know…touch a hot stove. They get upset when we don’t let them eat the dog’s food or make them share a toy with a friend. There are times when invisible air molecules shifting in the room send them into the depths of despair.
And yet we keep trying. Because a happy kid is a still the sign of a good parent. Or so we allow ourselves to believe.
I remember when Girl 1 came home from the hospital. We hadn’t been home for more than 72 hours when it all came crashing down for me. She had cried and cried and cried…I can only guess because of my selfishness in insisting that she leave the womb. I finally got her to sleep and lay on the bed, sobbing not unlike she had been doing moments before. All at once, her entire future flashed before my eyes. I saw friendships gone south, broken hearts, disappointments, losses, unrealized dreams and on and on and on. Basically, I reviewed adolescence, teen angst and adulthood, wrapped it in a messy bundle and laid it at her feet. Knowing that I was now responsible for the happiness of this tiny human suddenly dug into the very muscle of my heart and weighed on my bones like an anvil. I had another person to take care of and her happiness was on me. All of it. On me and me alone.
Of course, I can look back now and say that it was just crazy hormones. And it was. But at the same time, it was real. In that moment, I went straight to the crux of what we think/feel/expect/believe parenting to be…making our kids happy. Fast forward a couple of years and about seven million toddler tantrums and there were times when I didn’t care if she was happy ever again. But only for a moment. As soon as the last tantrum was over, all it took was for her to start laughing and dancing around the living room once again for me to feel as though the balance of the universe had been restored.
Perhaps you’ve heard the saying “a mother is only as happy as her saddest child.” I believe this to be true to the very core of my being. As parents, our hearts have a superhuman capacity for emotion. From the birth of our first child, our hearts are instantly filled to capacity with love and continue to expand to fit each subsequent child in equal volume. By that same token, a parent’s heart also has an expansive capacity for grief and sadness. We carry our own feelings, losses and struggles, but whether consciously or unconsciously, we run after our children, carefully picking up their pain and tucking it away in our ever-expanding heart.
Over time, all of those horrors that my mind played out when Girl 1 was just a few days-old have come to pass. Not just for her, but for Girl 2 and 3, as well. I’ve seen their friendships go south and their hearts get broken. I’ve seen them suffer disappointments, losses and unrealized dreams. I’ve felt their grief and sadness and frustration. I’ve absorbed their anger at me, at their father, at each other and at friends. I’ve watched them cry out of sheer melancholy and angst. And I’ve watched them suffer from legitimate, gut-wrenching pain.
Through it all, I’ve continued to long for their happiness. I’ve bent over backwards and done everything but rearrange the stars in the sky to ensure that they are happy. But what has changed for me is that I finally realized that my children being unhappy is not the same as them not being ok.
Being sad is a part of life. Sadness, frustration and even anger are barometers that help us to gauge our lives, our choices and our situations. As our children grow, their unhappiness is inevitable. Our job as parents is not always to fix it, but to understand it and help them use it for growth.
When babies cry, 9 times out of 10, they just need a new diaper. Easy enough fix, that. But sometimes, their tears are a sign of something more serious – a fever or a pain that we cannot see. While our heart will ache with their pain, we cannot always do anything about it. A fever is not only the body’s way of fighting off infection, it’s also a signal that the body is doing what it’s supposed to do.
In the same way that a fever burns through a virus, sadness can look, and sometimes feel, like a raging fire. But it’s doing its job. Unhappiness in any form is teaching our children to become stronger and to make adjustments to their own situations.
Just as you cannot have courage without first having fear, true happiness is only attainable once we know sadness. We can no more fix our children’s unhappiness than we can wave a magic wand and make a fever disappear. Of course, we monitor a fever. We check temperatures and offer comfort in whatever form we can. But at some point, we have to sit back and let the body do its job.
I in no way advocate letting kids wallow in sadness. Ongoing sadness, moodiness or general unhappiness can be a sign of something greater like depression or mental illness. As with a fever, it’s important to monitor unhappiness, gauge its severity and offer comfort and healing in any way that we can. But we cannot always fix it. And that means that our success as parents is not directly reflected by our children’s happiness.
As parents, we are not tasked with raising perfect kids, we are tasked with raising good adults. And as we all know, unhappiness is part of being an adult. Sometimes we have to let children struggle and find their own way out of the darkness. We have to remember our own pains and heartaches and think about how they have shaped us and taught us to survive. Being unhappy at a job is the thing that motivates us to find a new career path. Being unhappy in a relationship is what allows us to find a better, healthier match. Being unhappy in a place, physical or emotional, is what prompts us to make a changes that allows us to grow stronger, more resilient, and ultimately, happier.
I will never stop feeling my children’s pain. I will always long for their happiness and do whatever I can to ensure it. But I will not always be able to make it happen, nor should I. In the end, even more than a happy child, I want a healthy adult. It’s not easy to watch my kids’ unhappiness, but it is exhilarating to watch their growth. And that, really, is what being a parent is all about.