How Giving Up On My Child's Happiness Helped Me Find My Own

by Alexis Petru
A mom in a pink-white striped dress and her son in a blue shirt and shorts standing and holding hand...
photography by Rick Lowe / Getty

I was at a one-year-old’s birthday party with some friends from my college days, when one of them posed a perfectly innocent question.

“How are you doing?” he asked.

“It’s really hard,” I replied, surprised to hear my voice quivering and feel tears welling up in my eyes, “when I just can’t seem to make my baby happy.”

He looked at me skeptically. “It’s not your job to make him happy,” he said.

I scoffed at my childfree-by-choice friend in my head. What did he know? He didn’t have kids or even want them.

How could I not feel responsible for my four-month-old’s happiness? Perhaps it was because I had spent so many years – and endured numerous fertility treatments – desperately wanting to be a mother. Maybe it was the not-so-subtle hints I got glancing at the titles of popular parenting books: The Happiest Baby on the Block, Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child, or Brain Rules for Baby: How to Raise a Smart and Happy Child from Zero to Five.

Or was it just Americans’ well-known obsession with being happy that was somehow deeply rooted in my subconscious?

According to Jennifer Senior’s 2014 book All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenting, parents today are confused about what role they should play in their children’s lives. We’ve outsourced many of the former jobs that parents used to provide for their offspring: schools teach them math, history and job skills; doctors provide medical care; and the agricultural industry grows their food. What purpose is left for modern parents?

As a first-time mom of a very fussy baby, I was still trying to define what motherhood meant to me – and the simplest task I could identify was making my son happy.

Colicky, challenging, spirited – these are the words I could have used to described my son. Experts say that colic – excessive crying – lasts only for the first three months of an infant’s life. But my son apparently didn’t get that memo. Until he was 15 months old, he would still cry for a half-hour a day for no real reason.

He hated being put into the car seat, but hated getting taken out of it; he hated having his face washed and his diaper changed; he hated not being held, but was still cranky in my arms. Yes, he smiled at us, laughed and played at times – but overall, he just didn’t seem terribly happy. He was definitely not the happiest baby on the block, and I was pretty miserable myself.

When my son turned eight months old, I had my first inkling that perhaps my childless college friend was right. My son had been born with blocked tear ducts that were not clearing up on their own. In order to open them up, a doctor had to plunge stainless steel rods through his ducts while a team of nurses held his head in place and his arms down. It was not a particularly painful treatment, the doctor told me – but it was very scary for him. I could tell from his screams during the procedure (parents were not allowed in the room) and the way he clung to me when we were reunited.

“How did you make sure he wasn’t traumatized for life?” my mom asked when I described the treatment to her over the phone.

I felt horrible about the fear and stress he had endured, and my mother’s words only made me feel worse. I had failed to protect my son from this experience; no wonder I couldn’t make him happy in his daily life.

I vented about my guilt and sadness over the procedure to a free therapist-facilitated mothers’ group that I attended weekly.

“A parent’s job isn’t to protect your child from negative experiences and emotions,” the therapist told me. “A parent’s job is to guide children through those negative experiences, so they can eventually work through them on their own.”

A light bulb went off in my head; I had found the purpose of my motherhood. My goal in parenting shouldn’t be to simply stop my son’s crying and make him happy, like so many book titles suggest. Instead, my mission became to make my son resilient – a concept becoming more popular in psychology and parenting circles to describe the ability to weather all the hardships life can throw at you.

Focusing on building my son’s adaptability entirely changed my parenting – and my mental state. Teaching resilience helped me survive his transition to toddlerhood, showing him that he doesn’t always get what he wants and that we have to do things we don’t like sometimes, like changing diapers, getting in and out of the car, or going to the doctor.

My new parenting aim also enabled me to re-prioritize my needs. My son might want me to be his 24-7 playmate, but I had to teach him that Mommy needs 15 minutes to scarf down her dinner. I even gathered the courage to put him in part-time daycare – and lovingly support him through the accompanying separation anxiety – to give myself a break from the strain of being a stay-at-home mom and pursue my passion in environmental communications. Having just two days a week to focus on writing articles and press releases – rather than obsessing over temper tantrums and naps – left me refreshed and more patient with my son.

I was beginning to feel like a whole person again and a pretty good mom – a mom who was teaching her son important life lessons of resilience. I was happy – even if my son was not always “The Happiest Toddler on the Block” (yep, that’s another parenting book title).

One morning, when my son was two, we were driving home from getting groceries.

“Mommy, Daddy was a boy and now he a man?” he asked, reflecting his recent interest in human developmental stages.

“Yes, honey,” I replied.

“And I a boy now and then I be a man?” he continued.

“Yes, that’s correct.”

“Ahhh, I don’t want to be a man,” he whined. “I want to be a boy forever!”

“Why do you want to be a little boy forever?” I asked.

“Because I love it,” he said.

It turns out that despite my concerns and hand-wringing, my cranky little boy was happy after all. Probably because I was finally happy, too.