Taking the happiness imperative and calling it a parental responsibility – talk about upping the ante.
Let me clarify. When I talk about being happy, I’m not talking about a shiny-happy-people kind of happy, not a peak emotion, not elation. I’m talking about a kind of sustained and earnest striving towards whatever it is that you think makes your life and other lives worthwhile. In searching for another descriptor, I think fulfillment and contentedness might still fly too high. Maybe better is satisfaction?
As parents, I think that personal happiness/satisfaction is a real responsibility. Although we would sometimes prefer not to, we all know that our children, especially in the earlier part of their childhoods, rely on parents for the emotional foundations of their lives. They look primarily to us in discovering how to engage, react, recover. They look to us, whether they mean to or not, whether we want them to or not, to learn how to be.
The parental responsibility to happiness/satisfaction, like other responsibilities, takes work. I used to think that I could just be happy; now I know I have to make myself happy. I have to act. And that’s why I appreciate Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project. In it, she chooses a monthly happiness topic and identifies action steps to try to achieve that happiness goal. There’s a certain lightness to this approach, but I found this an attractive aspect of the book – it’s pragmatic. “Be nicer to spouse” is something I should be but is rather vague; send a kind, non-logistical email during the day or give a 6 second hug (the amount of time Rubin says is required to give an endorphin boost) I can do.
There was a time when actions like these would have seemed to me rather flimsy tools to achieve something as lofty as happiness, but these days I think that achieving happiness (assuming there are no serious hindrances requiring deeper intervention) is 80% showing up. Happiness takes practice.
Happiness/satfisfaction doesn’t always feel good, and it’s not always about moving forward. Monday of this week was a really low day. I had been working against all odds and persevering through a blur of fatigue on a personal history project. A computer blip later, I lost days of painfully won, tedious transcription. I had backed up all of my documents except for the one erased. I read Nathalie’s post about wanting to spit nails at the happiness imperative when things are awry and thought yes, except that I had no spark enough even to spit.
I could not face my project again, but I did manage to consciously think through and re-set my goals for that Monday: to get to the end of it, to not take it out on my family, and to not give up on my work. I made it to the end of the day, and slept some of the feelings of futility off. I was not a fabulous mama or wife, but I was alright. It’s the end of the week, and I still haven’t been able to return to the project, but I will. Feeling good was not possible on Monday, but I acted my best with it, and it was better than it could have been. I am satisfied.
And there’s no question that I work harder at my happiness/satisfaction because I have a rapt audience in my kids. You probably do too. Bet you swear less. Plus things that we might otherwise have gotten used to in our own lives still hurt us when we imagine them in the lives of our children, whether it’s feeling trapped by a job or money worries, badgering or being badgered by a partner, not expressing our true potential, being stuck in a rut, compromising health with too much of one thing and too little of something else, or feeling too scared/jaded/exhausted to try something new.
I remember once talking about a problem with a friend at law school: I didn’t want to do something but felt obligated to. I can’t remember the conundrum now, but I do remember that she said something like ‘your greatest responsibilities are to yourself’. I think that might be true. It’s just that much more true if you’re a parent.