At my son Jacob’s middle school orientation a few days into the school year, I learned that he kept a “feelings journal.” As part of social and emotional learning, instead of telling kids to “be happy,” students wrote for ten minutes each morning about how they were feeling. I could not wait to talk to Jacob about it.
When the orientation ended, I ran up to his bedroom. He was playing Minecraft with a friend, his cellphone propped up against the TV so they could see each other while they played. They were laughing.
“I heard about the feelings journal. How’s it going?”
His smile disappeared. “It’s going fine. Bye, Mom.”
I was a little crushed, but brushed it off. The next morning, while toasting his bagel, I asked again. He hesitated. “Look, Mom, I like to tell you things… but honestly, I don’t want to talk about this.”
What??!! The voices in my head screamed in unison. I took a deep breath and tried to sound unaffected by the sting.
“Oh OK, sure. Can I ask why not?”
“If you really want to know, it’s just hard to tell you anything that’s not positive. I write in the journal that I’m tired and irritable, that I hate mornings and want to be back in bed. I knew if I told you, you would want to fix it so that I’m happy. But sometimes I’m totally fine being not happy.”
Ouch. Instead of all the rebuttals that came to mind, all I said was, “Thank you for telling me that.” And I drove him to school.
Since the day Jacob was born, I had wished for one thing. When I blew out birthday candles or broke off the longer half of a dried-out wishbone from our Thanksgiving turkey, my wish had been the same: I wanted my son to live a happy life. After all, isn’t that what all parents want—for our kids to be happy? I never questioned it. Until now.
When I got home, I looked around. On my desk was a little plaque a friend had bought me. It read “Good Vibes Only.” I looked at books on my shelf: “The Art of Happiness,” “The Happiness Project.” I followed the podcasts, “Ten Percent Happier,” “The Science of Happiness” and “Live Happy Now.” A painting with the words, “Be the reason someone smiles today” hung in my bathroom. For years, it had been our dinner ritual to go around the table and share one good thing that happened that day.
But life is full of a million other feelings—like disappointment and frustration and regret—that help us to learn and grow and that we simply cannot avoid.
Early in the pandemic when everything felt uncertain and scary and weird, I heard a quote by Harvard psychologist, Susan David: “Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life.” That quote got me through the toughest times. Whether feeling anxiety about getting sick, loneliness from being stuck at home, or grief when my grandmother died of COVID, I reflected on what I could learn from those experiences and how enduring those tough feelings contributed to making me stronger. Most of all, I let myself feel whatever I was feeling. Why hadn’t I applied this to my parenting?
As a mom, my kid’s happiness will always be important to me. I will never stop wanting Jacob to live a good life that he finds satisfying and fulfilling. But life is full of a million other feelings—like disappointment and frustration and regret—that help us to learn and grow and that we simply cannot avoid.
I want my kid to be happy, but I also want him to experience the range of emotions that life offers. And I want him to be able to talk about those experiences with me.
I decided to change our dinner conversation. Instead of asking about a good thing that happened, I asked “What’s one thing that happened today that you want to talk about?”
That small shift led to big changes. Our conversations went from, “I got an A on my math quiz,” and “They served pizza at lunch,” to “Maddy’s parents might get divorced, and she doesn’t know what to do,” and “When I saw a smoker’s black lung in health class, it made me realize how hard it must be for someone to quit smoking if they know that’s happening to their lungs.” Shifting my focus away from happiness led to rich conversations and brought us closer.
A couple months ago, the same week as the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, a boy close to my son’s age was hit by a car on our street. He died the next day. That evening was Jacob’s and my “date night”—one night a week that we sit together on the couch and watch funny videos. As the popcorn cooked, I scrolled through pictures online of the neighborhood boy and read an article about the shooting. I swallowed back tears as I headed toward the TV.
“Wanna talk about it, Mom? I know you’re sad.”
“I’m sorry. Let’s watch our funny stuff.”
“Why are you apologizing for how you feel? Remember—it’s OK not to be happy. I’m sad too. Let’s talk about it.”
And we did.
On the way to tuck him in, I put the “Good Vibes Only” sign in a bag to donate. I kissed him on the forehead knowing how unhappy we both felt—and it was OK.