A mother is only as happy as her unhappiest child.
Despite being traced as far back as Jackie Kennedy, likely even earlier, I’d never heard this saying until my sister nonchalantly said it over Thanksgiving. My mind keeps coming back to it because it’s actually quite profound if you think about it. These days especially.
Why? Because as I’m finding out, a lot of kids really aren’t that happy. And if that saying holds any truth … good grief. There goes my dream of stress-free evenings of karaoke in my retirement village because there’s a fair chance I may be fretting forever.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, for good reason. With four kids in varying stages of young-adulthood, there’s a smattering of unhappiness in my family on any given day. I can’t seem to keep up with it and most days I don’t know how to make it go away. As all moms know, the feeling of helplessness is the worst.
On the surface, my kids have lived fairly mundane, non-traumatic lives. Typical extraneous factors aside (not making a coveted team, middle school bullying, romantic heartbreak), they’ve all encountered life’s disappointments with little residual scarring. It might’ve helped that most of their setbacks were met with my steely shrugs. Hell, they were taught at an early age that toys from the dollar store would not last the car ride home: Yes, you can have it but no crying when it breaks, okay? Dry those eyes, get that chin up, and move on. It’s not the end of the world. This too shall pass. Glass half full.
You get the picture.
But it seems my tough tactics notwithstanding, things got a little muddy in between SATs and graduation gowns. The expectation versus reality of the real world is crippling our young adults and now I — and dozens of friends — are finding ourselves helping them navigate a reality they have been utterly unprepared for. I know plenty of kids (“kids” in their twenties) who are floundering, feeling unfulfilled, filing away their diplomas to work as bartenders and nannies and quitting six figure salary jobs because they’re just not happy. Um, what?
This confounds me for when I think back at my own young-adult journey it didn’t seem so … I don’t know, difficult. After turning my back on the circus that was high school (because hello, high school is a circus for every generation. Period.), I went off to college – where I stayed for four straight years: dropping classes, adding classes, switching majors, drinking too much, kissing wrong guys, coming home at Christmas because … everyone did. Three days after graduation, I pounded the pavement with a neat stack of freshly-typed resumes under my arm and took the first job offer that came. Thus began Chapter One of My So-Called Adult Life.
It was 1988 and we were all following the bread crumbs sprinkled by Gordon Gekko and Tess McGill (“….Leeeeeeeeeeet the river ruuuuuuuun!”) and when those first jobs sucked (at $14k a year, most did), we typed up new resumes and got new ones. Chin up, move on.
We didn’t backpack through Europe. We didn’t take a gap year. We didn’t even come home from college until they closed the dorms on us. Today, if I had a dollar for every kid I know that went off to college and didn’t finish out the year (one of my own included) lord, I’d have some purdy nice things to unload on Ebay.
Sadly, our kids are setting out to find euphoric satisfaction in life and they’re becoming disillusioned to discover that is a most elusive achievement.
Recently I had a conversation with my daughter (who’s 23). I’ve written of her before because she is a brilliant being and a remarkable soul. She finished college in less than four years and is, ahem, no dummy. Currently she’s living across the country, experiencing the beauty of other regions, seeking her own life satisfaction and is – for the most part — happy. But she shared a thought with me that pointed out this dilemma rather succinctly. She said her generation has been groomed (thank you, Ted Talks and progressive professors) to be bold and follow their dreams. To engage in their passions. To focus on what makes them happy and just do it.
Yet what she and her friends are finding – all these years later – is that their passionate happy dreams are not exactly paying their bills. Life, it turns out, is expensive. Some are becoming slowly cynical by this stark realization and finding themselves in a “now what?”conundrum.
What’s so wrong with following your passion on the weekends?, she mused.
I concurred and admitted that, while I love to write, if I was forced to stare at my laptop and do it every single day I might begin to loathe it. Then I reminded her that most adults (cough, my age) don’t go skipping off to their jobs each morning singing songs and shitting confetti on their way but most would agree we’re happy nonetheless. Chin up, move on.
Her remarks made me believe that, despite the constant worry that comes with parenting a child from afar, the kid’s going to be alright. Luckily, she’s starting to get it (soooooo, talk to your brothers, will ya?).
Still, it got me thinking. Since all these grand ideas about happiness being force-fed into youthful minds are not turning out to be so grand after all, maybe there needs to be some menu changes on that advice buffet they’re chowing on.
For starters, we’re insisting that kids select college majors while they’re still in high school. That is absurd. The sheer amount of times my kids change their clothing or hair styles leaves me doubtful they’d ever stick with any decision that seemed like a good idea at 16 or 17.
We’re also jumping aboard a bonkers train when it comes time for college applications. Here’s a thought: if a kid can barely get him/herself up and off to school – FOR FREE – what makes any parent think it’ll happen when they’re hundreds of miles away with thousands of dollars on the line and a gazillion other distractions?
Funny. We’re telling kids to go off and journey to find their life happiness when they’ve never used public transportation, or written out a check, or paid a bill, or even fully understand the words remit, interest, fee…
I don’t know. Today is not the day I can solve this problem. It just seemed a helluva lot easier being content when we were blindly following the Brat Pack and dreaming about DeLoreans.
I keep my fingers crossed that my kids will come to learn that their road to happiness is winding and full of red lights.
And that sometimes being stuck in a traffic jam allows a person some needed time to think about the directions they’re headed in.
And that it’s always okay to change your course. Always.