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You Can’t Depend on Your Kids to Make You Happy

I spent part of this past Mother’s Day curled up and crying on my bed.

It wasn’t any one thing that had made me upset. It was nothing. It was everything. It was the kids who couldn’t stop arguing. It was the one kid who had gotten so angry with me that he’d torn up his handmade Mother’s Day card for me. It was the other kid who’d tried to hit his little brother. And the little brother who had destroyed his older brother’s Lego structure. It was each child who refused to participate in our annual Mother's Day trip to the local garden center. It was the constant whining and demanding and complaining.

It was the happiness that was supposed to be there, but wasn’t.

My kids should have been making me happy on Mother’s Day. And they weren’t.

My frustration was at odds with two popular parenting narratives: Our kids are supposed to make us happy. And parenting in general is supposed to make us happy.

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Researchers have been examining these assumptions for decades. And as with any good research, they’ve discovered just as many questions as they have answers. For instance, how exactly do we define happiness? Are we talking about discrete moments of happiness or long-lasting happiness? Should we focus on the daily tasks of parenting or the overarching experience of parenting? And does it matter which parents we’re talking about? Does it matter if we’re talking about mothers or fathers? And do children's ages matter when it comes to parental happiness? Are we even talking about happiness, or are we concerned about something more like meaningfulness?

Better yet, should we expect our children to make us happy at all? Even on a day like Mother’s Day?

My self-created happiness was enough. It had to be.

In my “I’m crying alone on my bed on Mother’s Day” study, I eventually determined that these expectations were misguided. I realized my happiness shouldn’t depend on my kids—even on a day like Mother’s Day.

Sometimes our happiness must come from within. It must come from our pre-mother selves: the parts of us that parenting can make us forget. The parts that found happiness before we had children.

I got up from my sad spot on the bed and wiped the tears from my face. I grabbed the car keys, told my husband where I was going, blew kisses to the children from a far, far distance and drove to that garden center. I bought some flowers and vegetable seedlings. I returned home and spent the afternoon planting, all by my lonesome.

I cultivated my own happiness. And even if I would have been happier being surrounded by my well-behaved, engaged and loving children, they were in no mood to be well-behaved, engaged or loving. My self-created happiness was enough. It had to be.

Hugs like these are rare, especially from a sullen tween. And so I buried my nose in his hair and looped my arms around his back.

Later that evening, one of the kids—the one who’d ripped up his Mother’s Day card—tiptoed toward the couch, where I was reading a book in blissful silence.

“I’m sorry that I destroyed your card,” he said. “I was wrong. I hope I didn’t ruin your Mother’s Day.”

And then he hugged me.

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He rested his head on my shoulder, his lanky big-kid body splayed out across mine. Hugs like these are rare, especially from a sullen tween. And so I buried my nose in his hair and looped my arms around his back. I closed my eyes. I curved my arms into a cradle-shape against my son’s back and tried to remember the smallness of his 6 lb. 15 oz. newborn self: the way his whole body would fit against my chest, the way I’d rock him and sing to him.

“You didn’t ruin my Mother’s Day at all,” I told him. “None of you did. And this hug right here? This make me very, very happy.”

It was, in fact, the happiest I’d been all day.

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Photograph by: Kristen Oganowski

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