Smotherly Love
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Smotherly Love

You want your kids to be happy, right? Then do them a favor: back off and let them be miserable once in a while.

When my daughter was in second grade she transferred to a new school. That was 20 years ago, but I remember it all vividly. On either side of the classroom door there were narrow glass panels, and if you stood at just the right angle, you could see into the room. The first day I watched my daughter fight back tears when the other girls huddled together with their friends while she sat alone. In the afternoons, when I arrived early for pickup, I would see her sitting by herself at one of the big round tables, bending over a workbook, her long blond hair hiding her face, her leg tucked under her like a small bird in a nest.

Then one afternoon the following week I peered through the panel and saw all the kids sitting on the floor looking at the teacher. They appeared to be making up a story together, each student contributing a sentence, while the teacher wrote the story on a big sheet of paper clipped to an easel. My daughter sat between two other girls, and a third girl sat behind her, braiding her long hair. When it was my daughter's turn to come up with a sentence, she tilted her head in a way I knew well, then said something that made the class laugh. The teacher said something back that made her laugh, and two things dawned on me at once: Oh, she's going to be fine. And oh, she is a complete person, separate from me. It was as if I'd turned on the kitchen light in the middle of the night and discovered that all the forks and knives were dancing.

Of course I had always acted as if I believed both my kids were complete people, separate from me. I asked their opinions. I gave them those fake empowering options you're only supposed to use for 2-year-olds (Do you want to put on your pajamas or brush your teeth first?) but that actually work for all ages (Do you want to finish those SAT forms now or wait until after dinner when the rest of us will be watching Friends?). As they got older I respected their privacy (which does not mean I didn't know who their friends were and where they were going and whether or not a grown-up would be there) and let them make as many decisions as I could stand without losing my mind.

Overfunctioning Maternal Instincts

But somewhere deep inside my overfunctioning maternal instincts there lurked a notion that I, and I alone, had to get them through the first few weeks of nursery school and the first few days of summer camp, through team tryouts, drama tryouts, final exams, anything major, anything that might make them unhappy. I felt responsible for every aspect of their lives, but above all I felt responsible for their happiness.

This is a tricky business, as every parent knows. When our children are little, we have enormous power. We feed them, and that makes them happy. We talk to them in high voices, and that makes them happy. We sing to them, get them into dry ­diapers, show up at the door, make a face, blow a bubble. We are the great and powerful Oz.

As their needs get more complicated, however, so does their happiness. And though trying to keep an infant fed and dry and smiling and more or less happy is a more or less reasonable goal, trying to keep a 7-year-old happy, let alone a 12-year-old, is not. It's not even a good idea.

As soon as unhappiness hit, I tried distraction and avoidance. When my daughter was having a tough few weeks with a difficult teacher, I kept showing up at Friday pickup time with little gifts, until one day she said, casually, "It's okay, Mom. I'm used to her now. You don't need to buy me anything else."

The truth was that seeing my children unhappy made me unhappy. And I didn't like that. In fact, for a while I believed I couldn't bear it. And so I lost touch with one of the best gifts a mother has to give: perspective. I was the grown-up and I knew that not being the teacher's pet or not having a starring role in the class play was small potatoes in the big picture, but too ­often I forgot those insights. Even though I adopted the preferred parenting language of the time ("Did you have fun?" "Did you meet anyone new?"), my kids could sense my anxiety in the ­vibrato of my forced cheerfulness and my fumbling attempts to suss out crucial information ("Not that it matters, but did you remember all your lines?"). Too often they got the message that the fleeting unhappiness brought on by disappointment of any kind constituted an intolerable burden -- for them and for me. It was better not to try than to fail, better to stay in your known little world and avoid the judgments of the wide and wicked universe.

Raised Stakes

As my children started taking tests and getting grades and gaining and losing boyfriends and girlfriends -- and the stakes got higher -- I realized something had to change. Since the world didn't step up and volunteer to alter itself, changing had to be an inside job.

So during their early teens I returned to the meditation practice I had abandoned when they were little. For my birthday one year I bought myself a seven-disc recording of dharma talks delivered by the Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön. The subject turned out to be happiness, which, she warned, "cannot be found through getting ­serious and uptight about wanting things to go in the direction that we think will bring happiness." The point, she ­insisted, is that "the happiness we seek is already here and it will be found through relaxation and letting go."

Oh.

In looking back now, I see that my confusion was understandable. As a child I was pretty much on my own in the happiness department. My parents traveled for six months of the year and then returned to take up their parental positions, in which they swung ­between being delightful coconspirators and strict disciplinarians. My brother and I were not very happy children, but what mattered to my parents was that everyone looked happy. He and I learned early on that troubles, failures, and misfortunes were best kept to ourselves. So I entered the vast and mapless terrain of parenthood not wanting my own children to feel, as I had felt, that they were all alone out there.

Over time, my spiritual practice let me step back from my children's disappointments and perceive them more accurately as minor glitches or even useful life lessons. When one of my kids got into trouble for underage drinking, my first response was panic, but soon I began to see how useful an expe­rience it had been, for all of us. When one of them didn't get accepted at a first-choice school, I listened, watched, and a few weeks later e-mailed that child another Chödrön quotation: "When there's a big disappointment, we don't know if that's the end of the story. It may just be the beginning of a great adventure." (Please note: I did not send the quote immediately because nothing is more annoying than being assaulted by Buddhist wisdom when you're sobbing in bed.)

Instead of continuing to hammer home the message that pain and failure are unbearable and must be avoided at any cost, I tried to communicate a lesson that somehow, miraculously, my children had gleaned on their own: that if you aspire to anything other than sitting in your room playing video games, pain and failure are inevitable. The goal is not to avoid them but to learn how to take them in stride. Besides, it had not escaped my notice that the bad stuff that happened to us was minuscule compared to the tragedies that befell other people around the world -- mortar shells, tsunamis, gunshots, hunger. To spend too much time wallowing in unhappiness seemed ungrateful.

Adult Children

At the moment, my daughter is hundreds of miles away in a grueling law school program whose motto translates loosely as "We passed through Hades, ergo you must pass through Hades." When she calls, I listen, make practical suggestions where appropriate, but try to stay out of the happiness end of things. In part I do this because my daughter has little patience for my self-serving impulse to cheer us all up and in part because the longer I've abstained from meddling, the clearer it has become that I have no earthly idea what will make my children happy.

But most importantly, as I have watched them mature, my understanding of happiness has changed. Life is a package deal. If you want the highs, you have to take the lows. Loss and failure transform us. They help to make us who we are. For some, hard times can shut down the heart and pull up the drawbridge. For others, those same hard times remind the heart that it is human and vulnerable and therefore part of a loud, clamorous community whose members are all in this together.

So these days I'm content to pick up the phone and listen to my children's failures and sorrows, their successes and discoveries, their tales of participation in the wide and varied universe. I am pleased to report that, despite my blunders, both of them have kept their hearts open and opted for the clamor.

shim