(Exhibit A: one of my favorite childhood pictures. It's dated on the back October 1973, which would make me about 16 months old. Not a grin in sight.)
I used to buy into the idea that one must suffer for one's art. Like so many, I believed there could be no poetry without pain, no creativity without angst, no fully realized personality without an array of agonies to show for it. (This is perhaps what happens when you discover a poetic inclination at a very early, impressionable age; I started writing, seriously writing, when I was in junior high, and for my last three years of high school, I was the editor of the school literary magazine and a frequent contributor.) After all, how many authors grinned like fools for their jacket portraits? Life was Serious Stuff. Happiness was for the shallow, surface dwellers. If one wanted to be truly alive -- especially deeply, creatively alive -- I believed that one Must Be Serious.
This is an unfortunate perspective, to say the least. Especially when combined with a depressive biochemistry. There's enough suffering in this life without giving it a halo of artistic merit. I was well into my twenties before I realized that joy is indeed "sorrow's little sister" (thank you Kris Delmhorst). And while we're quoting lyrics, I'll freely admit that Ani Difranco's little insight probably also had something to do with my "a-HA!" moment about all this: "I think shy is boring. I think depressed is too."
Sylvia Plath, rest her soul, claimed a suicide attempt for every decade of her life. My timeline so far has been rather the reverse -- aside from a dip in the adolescent years, with each decade I've grown happier. (And I hate to say it, but I wonder how much of my rough road to joy was made rougher still by a double major in English and Women's Studies, with an emphasis on women poets? Was I depressed because I was interested in Lady Lazarus and her friends, or was I interested in all that because I was depressed?) Thank God I long ago left behind whatever pretensions I had to that sort of poetic existence. (It really is too bad that I didn't come to appreciate e. e. cummings earlier, isn't it?)
But even though I'm much happier these days, I'm still not much of a smiler. You know those people who decide it's their mission in life to inflict a grin on every individual they meet? The deputies of the Smiling Police? These are the folks who are always insisting, "It takes fewer muscles to smile than to frown! So Smile!"
I'm the kind of person they love to encounter.
Putting aside their dubious claims, which have no scientific basis (thank you, Snopes) and giving them the benefit of the doubt, it still infuriates me to have complete strangers claim jurisdiction over my facial expressions. Yes, I know that there are many reasons, literal as well as metaphorical, that life might go by more smoothly if I smiled more often. But please, it's not your place to tell me what to do.
Of course I'm too polite to tell it to their faces, but many's the time I've bitten my face into a smirk while thinking, "I will smile when I have cause, not because you think I should. Go take your rictus and bug somebody else. Thankyouverymuch."
By now, most of my friends and family are used to my habitual expression, and I'd become pretty comfortable with my less-than-smiley self. But then, oh then. The many ways in which motherhood slaps you upside the head.... during the last week, it seems my son has become a junior member of The Smiling Police.
Several times a day, he tells me, "Mommy! Smile!" Depending on where I am at that moment, it either melts me into giggles or pushes me right over the edge into a scowl so severe that it hurts my face. And the latter reaction really bothers me -- after all, this is my son we're talking about, not some stranger who has no real investment or interest in my happiness. Why, then, should his telling me to smile push all the same buttons?
Of course I have daily reasons to look less than pleased, simply because I'm the primary caregiver of two small kids (a 2 yr old and a 3 yr old, for a few more weeks until BJ turns 4!) Wonderful kids, of course, but in the life of a SAHM there is sufficient cause for exasperation (and worse) when most of your waking hours are spent with a potty-training toddler who wakes up at 5:30 a.m. and her boisterous brother. Especially when you are, like me, more of a Serious Mother than a playful mommy.
After all, Motherhood is Serious Stuff! The work! The sleep deprivation! The responsibility of protecting, nurturing, and shaping a malleable individual from the moment of birth! Of course it is serious!!! To think otherwise would be grossly irresponsible. Besides, if motherhood isn't serious work, what the hell have I been worrying about for the last four years?
(Hmmm. Do I detect an echo in here?)
