“I just want my kids to be happy.” This is a phrase we hear over and over. And I don’t doubt a parent’s earnestness when they repeat this cliché. What I do doubt, is the very idea that happiness is a worthy goal. I’m not suggesting to know some secret formula to life. I don’t pretend to know a surefire way to guarantee fulfillment, nor do I think it is possible to guarantee these things in any way. What I am suggesting is quite the opposite.
Happiness, as an allegory, is an enchanting and wildly enticing notion. As parents, we often see it as our main priority to make our children happy. Some parents aim for more immediate guarantees in this regard, while others are set on long-term satisfaction. Regardless, whether offering macaroni and cheese for every meal is your strategy, or forcing math tutors upon your twelve year-old is more your gig, it’s really the same thing we’re all after. But it’s a farce.
Sometime between my birth in 1985 and the birth of my daughter in 2013, the whole “industry” of parenting changed. I guess what really changed was the very idea that parenting even is an industry in the first place. “Attachment parenting,” “authoritative parenting,” “passive parenting” and “Ferber” are just a few of the brands for us parents to choose amongst. This idea that allowing our children to sleep in our beds every night will guarantee warmth and security, or the notion that denying an hysterical baby the warmth of our embrace will induce independence; these ideas are very deeply flawed.
I often see references on social media to “children of the ’60s” and the 100+ ways they shouldn’t have survived childhood. They played in the streets without adult supervision, ate lead paint and didn’t breastfeed. And I hate to break it to them, but not all of them did survive. But the one thing they all have right, is that life isn’t always about just surviving, or even just being happy for that matter. Life is about something that can’t possibly be summed up by words. It can’t be summed up because there aren’t any particular numbers to use or any certain equation that will bring us to the same conclusion. Because people aren’t numbers. And babies don’t operate like the quadratic equation.
For some of us, happiness comes as naturally as hunger, and for others it’s a lofty dream. Some comedians base their lives around laughter, but are deeply sad. We all know the doctor that is highly accomplished in her field, but mourns her inability to fully embrace her role as a parent. Or the stay-at-home mom who feels a deep lack of intellectual fulfillment. The dad who recently got promoted but missed his daughter’s entire soccer season. These are people who were once babies. They are daughters. They are sons. And they aren’t perfectly happy. They represent the dichotomy in all of us: the paradox of parenthood. To parent is the most deeply gratifying task in the world, but also the most emotionally polarizing.
Finding the magic bullet to parenting is a more lofty task than finding extra-terrestrial life. Because there isn’t one. There is no magic bullet. Every child is different and every adult is flawed. We, as humans, are happy on some days, and at some moments. But often we’re not. Handing our children an acceptance letter to Harvard at birth, or buying them Charlie’s Chocolate Factory…neither of these are good strategies. Because only your child can navigate his or her way through this world. It’s something the parents of the ’60s understood a lot better than we parents do today. They understood that happiness doesn’t come in a package, that it can’t be promised like the sunrise, and that setting our kids up to expect it is the same as setting them up for an interview at their dream company and knowing they’re not going to get the job.
So, Evangeline, if you ever have a daughter of your own, I want you to open the front door and let her walk out. And don’t ask her where she’s going. Because that’s the only way we can hope that she will find her way to exactly where she’s supposed to be. If there is one thing we can learn from the parenting past, it’s that the only correct strategy to being a parent is, in fact, to have no strategy at all.
Letting Go (just a little),