Ah, birthdays. They don’t have to mean anything (you’re as young as you feel! I am 100 years old) but to kids, and to parents, they do. My kids turned 2 last weekend, and I am consequentially forced back into reflection mode. No longer on a therapists’ couch but just as plagued by constant analysis, I wonder: where was I one year ago today, when my girls celebrated their first birthday? How have things changed? Do I have this mothering thing down, now? Am I any “better” at it?
Let’s see. For one thing, one year ago today I wasn’t acutely aware of how fast it all goes. Sure, I heard older, wiser people tell me to enjoy every minute and I grumbled because that was (and still is and always will be) impossible. But I hadn’t yet experienced the wistful feelings. I hadn’t yet gazed at their round bellies, acutely aware of how they’re flattening out, how they are less soft and more arms and legs and elbows and less willing to let me cradle them and then fidgety when I manage to.
And I hadn’t yet become so conscious of the old sand in the old hourglass–an image that creeps up each time I explain to my girls that we are going somewhere, and they ask me instinctively, “Will Mommy come?” and I know they are asking if I am coming because they genuinely want me to come wherever it is that they go, and I instantly think about a time when they definitely won’t want me to come anywhere with them and I am missing this time already even though I am in it, right now.
I felt the wistfulness at their birthday party, too, this past Sunday, when throughout four hours of grandmas and aunts and uncles and cousins and birthday cake and presents and screams of joy I didn’t see the girls all afternoon. Somehow they became more independent on that day, guiding their balloons through the house, hiding behind doors, eating pastries someone else fed them, not looking for me, not calling for me. At once I loved that they were off on their own and I also missed them, grabbed for them when they raced by, caught the tips of their dresses, tried to corral them in for a hug, failed, and let go. Relief and longing, a special parent cocktail of emotions.
I read in the New York Times the other day about our “happiness set point,” which the psychology professor and happiness scholar Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky explains as “mostly dictated by genetics” and basically the average for any individual’s mood. If great things happen, your set point goes up, if bad things happen, it goes down, but even if you fall deeply in love, live a life filled with wonder, and never know a care in the world, you will still return to your set point because human beings get used to things, we adapt, even to really amazing or really difficult circumstances.
What’s more, when studying the habits of unhappy people, Dr. Lyubomirsky’s research has found that unhappy individuals most often feel the need to witness the failures of others to feel better about themselves. And its not just “unhappy” people, whomever that category includes… it’s everyone. We all do it. We all hate Facebook and revile the Instagrammed lives of our friends. It’s the whole “comparison is the thief of joy” thing. According to Dr. L, “This is why more people are familiar with the German word schadenfreude (describing happiness at another’s misfortune) and almost nobody knows the Yiddish shep naches (happiness at another’s success).”
I read that article, and I found it true in many ways, but I found it particularly interesting in one big way:
With two years of being a parent under my belt I can stand back from my girls sometimes and I can look at them and I can see them as apart from me. And in those moments I catch my breath–they’re so smart! They’re so funny!–and it comes. I shep naches like crazy and I can feel it; I can feel my happiness set point changing. I can feel it go up.
It’s not that the fog has cleared or the dust has settled or anything like that. Yes, they sleep much more and they talk much more and they eat much more and they don’t have to be carried everywhere and they are showing interest in the potty and sometimes they will play alone but it’s not like it’s easy, no. It’s not going to get easy for a long time and maybe never. They hit and push and bite and cry and scream and rail against the oatmeal/sleep sack/car seat/Elmo video.
But in the moments when they sing me a song or count to 10 or show empathy or hug me unbidden or pretend to read a book or act kindly toward someone else, in those moments I am outside of my fear of the suburbs and what this all means. I am outside of my worries about my professional self, whoever that self is. I am outside of my endlessly critical self-regard. I am outside of small dramas with family and friends. I am outside of my grief.
These children, my tiny mirrors, they regularly offer me the head space to see beyond the tip of my nose and what a relief to know that they will continue to offer me the chance to escape myself again and again and again.
And what sweet longing I feel already, for their third birthday, and their fourth and their fifth and for the naches that’s already been shepped and for the naches still to come and for the time that’s passed that we just can’t get back.
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