Thursday, November 22, 2012

on thanksgiving

I recently watched a documentary on Netflix called Happy.  I liked it overall.  There were a couple of segments I thought they could have done without.  But as a whole I thought it was interesting and had some good information on the new science around happiness. 

In the movie, they talked to a woman in Holland who lived in a communal home with her children.  They talked about how living in a communal situation can benefit people and can increase their reported levels of happiness.  This makes so much sense to me.  I've often felt like I'm at the top of my mothering game when I'm around other people.  Well, that sounds wrong, that sounds like it's a competition. But I don't mean it in a competitive sense.  I mean, when I'm around other moms and their kids, I feel like the work of motherhood is easy.  I'm at my best.  I'm particularly thinking of when I let the boys play on the playground after school while I chat with other moms.  It could just as easily be a large family gathering, or a smaller playdate.  Basically any situation in which other people are around will work.  That is when I have the most patience and understanding.  That is when I can roll with the punches and laugh off the boys' misdemeanors.  That is when I can feel okay about myself as a mom.  Maybe even good.

Thing is, playground time only lasts so long.  Playdates and family gatherings are infrequent.  I log a lot of hours alone with my kids.  Most moms do, especially in this isolated culture.  Communal living is not a trend in the United States, it's an anomaly.  But it's a shame, I think, because it's when I'm alone with my kids that parenting gets really hard.  This is when I lose my patience.  When I start yelling. When I start judging and belittling my kids.  When I employ such choice phrases as "what are you thinking?" "what is your problem?" or, "you're driving me crazy!"  It's when I feel overwhelmed and ill-equipped for the task before me.  Yelling at my boys, snapping irritably at them, reacting to them like they are a nuisance to me.  All things I would never dream of doing when other people are around, but when it's just us I can't seem to hold myself back.  Some days I wish we never had to go home from the playground.

Over the last several years I have picked up a number of bad habits in regards to how I interact with the boys.  I guess that's what they are.  Habits.  I can still remember the first time I ever yelled at S.  Yelled out of anger and frustration, rather than alarm because he was putting himself in danger.  He was three.  I don't remember what he was doing, but it may have been something to do with his baby brother.  It was such a release at the moment, but then I immediately felt like shit.  As my yelling habit took on a life of it's own, I didn't like what was happening but I felt unable to stop the wheels I had set in motion.  Try as I might, I was never able to turn it around.  I was never able to go back to being a non-yeller.  A habit is what it is, like I said before.  But it feels like more than that.  It feels like you are morphing into a monster, becoming something you hate.  It feels like part of who you are, a shameful defining characteristic.

The last year has been hard in terms of motherhood.  I guess I thought things would get easier as the boys got older.  At least until we hit the teenage years.  However, the thing about raising two very smart individuals is that they'll often see through the holes in your reasoning and point them out to you.  You set up rules and expectations, they question them, and then what?  You can either take an honest look at your systems, defend them and keep them in place, or adjust them depending on what you decide.  Or you can dig in your heels and tell the people questioning your systems that THIS IS THE WAY IT IS AND WHO ARE YOU TO QUESTION WHAT I SAY?  YOU ARE NO ONE.  YOU HAVE NO SAY IN THIS.  MY WORD IS LAW, THANK YOU VERY MUCH, AND YOU'D BETTER NOT GIVE ME SO MUCH AS AN EYE ROLL OR OVERLY LOUD SIGH.  This second option is the one I have been going with.  S at age 8 and 9 has not always been one to go along with my ideas.  He is a questioner.  And I have not embraced that.  I have tried to beat it out of him.  Verbally, at least.  And you know what?  I do not feel good about it. 

You might be thinking I am making it sound worse than it is.  And it could be that I wouldn't look that bad to you.  But I'm specifically talking about how it makes me feel to be in this cycle with my kids.  And in the landscape of my feelings, I swear, I am only scratching the surface of the pain I have experienced this year.  It's the pain of wanting desperately to be a certain way, loving and gentle, but feeling like those traits are out of reach.  It's the fear of wondering how my kids will remember these years with me, when they look back.  It's the weight of feeling like a phony, because everyone has an idea that I am a good mom, but they don't witness the ugly truth.   It's the misery of going to bed day after day feeling like I've failed at the most important job possible in this world. 

Motherhood is never easy.  But the choices I've made and habits I've allowed to fester have made it even harder.  And this year I reached my breaking point.  When every day ended with me feeling like my family would be better off without me, and silently sending out the impossible wish that someone else more capable could step in for me, I knew I needed to do something.  What is to be done?  It's hard to say how to turn around a situation like this.  My first step was to find a therapist.  And thank goodness for him.  In addition I am trying to develop some new habits.  Gratitude journal. Morning meditation.  Daily intention.  Going for more walks.  Reading some new parenting books.  All of those are helping.  I am feeling better.  I am seeing my boys for who they are again.  I'm certainly not cured.  I'm still liable to blow my top at any moment and spend the rest of the day wallowing in miserable regret.  But I do feel like I'm making strides in the right direction.  Things are looking up.  The mood in our home is a bit lighter and more relaxed.

Back to Happy.  They talked, too, about how people are born with a genetic set point for happiness.  Some people are happier than others, genetically.  Genetics accounts for 50% of your happiness level.  Circumstances like income, health, social status, where you live, and age account for only 10% of overall happiness levels.  That leaves a good 40% left in your happiness equation, right?  Amazingly, that is made up of intentional activity.  Things you choose to do, to get happier, account for 40% of your overall capacity for happiness.  I've often suspected that my genetic set point for happiness is lower than the average person.  This coming from a girl who was overcome with depression at the age of 12, to the point that it led to a suicide attempt.  I've struggled with it for as long as I can remember.  Sometimes it makes me mad that my brain is engineered that way.  Why should I have to work so hard for what comes easily to other people?  It doesn't seem fair.  It's exhausting to always be putting forth the effort required to support my happiness.  But when I stop exerting that effort, I become an ugly person again, the one I'm working so hard get away from.  Fair or not, I have to make the most of my 40% opportunity for improvement.  My kids deserve a gentler, calmer, happier mom.  And I deserve to enjoy these years instead of trudging through them.  So I'll continue to milk the hell out of that 40%.  Even though it seems like work right now, maybe I'll grow into these habits and they'll become second nature.  I guess that's what I'm hoping for.

So today is Thanksgiving and I just want to say I'm thankful for my family.  My boys and my husband.  My sun, moon, and stars.  They love me when I feel unlovable.  They give me chance after chance after chance after chance.  They won't give up on me even when I think maybe they should.  I'm thankful to have more time to grow and improve and transform into the woman I want to be, for them and for myself.  I am grateful to still be learning and changing, and grateful to have hope of a better future for my brain and my heart.  This life, my life as a mother, is a journey, and I have been in a dark valley.  I'm seeing the light around the bend, now, and embracing the work of an uphill climb to higher ground.  Thankful for the opportunity to experience it all.

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