Sometimes it’s a question, sometimes a demand posed to me by my two year old. “You be happy, Mama?” has become a common phrase in our home over the past few weeks. My little one with his bright blue eyes and red, red lips and long blond curls looks up at me, pleadingly, “You be happy, Mama?” He needs and wants for his mama to be happy.
No matter where I am or what I am doing when I hear these words from my little one, they make me pause. My heart momentarily cracks and leaks, wondering what is behind his often asked question. Am I doing something wrong with this mothering thing that my two year old feels a misplaced responsibility over my mood? Does he mistakenly believe that we all need to be happy all the time? How should I respond?
What I typically do is feel an immense sense of mother’s guilt as I pull my kiddo close and say, “Oh, honey. You don’t have to worry about Mama. Mama is happy.” The thing is, sometimes that’s a lie. Often when Mary Tyler Toddler poses the question, “You be happy, Mama?,” it is immediately after I have reprimanded his brother for leaving his yogurt wrappers in the living room or his socks under the dining room table. In those moments I am frustrated and mad. Sometimes the little one catches me in a moment of sadness or reflection, thinking of our girl and how she would be turning 11 this summer.
Full disclosure, I am not always happy. Nope. Not even close. And I’m okay with that, because I’m not always sad or morose either. My emotions are a continuum and they fluctuate. Sometimes daily, sometimes hourly, sometimes from moment to moment. Emotions are exhausting, yo.
I understand that my heart breaks a bit when my boy poses this as a question because what he is saying with his words is that he needs for me to be happy. No pressure, Mom, but get it together and slap on a smile for your little ones. Stuff the anger, the frustration, the sadness, the grief and be happy, dammit! It’s for the kids!
If only it were that easy.
I do believe that, overall, our kids do want and need for their moms to be happy. Happy is secure, safe. Happy brings hugs and kisses and chocolate milk and adventures. Happy is calm and peaceful. Happy is good.
I will never forget, just a few months after the death of our daughter, I was sitting in my hairdresser’s chair, talking about, well, everything, when she stopped me and said, “Your son (just a year old at the time) deserves a happy mom.” Her words have stuck with me ever since. I believed them then and I believe them now, seven years and one additional son later.
I will never forget the therapist we were mandated to see when we were working to qualify for adoption. The adoption agency was very concerned that my husband and I had never received professional counseling after our girl died. In an individual session I had with the therapist I revealed that my truth was that I was sad every day. Sadness is a fact of life for me, like having blue eyes or brown hair. It just is. She corrected me, in a coaching manner, to reframe that as “I remembered every day.” Pffft. No. I am sad every day. I remember, too, sure, but the act of remembering often leads to sadness.
There are messages all around us about the importance of being happy. “Choose happiness” is a catch phrase I see more and more. The stick figures on the bumper sticker proclaim that “Life is good.” Those are wonderful sentiments, but not always realistic. Some days, happiness will elude you, and life is decidedly not good for all people at all times, sometimes life downright sucks.
But back to my toddler and his need for his mama to be happy.
Two years old is a little young to consider the nuance of emotions. He won’t right now be able to necessarily hold that when I am frustrated trying to hustle two little kids out of the house in the morning, it isn’t a sign that his safety and security are in jeopardy. For him, in that moment, they are. I need to respect that.
Where I can help him better understand and slowly come to appreciate emotion is when he demands me to be happy. “You be happy, Mama!” is quite a different beast than the more vulnerable and empathic, “You be happy, Mama?” The question form has a kernel of empathy attached to it and an awareness that, in that moment I am not acting happy, while the demand form is almost brutish. BE HAPPY, DAMMIT. Because I say so. Nope. Changing my emotion based on the demands of my toddler is not a good thing, methinks.
Motherhood and parenting is hard. So much of it is working to stay in tune with the emotions of our little ones. What messages are they sending us? What is the subtext in their communication, especially when words are not fully in place? What are they needing from us right now, in this moment? Another part of mothering is modeling for our children that emotions are healthy and natural. They are to be felt and not feared. And they’re not like watching TV with an OnDemand button.