“I’m not happy,” my pouty adorable daughter says to me when she gets out of the tub. I am wrapping her in a warm towel and she is upset that she didn’t get a nice long bath with plenty of toys and play time. She got a quick efficient rinse because she had a pee pee accident right when she was supposed to be getting in bed, delaying bed time, delaying mommy’s much-needed alone time, creating three additional chores for mommy to do (clean floor, extra load of laundry, and re-bathe my already bathed child) and mommy is not happy either.
When my daughter cries, I like to describe the feeling as “needles in my heart.” When she cries, I want to breastfeed her, though we weaned long ago. When she cries, my natural biological instinct as her mommy is to nurture nurture nurture, and I am as guilty as anybody of trying to always make her happy. To make matters worse, she can still cry like a little newborn baby, I mean it really sounds like a little baby, and it comes with real tears and all. She can still turn those powerful hormonal gears within me and make me want to give in, to just hold her, to cheer her up with a handful of m&ms, etc…
Sometimes I’m jealous of my friends with husbands in these moments. I must always play two roles. I must always be the enforcer of all limits and rules, but also be the nurturer and the comforter. I struggle to do this on my own. My greater instinct is to cuddle, comfort and dote on her, which, don’t worry, I do plenty of, but I also know that I have to set limits. She would have you believe otherwise, but the truth is, that she is not unsafe, dying, threatened, damaged, or harmed by my completely reasonable insistence that she wear clothes, or that she not eat solely cheese crackers for dinner.
I am trying to remember in these moments that she is doing exactly what she’s supposed to be doing. She’s supposed to be testing my limits. She’s supposed to be exploring the world around her. Her little brain is working just right and she is healthy and loved.
It isn’t easy, but it’s worth it.
My priorities are for her to be healthy more than happy. I want her to learn it’s okay to be unhappy, that nobody can be happy all the time, that in every life we will make mistakes, be disappointed, experience problems and circumstances beyond our control, but it’s important that we can face those challenges, survive, and overcome them.
So in this moment pulling her out of the tub, it’s hard to be a mom. It’s hard because I know she knows better than to have this accident. It’s hard because it’s also okay to make mistakes and I don’t want her to be ashamed of the accident. It’s hard to be strict, even though I don’t want this to happen again, and it’s hard to be soft even though I want her to learn to self-regulate her emotions.
It goes against my instincts to say, “I don’t want my kid to be happy,” because, of course I do, but I also don’t want her to live with an expectation that she will always be happy. I want her to know that her happiness is in her own hands, that she can choose to be happy and also, she can just pee in the potty next time and avoid all this.
My priorities for her are also my priorities for me. Yes, most of the time, I would like to be happy, but I also don’t want to be constantly defeated by any pain, anxiety, suffering, etc…
Being “happy,” is way too much pressure to be honest. I had a therapist explain to me once that she has a lot of clients whose parents spent their childhoods clearing any obstacle for their children and constantly trying to make them happy, and then when those children get older and have to be adults, they expect everyone to constantly try and make them happy the way their parents did, and they don’t know how to navigate dissapointments, hurtful situations, or take responsibility when they’re wrong.
A happy life is about more than just bliss, joy, comfort, pleasure, although, those are all important essential elements. Don’t get me wrong here, there’s nothing I love more than a delicious bite of food, a long cuddle with someone I love, an exciting trip somewhere, laughing until I can’t breathe, etc… you know… happiness? But the normal highs and lows of life are all a part of it too. Resiliency, strength, vulnerability, and asking for help when you need it, are healthy traits and behaviors that give us what we need to both weather the storms and appreciate how truly grateful we should be for the happy moments.
So in this moment I tell her, “It’s ok that you’re not happy. I’m not happy. Next time try harder to make it to the potty.” I let her feel that. I don’t rescue her from this feeling, but after she dries off and gets new pajamas on, I hug her and kiss her and tuck her in and tell her I love her. She gets her much-needed healthy sleep, and I hope I’m getting it right.