The Joy Myth

One summer not too long ago, when my children were aged eight, five and two years old, I took them on a trip to visit my parents while my husband stayed behind to work. A long drive coupled with near constant in-fighting amongst the occupants of the car left me completely spent. I arrived at my parents in an energy deficit that I couldn’t restore.

Over dinner on the last night of my brief stay, exhausted but engaged in casual conversation with my mother, father and sister, I described the raising up of small children as being “in the trenches,” because there were days that certainly felt more like warfare than parenting. My kids were at an age where just simply getting through each hour sometimes seemed like a remarkable feat. That labor-intensive, physically exhausting portion of parenthood was where I found myself.

My mother, who raised four children of her own, took umbrage with my description. She explained how mothering her children proved to be such a joyful experience. How she remembered parenting small kids as full of fun and discovery and deep satisfaction. She described the house I grew up in as teeming with not only her kids but also the children of neighbors, an open door policy. She described teaching us how to bake, how to sew and described making platter after platter of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. My mother embraced the demands, the workload and the chaos of parenting. Most of all, being a mother brought her immense joy.

It’s hard not to compare and contrast my parenting journey with my mother’s. In so many ways, we are strikingly similar. But in this one way, this really big way, we are not. It’s not as easy for me to find the joy in motherhood in the same manner in which she did.

After our fateful conversation that summer evening, I grappled with why things are so different for me. Why couldn’t I find the immense joy that my mother described? I definitely have moments of joy – lots of moments of joy – but I don’t know if I would characterize my experience raising three young children as pure joy. I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that I wasn’t finding enough happiness and pleasure in motherhood.

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However, my parenting journey doesn’t look like my mother’s parenting journey. It is dramatically different, in fact.

When my mother was forty, her youngest child was already in third grade. Now, forty myself, I just wrapped up potty-training my preschooler. I had my children in my thirties. My mother had her children in her twenties. That decade makes a big difference. I am weary at forty. I seem to have lost all of that energy I remember having in my twenties. Maybe the twenties mom version of me wouldn’t have minded finger paints and glitter and cookie decorating and bread baking. The forties mom version of me thinks that those things make huge messes and can’t we just color with crayons instead?

Also, as is more common now, my husband and I have an untraditional arrangement in regard to household duties. While my husband excels at laundry, dishes and toddler tantrum management, I handle every aspect of our finances, from simple checkbook balancing and bill paying all the way to retirement and estate planning and investments. I complete every tax return, schedule every oil change for our cars, coordinate every doctor’s appointment for our family and register every child for every sporting season. I handle every piece of paper and mail that comes in our front door.

In addition, for most of my years since leaving full-time employment to care for my children, I’ve also managed to work part-time. The first few years were spent working in my field of study and, most recently, I’ve worked part-time as a writer. I continue to stressfully straddle two worlds, unable to commit wholly to one for fear of giving up the other entirely.

As a child, I enjoyed freedoms that I would never dream of extending to my own kids today. As a little girl, I used to spend hours at the park at the end of our city block in downtown Columbus, Ohio, with my older siblings. I can’t imagine my children enjoying this type of independence at their age. It’s become an eyes-on at all times existence. I’m not sure there’s more danger lurking nowadays but the threats are more obvious. My standard operating mode as a mother seems to always be set to, “ALERT,” which is absolutely mentally exhausting. I don’t enjoy the same freedoms as mothers from generations ago that could point to an open back door in the morning and not expect to see their children until lunchtime.

There are also all of the outside commitments present today that weren’t present a few decades ago. I’m expected to start my wobbly toddler in soccer, where their only goal is to remain upright. There are spring sports, fall sports and winter sports. There are probably summer sports, too, but I just haven’t been told what they are yet. After school clubs, homework and enrichment opportunities abound. I am forever loading and unloading children into and out of my car. There is always something happening somewhere that takes us away from our home. The pace can best be described as frantic.

One of the most influential changes for modern mothers has been the advent of social media and its deafening commentary on the right and wrong way to parent. There is an incessant stream of information and images telling us what our home life should look like, what my mothering should look like. I should craft with my children, I should teach them a foreign language, their rooms should look put together but casually messy, they should wear this brand of clothing and this brand of shoes. It’s always on, this ribbon of data, pumping us mothers full of information on where our efforts fall short.

Is my joy as a mother lessened just because times have changed? Because life is more complicated now? Because I’m an older, busier, more harried version of my mother? Because Pinterest exists? Yes, I think that’s part of it. But, it’s also more than that.

Where my mom sees joy, I see survival. Joy versus survival. My experience as a mother vacillates between these extremes. There are certainly parenting moments of tremendous joy and happiness but there are also moments when you just have to put your head against the wind and plow through to the other side. Like the two faces of a coin. Joy and survival. I believe with my whole being that these two emotions can coexist in motherhood.

When my son watches the Christmas tree light up for the very first time and I spy the awe and wonderment in his eyes? Joy. Two weeks later when he is writhing on the floor in the throes of a tantrum because he doesn’t understand that Christmas presents are only to be opened on Christmas? Survival.

When the principal pulls us aside at a school picnic to tell my husband and myself that our youngest son is a delightful addition to the Kindergarten class? Joy. When, later that same night, that same son cries inconsolably for many, many minutes because we refuse to buy him an actual, real, live giraffe? Survival.

Seeing my husband’s elderly mother meet her infant granddaughter for the very first time? Joy. The five-state road trip and four-night single hotel room stay with three small children that it took to make that moment happen? Pure survival.

The relief in knowing that our oldest son’s vision is crisp and sharp? Unrepentant joy. The seven surgeries and years of doctor’s appointments and rehabilitation it took to repair his congenital cataracts? Absolute survival.

Having the means to fill my cart at the grocery store with healthy, beautiful food to feed to my family? Grateful joy. Having to take three kids with me in order to get the shopping done? Ultimate survival. Watching as my kids push away that beautiful food and ask for a peanut butter bagel instead? Exasperated survival.

That first really cold night of fall when the wind is blowing and the sky goes dark early? When we draw the curtains, light a fire in the fireplace and snuggle under blankets reading books? Lovely, lovely joy.

When my kids wander out of their bedrooms one by one each morning with sleepy eyes and that one cheek that’s still warm from their pillow? When I scoop them up and hug them tight and they lay their whole bodies into mine? Well, that’s not joy at all. That’s something else entirely. That’s pure bliss.

We should all have permission to discover our own kind of joy in mothering. It’s okay if some of us struggle with finding happiness amongst the chaos and the tantrums and the general din of parenting small children. It’s okay if some of us have awful, terrible days that we hope we will forget. Awful, terrible days that we hope our children will forget. Parenting isn’t an all or nothing gig. It’s not all joy or no joy. There is an awful lot of grey in there. And, perpetuating the myth that we’re mothering incorrectly simply because we’re not happy enough does a huge disservice to us all.

My most fervent wish is that my heart remembers both the joy and the trial of mothering. That I can look back on my years of teaching and leading and loving my children with both the warmth of joyful gratitude and the triumphant knowledge that I simply survived.

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