I had a big "a-HA!" moment about my mommy identity a few months ago: I realized that some part of me was emphasizing my irritation and frustration in order to illustrate just how hard I was working every day. If I was having fun, or if I even looked like I was having fun, then I'd be giving off the dreadful impression that all this was easy.
Of course it isn't easy -- but who said that hard work can't be fun?
Granted, it's not all grins and giggles around here. To say otherwise would be disingenuous. (In spite of the fact that S says he likes to read my blog because "it shows the Happy Jen." So there you go.) However, much as I do my best not to overreact and to keep a positive spin on things, I will admit to glowering as one of my parental tools. I long ago perfected "The Look" when I was a high school teacher. Yes, it's not exactly Positive Discipline -- but it works, both with teenagers and with the shorter set! And sometimes you gotta go with what works.
My habitually neutral expression, borderline frown, has worked for me for a long time. A very long time. But it seems that is no longer the case. This has been kicking around in my head for days now, but I hadn't realized how much all this was bothering me until the other morning.
I was operating in lowgrade irritated mode, mostly due to lack of sleep. (Curse that daylight savings!) BJ was refusing to eat breakfast, even though he obviously needed to eat. S was late for work, and BB was whining about something or other. As I was going about my morning business, trying to get everyone taken care of, BJ pleaded, "Mommy, smile at me!" And something in me snapped.
I remember reading somewhere that kids are exquisitely attuned to body language. If your mouth is saying one thing but your expression indicates something else entirely, they will "hear" your body language much more loudly than whatever words you speak. I try to keep this in mind. I really, really do. But the reality of it didn't hit home fully until that morning, I guess. When my little guy is telling me to smile, he's really saying, "Mommy, I want you to be happy. I want to be able to see that you are happy. With me, with the world, with yourself."
And am I happy? For years, this has been a dicey question to ask. It has taken me a good three days to write out this post, mostly because of my issues with this question. (OK, a good part of taking that long is simply due to the schedule's difficulties, caring for the kids full time... though, granted, that same schedule also impacts how happy I am!) I'm much more comfortable saying I'm happier than I used to be. For all the cultural currency that is given to happiness, it still feels too easy to say, Yup. I am happy. After all, those founding fathers of ours emphasized the pursuit of happiness, right?
I guess for me, there seems to be something more acceptable in that pursuit, in the attempt, than in actually admitting to attaining the goal. It seems pretty sad to write it out like that, but there you go. Even now, a simple affirmative reply is somehow less to my mind, in that it invalidates the many, many inadequacies and shortfalls and complexities that are undeniably part of life. (There's all that serious stuff again....)
But you know what? I am happy. Not giddy, not goofy, not flighty (all words that I've tended to associate with "happy") but happy. Yes. Happy like a well that runs deep, instead of the giddy gurgling of a stream; joy that is sorrow's little sister; a happy stillness instead of exuberance, much of the time. But yes, happiness. I am still pursuing it, moment by moment, but I am also in that moment, so I am there. With enough to quench the spirit for the rest of the road ahead.
I'm reminded of one of my favorite quotes, from Rumi. "But listen to me: for one moment quit being sad. Hear blessings dropping their blossoms around you."
(And I wonder now, would I have liked this quote so much, for so many years, if it was phrased -- "start being happy" instead of "quit being sad"?)
I can tell my son over and over that I love him, that I'm happy, that he's wonderful. But if my face reflects something else, will he believe me?
I was near tears that morning as I gave S his goodbye hug and wished him a good day. Poor man didn't know quite what to think, I'm sure. I assured him that I was fine, and as he left I knelt down to give my son a hug. Smiling as I did so.
Motherhood is hard. I never knew how hard (nobody does until she wears the mantle herself, of course). And I take it VERY seriously. But in ways large and small, I'm realizing that it is indeed possible to take something seriously and to have fun with it at the same time. That's true of life, of motherhood, of artistic creativity. It's all happy stuff. Seriously happy. And worth smiling about.
With that in mind, I find myself reflecting on my friend Cathy's list of 100 Happies which she posted last month. I'm working on my own list and will post it very soon. Thinking about things to add has led to more than one grin. I hope it makes you smile a little, too. (Update: you can find my happy list here.)