I always just assumed that the joy I felt from my children was a direct response to who they are as people. It had nothing to do with me or my needs, it was about them and the happiness that they brought to my life just by being part of it. But a couple of recent events have challenged this assumption.
Some time ago, I saw an interview with Jada Pinkett Smith, where she talked about contentment. During the discussion, she made the interesting point that we shouldn’t put the responsibility for our happiness on anyone other than ourselves. This made a lot of sense and it was easy to agree with. For me in that moment, I honestly thought I was doing well in this regard. But then something happened that made me think again.
More recently, I was at a birthday party for a friend’s daughter. It was a great party, lots of games, kids having fun, you know how it goes. But something about this mother really stood out to me. As I was watching her with her children, I was struck by the way she engaged with them. There was something refreshingly different about it, but I couldn’t put my finger on what it was. On the surface it looked much the same as other parents—she didn’t say or do anything overtly unusual—it was just different. I pondered it all the way home, feeling inspired and in admiration of her, but for reasons I didn’t know.
This stayed with me for a while until, after some time, it dawned on me. I recalled the Jada Pinkett Smith interview and I began to think about my own relationship with my children. I realized that, while I adore my kids and everything that they are in themselves, I also adore being a mother. Put another way, I adore the identity that they give me.
For years, I desperately wanted children to love and who would love me, but if I’m honest, I also desperately wanted to be able to say, “I’m a mother.” They are one and the same outcome, but I think they are two different desires. For as long as I can remember, I looked forward to having little versions of my husband and I running around; but at the same time, I also looked forward to the new identity I would have as a mother. I wanted the mother stories, I wanted to be able to complain about a lack of sleep, a lack of showering. I also wanted to have a birth story, a breastfeeding experience, to decorate a nursery, to shop for baby clothes. I wanted to be in the club.
Here me right: I’m not saying it’s wrong to want to be a mother, far from it. But I think it’s the difference between my friend and me. She enjoys being with her children just because of who they are. I absolutely love being with my children because of who they are, but also, in part, because I love the identity that they give me as a mother.
This realization came as a real wake-up call; what’s more, it has brought to my attention some confronting things with regard to my interactions with my children. I’ve noticed that, at times, my children’s behavior challenges my romantic ideals of maternal joy. It’s like there’s a tension in myself, as if the “role” and the “identity” I had always imagined is threatened. I notice, too, that I can project this onto my kids. I sometimes get frustrated with them for things that they have done, but the frustration is more about my expectations than it is about their behaviour. Put another way, I have displaced the responsibility for my happiness onto them. The bright side, however, is that I now catch myself faster when I get frustrated. Aware of this tension, I ask myself: is this warranted frustration with my children, or is this just about me?
So, as I reflect on all of this and I think about my friend and her love for her kids, I see now what I didn’t before. I can see that my friend’s love for her kids was less tainted by her own insecurity and the need to be “someone.” I can see that it was simply her indulging in how much she delights her kids: they make her happy just for who they are. This realization has inspired me. The challenge now is to shift my thinking so that I too can just love and embrace my kids for who they are—without the need for self-fulfillment. The result, ideally, is that they get more of me and I will be less dependent on them for happiness.