One reason I’m glad I did so much writing about my early motherhood experiences is that, just a few years later, I’ve forgotten some of the stages my child passed through, the stages that seemed to be lasting forever yet vanished very quickly. Here’s something I posted on a discussion board when he had just turned two years old, and until I read this again I’d forgotten all about it!
“Mama, you happy?” Nicholas asks this question about a million times a day. Sometimes he asks Daddy instead. It’s kind of bugging us!
Sometimes it seems to be just conversation–we’re waiting for a bus or something, and
“Mama, you happy?”
“Yes, I’m happy.”
“I am happy too.” enhances a shared feeling of well-being. No problem there . . . unless I bristle because I am just sick of hearing this question all the time . . . but gosh, it’s no worse than the standard “How are you?” “Fine, and you?” inanity; it’s only bugging me because I’m not used to it.
But sometimes he asks when I am in fact furious because of his behavior:
“Hold still while I change your diaper…. Stop kicking, please…. Aargh, you got poop on your foot! Hold still while I wipe–OWWW!!! You kicked me in the face!!!”
“Mama, you happy?”
How the heck am I supposed to respond with anything but, “NO!!! I AM NOT HAPPY!!! I AM ANGRY AND HURTING AND DISGUSTED, AND IT’S YOUR FAULT!!!” I mean, what is he asking for, here? If I respond honestly or don’t say anything, he keeps asking over and over again; he won’t stop until I say I am happy. Which means that sometimes I say, “Yes! I’m HAPPY!” through clenched teeth, just to get him to stop asking. Then I feel like I’m setting him up for lifelong emotional problems.
Other times he asks when there’s no immediate crisis but I’m not in a very good mood, but he’s not the cause of my bad feelings. Like I have a headache; I’m trying to figure out what to make for dinner, but we seem to be lacking one ingredient for every possible meal; I’m worrying that I may have offended a co-worker with something I did earlier in the day; I’m annoyed that the house is all cluttered and my unemployed partner can’t ever find 15 minutes to tidy up. . . .
“Mama, you happy?”
Well, no, not really. But is it fair to tell him that? If I say, “No, I feel kind of gloomy right now,” he says, “I give a hug and a kiss. You happy now?”
Well . . . I . . . I want to be happy for him! He’s so sweet and caring and deserves a positive atmosphere; I want to respond to his sympathetic attention by cheering up and remembering that life is good after all and getting onto a more positive path, but . . . but I can’t just be happy on cue! In a way, being asked if I am happy makes me think about my emotional state, and that makes me feel worse!
I fear that the reason Nicholas is always asking about my happiness is that I’m noticeably unhappy too much of the time because I’m not managing life too well lately–I got sick, made it worse by pushing myself to keep every commitment on an already too-full schedule, and have been struggling ever since to rein in the chaos that resulted–and since that’s my fault and time is scarce and I’m worried we’ll run out of money, I’m reluctant to allot any resources to things that help me feel happier. But I’m painfully aware that I learned this approach to life (expect too much of yourself, persevere even when you shouldn’t, punish yourself for failure) from my mother’s most difficult years, and I don’t want to teach it to my child!! I want to set a good example!
But perhaps I’m over-thinking it all, and it’s just that he is discovering that other people have feelings too and is interested in labeling those feelings?
I got many responses agreeing with that last idea, lots of “permission” to have bad as well as good feelings and express them to my child, and a very helpful comment from someone called KnitterMama:
I’d say the universe is waving a great big sign at you, Mama. Take care of yourself.
Four years later, I’m still trying to convince myself to read that sign and take it as a command, and I’m still feeling like the sign is written in a foreign language that I’m ashamed I haven’t learned to read by now.