My son looks up at me, his chubby face squashed against the blue sheet covering his mattress. His big brown eyes will me to say yes to his innocent question. He scrunches his face up into the cheesiest smile he can muster.
I’m sitting on the edge of his toddler-sized bed holding a diaper and a pair of shorts in my hands. I’ve asked him countless times to stand still so I can get him dressed. The sun is shining outside; the days are still hot, but the air is getting fresher as fall approaches. I want to take him to the park, and we need to go to the store to get groceries for lunch.
I do not answer his question. Instead, the words, “Come here and stand still,” fire out of my mouth. My tone of voice tells him patience is wearing thin and he stops jumping on and off the bed.
Now fully clothed he looks at me. “I love you, Mommy,” and he is the sweetest, most handsome little boy in the whole wide world again. He runs off to find his shoes. I grab my purse as we head out the door.
He asks that question a lot recently. Lying in bed, not yet asleep he hugs me, “Happy?” I’m preparing lunch; he is asking repeatedly if it’s ready yet, then says, “Happy?” Walking round the supermarket, I replace the snacks he has taken off a shelf.
Am I happy? If you’d go to sleep. If you’d let me finish preparing lunch. If you’d stop demanding things from the store. Then I’d be happy. Probably.
In the wisdom of his two and a quarter years, he’s struck upon the question that will get under my skin. There are many words you could use to describe me: independent, smart, driven. But happy?
According to Gretchen Rubin in the “The Happiness Project,” some people are naturally happy. The premise of her book is that we can all do simple things to improve our level of contentment. But some people will never be as happy as others.
I’ve often found excessively happy people annoying. What, I want to say, is there to be so happy about? These people do not realize the multiple reasons there are to be discontented with our messed up, crazy world. Apparently.
My son, on the other hand, is one of those naturally happy people. Ever since he was a baby, he was full of smiles and zest for life. I can assure you that despite the books claiming certain parenting styles will lead to a happy, contented baby, nothing I’ve done has made him that way. He inherited happy genes (just not from me).
To him everything is one big game. “It IS funny,” he shouts as he runs away with the pile of clothes I neatly folded just moments before.
“No,” I say. “It is not funny. Bring those back here now.” He runs off giggling. I breathe, long and slowly. And perhaps he’s right. When did life get so serious, I wonder?
He is two and just as capable of an epic tantrum as the next toddler. But while I get frustrated at the supermarket he sits in the shopping cart waving his arms, shaking his butt, and singing to himself. He’s a happy kid. Here’s hoping he’ll always be that way.
My little boy, it turns out, has a lot to teach me about being here, in this present moment. He wants me to be happy too. But, in the precise moments when my son wields his question, happy is not the word that comes to mind.
This mama’s happiness project
The defining theme of my 2016 has been trying to find more happiness. I have so much in my life to be grateful for, so why did I still feel like something was missing?
I started my quest with a gratitude journal – writing three things every day for which I am grateful. But it didn’t do much for me. Yes, I am very, very appreciative of coffee. And my supportive husband. And my adorable child. But housework and toddler tantrums didn’t get any less frustrating.
Next, I tried meditating using an app called Headspace. I like it a lot. Andy, the calm, reassuring Brit who narrates the sessions likes to talk about the blue sky. It is always there behind the clouds, our job is not to try and change anything, so much as to recognize what is already true.
Meditation promotes a quiet, nonjudgmental acceptance of whatever thoughts and emotions we have. An endless striving to be happier and a constant quest for self-improvement may actually be counterproductive.
I do enjoy the 10 minutes a day spent listening to the app. I’m becoming more mindful. But my inner toddler still wants to jump up and down screaming, “NO! NO! NO!” from time to time. I may not be destined for any sort of enlightenment just yet.
The third thing I tried was keeping morning pages. Three pages in a notebook every day. I wasn’t trying to achieve greater calm or happiness through this one. I wanted to make space for more creativity.
But it turns out this has been the most powerful tool of all. There are no rules, beyond writing three pages of longhand every day. Some days I sit and write nothing but my complaints, all the things I wish could be different about the world and my life. I stopped resisting or trying to change my negative feelings and let them out on the page where no one else would see.
My frustrations are losing their power over me. By splashing them out across the pages, I’m taking back control. I get them out of the way before I start my day. Of course, some of the negative thoughts come back day after day. I complain about the same things over and over again. But as we head into fall and the final months of the year, I see progress.
Motherhood is the biggest challenge a woman can face. There are mountains of pressure to be a particular type of mom and oceans of guilt when we all inevitably fail to live up. Being happy can be one more expectation we don’t know how to achieve.
It turns out trying to be happy is not effective. In my journal I let the storm rain down, and the winds howl to their heart’s content. And the blue sky opens itself into my day.
So the next time my son asks, “Happy?” I will take a deep breath, smile and say yes, before kissing him on the forehead and telling him he needs to go to sleep.