Because my happiness was based on external measures—on tasks being completed, plans running accordingly, goals being met, hairs being in place—I was continually disappointed … upset … impatient … and stressed. In the process of making my own life miserable, I’d funneled my unhappiness straight into my daughter’s once joyful heart and spirit. Her pain was a direct reflection of the expression I wore on my face.
— Rachel Macy Stafford, The Day My Child Lost Her Joy — and What I Did to Revive It
Whoa… When I read the above quoted piece, it hit home in a painful but good way. For me, it was the kind of feedback or resonance I needed to wake up and change for the better. Years ago a writing teacher told our class that good feedback brings relief. I felt a sense of relief reading Macy Stafford’s article.
At the beginning of the article, she recounts a time when she sat fuming in the car at the start of a family vacation. She was frustrated because they were running late, she didn’t get to load the dishwasher and the garage door was not working right. Her husband leaned toward her in the car and almost inaudibly said, “You’re never happy anymore.”
I know that kind of unhappiness and lack of joy. I know the pressure and expectations of living a “totally together” life. The list of details we family project managers keep in our heads is mind-boggling, literally. Everything from the kids’ doctors’ appointments to the dryer vent needing cleaning to school supply lists to how many times we’ve had sex with our husbands/wives this week. It’s kind of like being the little boy plugging all the holes in a dike with his fingers and all of his toes. Holding all of those fragments of information, attending to others and constantly, desperately trying to remove some of those fragments from the list by taking action, requires a hell of a lot of stamina and willpower. When we are concentrating and pushing ourselves so hard to get through the list, we don’t look or feel all that happy.
I have pictures of me on vacation in Mexico with my family in the resort’s amazing pool with big furrows between my eyebrows and an annoyed look on my face. I was probably mad because the water was too cold or the kids were splashing me. After all the hoops jumped through to go on vacation, my patience was shot and I could only see where things were not going according to plan.
A few years ago, my oldest son told me I’m a negative person. That really made me mad and sad. Why? Because I thought I was bending over backwards being supportive and accommodating to him and his siblings. I thought I was a positive parent, but he saw me as someone with furrows between my brows and a frowny face. I was chasing perfection and frowning because it wasn’t happening. I had no idea my face was betraying me either. I assumed I had a pleased or at least neutral expression, but nope.
The most important point of Macy Stafford’s article to me was that her lack of joy had trickled down to her children. They felt they were the reason for her unhappiness. They were afraid of upsetting her and thus lived more fearful and unhappy lives themselves.
I can see that effect in my children as well and that is the worst thing to acknowledge. Not only do parents feel like they are failing at the perfect life game but they are also failing their children.
Our calm and joy spread to our kids, but calm and joy are hard to come by. How can we get more?
How to dissolve impatience
The other day, my middle son and I found ourselves with four hours to kill between my other son’s two rowing races. We were in an area about an hour from home so there was not enough time to go home. We drove leisurely around the area looking for a decent lunch place. We didn’t get mad if other drivers cut in front of us. We let people go in front of us in line at the awesome Mexican restaurant we found. We took our time shopping at Target for school supplies. We didn’t have any cross words between us the whole time. I even think my face was more animated or relaxed versus frowny.
Having time to enjoy life instead of rush through it, eased my intensity. I know we aren’t always able to control our schedules. That’s part of the stress. We can say no to unnecessary things. I know many of us think if we don’t fulfill our child’s every wish we are bad parents. The truth is we’d be more happy and so would they, if we had more space in our days.
Another good practice I keep reminding myself to do is notice when things go well, when something is a good surprise or the little things that cheer us up without prompting (like a pet’s enthusiasm or a stray snapdragon growing in your mulch). At night before bed, I try to think of the “wins” for the day and the wins I anticipate for tomorrow. Surprisingly, there are a lot of them if you look for them.
I’m hoping my face belies a lighter and happier mother these days. I don’t want my children to have the burden of fearing my anger and impatience. I know I’ll never be 100% frustration free. I just want to smile more and frown less.
Do you feel pressure to manage all the details of your family’s life? Does all the juggling make you less of a joy to be around? Do your children seem less happy when you’re less happy?
Check out my book for introverts and our relationships, The Quiet Rise of Introverts: 8 Practices for Living and Loving in a Noisy World.