“Mom, You look so happy in this picture.”
It was an innocent observation by my then-13-year-old son as I was going through old college photographs. He was not intending for those words to wound me. In fact, he probably meant it as a compliment.
Nevertheless, it sure did it sting my ego, which had been clinging to the notion that I was still a hoot to be around. Sure, my day-to-day reality as a parent to three children is not the carefree and self-centered adult play land that was captured in that picture. But I still smile at my kids. Was my son calling me out as a phony?
My mind reeled with rationalizations and excuses as I tried to justify why my own kid would find it unusual to behold his mom appearing to enjoy herself. After all, I have made joy a priority in my children’s lives. Whether it’s the park, the zoo, the beach, amusement centers, or being active outside, I could never be accused of neglecting their need for fun.
But as I contemplated all the things I do to bring pleasure to my kids’ lives, it hit me. It has always been about them. My role was and still is the organizer, planner, money provider, driver, helper, chaperone, and photo-taker. The kids were free to just relax and let me take care of the details.
This is not to say that parents should not have those responsibilities, because of course it goes with the territory of being the grown up in charge. However, I was left with a burning question:
How often since becoming a mom have I been able to have fun and participate in something that is of my own choosing without having to take care of anyone else in the meantime?
The answer? Hardly ever. Yes, there have been occasional date nights with the hubs or evenings out with girlfriends. Those sporadic reprieves have done wonders to refill my tank and connect with my grown up self.
But piled onto those occasions was the exhausting list of preparations I had to manage to even make a few hours worth of a “mom break” a reality. Booking a trusted babysitter was only the beginning. I had to clean the house and make sure it was child-proofed to the extent that there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell my kids had an opportunity to harm themselves. Every detail of dinner and the nighttime routine needed to be prepped and ready to go. And upon my return from my night out there awaited a trashed home and three kids who were still awake and requiring my full attention.
It’s almost not worth it, which is why I don’t do it all that often.
This is not even to mention the standard daily grind of cleaner, cooker, washer, picker-upper, manager, and go-to person for any tiny need that my kids may have throughout the day.
So, yes, the truth is out there. I have been faking happy, because I thought it’s the persona I should be putting on for my kids’ sake.
What a surprise to learn that my façade has not been received as genuine. They’ve already got me figured out. Maybe it’s my exasperated sighs, the occasional roll of the eye, the deep breath I take when my kids interrupt something I am doing that doesn’t involve them.
Which leaves me with a choice: I can either continue to play martyr and have my children remember their mother as a nervous wreck who attempted to conceal it through clenched teeth, or I can put myself first every once in a while so I can nurture my own joy and return to them refreshed, relaxed, and more able to give.
I am choosing the latter. As awkward a learning curve as it may be in the interim, I plan on making my own fun a priority. It’s a lesson I hope that my own kids will remember one day when they are adults. Why should life be unicorns and rainbows when you are a child and “all work and no play” when you are an adult?