What is a ‘happy family’? What is parenting success?
When I was first a parent, I had so many ideas about what being a good mother was. I had a huge long list in my head of what to do and what not to do. Then as my children grew up I found words slipping out of my mouth that I had promised to myself I would never say. My children argue, we have times where it feels like the people in our home are at war with each other. But there is something that I know about myself that enables me to ride these situations with so much grace and love even when is looks differently from the outside.
I have been wondering about the ideas that we all have around success generally. We go through our lives wanting the next thing that will make us happy. The next thing that will give us the relief we are looking for, that ‘I have arrived’ settled feeling that means we are no longer searching.
We often think that when I have the new job, then I will be happy. When I earn £X amount, then I will be happy. When I have a bigger house, I will have more room and that will definitely make me happy.
But what I have realised is that this also transfers into my parenting. I used to think things like:
– when everyone is not fighting, then I will be happy,
– when we can all eat a meal together in quiet, then I will be happy,
– when we have had a fully peaceful day then I will be happy,
– when everyone else in the family is happy, then I will be happy,
– when I have a glass of wine at the end of the evening and the children are in bed, then I will be happy.
Having a happy family is so important to most parents. I have come to see so clearly recently that we need to redefine what it means to be mentally healthy and also what it means to have parenting success. I had so many ideas of how my children had to behave in order for me to be happy, I put my happiness on their behaviour and how they were, as I innocently didn’t know the truth of where my happiness comes from. When I saw insightfully that my happiness comes only from thoughts that come to me, my children were more and more free just to be who they are and for me to be who I am – separate and loving.
I have had so much insight into family life, I have been blessed to see things from a different point of view which has made a huge difference to my peace of mind, no matter how it looks from the outside.
I thought that to be a good mother I had to have happy children. Happy children who did not argue, who did not hit, who did not have tantrums, anger or big feelings. I have come to see that this is not possible. I have come to know that it is entirely human to have all of the emotions and to try to reject any as not wanting them is completely nonsensical. I welcome my children’s worry, fear and anxiety as it has no meaning for me. The one that I struggled with the most was anger. Anger for me was not OK and was something that needed addressing. However anger is also passing through. It can have the meaning that we give it.
I innocently thought that my children’s happiness was my responsibility. I thought that I had to make them happy. I now see that this isn’t possible. I can be there for them, give them what I think they need: love, attention, food, warmth, shelter, activities, nurturing. But what they think about life, is what they think about life and I cannot change that. I cannot change thought for them. That changes on its own. I can teach them about the nature of reality and thought but I can’t change them.
Happiness only comes in this moment and if we pin it on some other time then it, most likely, will always evade us.
Happiness only comes from thought, if I think that it comes from outside of me and only when all my ducks are in a row, then most likely I won’t be happy, or I won’t notice when a happy feeling passes through.
My father has an expression,
‘You are only as happy as your unhappiest child’
This makes sense if we think that happiness comes from people, circumstances and places, but if we realise that happiness only comes from thought then this cannot be true. It is true that I am only as happy as my thoughts about my children – if I am thinking about my children in that particular moment. My children can be happy when they leave me and then unhappy when they see me and then thought changes and they are happy again.
One example of the transient nature of thought is this: A coach I once listened to many years ago, when I was still searching for the solution, said so beautifully and honestly that she lost two babies through miscarriage, she really mourned them and desperately wanted to have children. She went on to have two lovely children who she was delighted to welcome into the world. It was what she had always wanted and she thought that she would always feel this way about them. However, one day she wished that the children had never been born. She didn’t understand why. Why, having lost the first two children, would she possibly wish the second two to not be here. It didn’t make sense to her. But it makes perfect sense when we understand the nature of thought. Thoughts come and go and then we give it the meaning. It is OK that we give it meaning, but when we see that this meaning isn’t really true it feels such a relief. This coach had the thought that she wanted her two alive and well children not to be there but in fact of course she didn’t and as she noticed the thought passed through.
I innocently thought I could save my children from feeling as I did about the world. However I have come to realise that we cannot save others from their human experience.
One example of this is: My lovely mother in law died when my daughter was 6. We were devastated. I didn’t know how I psychologically worked at the time and I was really searching for peace within the turmoil that her death felt like it brought us. She was an amazing support to all of us in my family and we were very close. My daughter had a tough time. She thought that she was going to get cancer and die, Granny had died of cancer. If her hair touched her mouth she would scream and spit out all the spit that came into her mouth for a few minutes. I knew a little about feelings and I didn’t want to stop her from expressing herself. I held her and said that I knew it was OK. We had big chats about how you get cancer. But beneath it all I thought there was a problem and I wanted to solve it for her. I projected into a possible future that she was going to get OCD and have a real problem. I spoke to a charity who deal with bereavement in children and they told me it was normal for a 6 year old to react like this, but I didn’t hear it. I still wanted to save her. I didn’t realise that ‘it being normal’ was such an enormous message for me to take in. If I had realised fully that it was normal then I wouldn’t have tried to save her from her experience. I wouldn’t have had all the angst about it, I could have simply loved her as she went through the crying and spitting. I didn’t know any better so I don’t look back wishing it had been any different.
When we realise that most things that families go through are normal. We see that we can redefine what a happy family is – it is a normal family. We have this idea of what a family should be, and when the shoulds drop away we are left with a moment to moment experience of life.
When my second child was born, 18 months after the first, my husband went away with work. On his return he said ‘you have done brilliantly, everyone is still alive’. I would like to redefine parenting success to:
‘if everyone is still alive you have done brilliantly’
‘You are doing brilliantly’
This feels more true, as I know that you are always doing your best giving the thinking that you are having. That is such a precious thing to know about ourselves.
Thanks for reading to the end. I hope that this has inspired you to see that you are doing a great job at parenting and if you would like to see life differently then please do get in touch or come to a meeting I organise:
Parenting workshop: 17th March, 10 -12, Nancy Potter House, Topsham
Meetup: 1st Monday of the month, 1.15 – 3.15 Nancy Potter House, Topsham
Virtual meetups starting soon.