Published on September 25th, 2014 | by Carley Moore9
Carley Moore on UNHAPPINESS
I started reading Jennifer Senior’s All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood on the eve of my daughter’s sixth birthday party. I’d been eyeing the book in the bookstore for a couple of months and my boyfriend sent me her Ted talk when the book first launched. From the Ted talk and the landscape of my own parenting—I’m a separated, co-parenting mom, a writer and an academic, who tends to struggle between two internal voices—I was pretty sure the book would speak to me. I worry, overbook, and fret about how M. is fairing in relation to her peers, as a child of divorce, as an only child, as a child without much of a financial safety net, and then when I exhaust myself doing that, I chill out and veg out and opt out of a lot.
M.’s birthday is in July, which meant we’d already cycled through a full year of birthday party celebrations with her classmates. I understood, early on, that these parties were part of what I jokingly started referring to with M.s dad as “the birthday industrial complex.” They were serious business. One family rented the Intrepid. Another treated all of the girls in the class to pedicures, manicures, and up-dos with a Frozen karaoke backdrop. There were tea parties in fancy restaurants, dance lessons, gymnastic parties, I could go on.
And we go to public school. Granted, it’s in the West Village of New York City where, as of 2011, the medium income was $111,000. I make a little more than half of that, and the reason I live in this neighborhood is because I’ve taken a position in my university that allows me to live an apartment in a residence hall. It’s a temporary position (lasting anywhere from three to nine years depending on my performance), and though I have long-term teaching contracts separate from my position in the dorm, I do not have tenure and I am not eligible for long-term faculty housing. I know I am lucky to have my position, but I live paycheck to paycheck with no savings and no plan for future housing.
I looked into it and most of these parties cost between $800 to $1000. M’s dad and I don’t have that. We were already tapped out from paying for summer camp. I also wanted desperately to model a chiller birthday party for my child and for other parents. We’d have it in the playground of Washington Square Park, there would be pizza and a whole-made cake, and the kids would run around. I sent out the evite. No biggie. I got this.
My first sign that the party might suck was that almost all her classmates were out of town. So sorry, we’re in Italy for the summer. Wish M. a happy birthday! We’d love to come but during the summer we spend our weekends in Montauk. Several parents never responded to the evite at all. M.’s friends from outside of school were also away. Her de-facto godmother, a party staple and one of our closest friends, was caring for her wife’s sick father. As the weekend for the party approached, we had only five guests. The forecast said rain. I prepared M. for the possibility that the party would be very small. M. said she didn’t care, but as she ticked off the list of her friends at school, and I said, “No, she’s away. No, he can’t come. No, she’s away too,” I saw her face fall and set in that determined, heart-breaking, soon-to-be-six-year-old-way.
I was also, I knew, repeating old patterns with my ex, ways of behaving that had doomed our marriage and I sometimes still clung too. I felt he was not doing much for this party so I doubled my efforts. I ordered a gross of Frozen party supplies from Amazon. I baked the best cake I could manage—it took four hours and another adult to help me decorate it, but I was determined! I was clearly trying to prove something to myself, to my kid, to these parents I was secretly envious of and also mad at for setting the bar so so high, and for making birthdays into a contest I could never, ever win. I knew something had come unhinged, when I cried (not my daughter, but me a 42 year old woman) in front of Party City. Our Elsa balloon bumped up against the jagged corner of an overhang and popped. I special ordered it from Amazon, and Party City almost wouldn’t fill it with helium because they hadn’t sold it to me. I begged and the stone-faced teenager behind the counter relented with a long-winded hate sigh. She was right. I hated me too.
The night before the party, I read the chapter called “Marriage” in All Joy and No Fun. I read that before any thing else. I did that kind of thing still, even though I was no longer married. I was often looking to do some kind of a post-mortem on the corpse of my marriage. Would this text give me more data or insight into understanding how we went wrong? Much of it resonated—how a small child destabilizes a marriage, the different ways in which fathers and mothers care for young children, and the mother who does way, way, way too much. I saw myself, in my birthday party mania, in one of the mothers Senior writes about, Angie, who constantly wonders if she’s doing enough and doing it right. Senior admits:
“But perhaps one of the hardest and most elusive quantity for a time-use survey to measure is the physic energy that mothers pour into parenting—the internal soundtrack of anxieties that hums in their heads all day long, whether they’re with their children or not” (59).
I knew that soundtrack. I was listening to it every minute lately. On repeat.
As for my own marriage, as sure as I was that we’d done the right thing for both ourselves and for M., much of what Senior noticed and researched about couples struck me. I knew, especially in the last two hard years of our marriage, that my ex and I really didn’t even believe in marriage anymore. We saw ourselves as shift workers more than partners, we traded off our kid, had alternating teaching schedules and very little money for child care, and so we passed in the night and in the day. Senior warns that this arrangement is a “formula for exhaustion, and it creates a scarcity economy on days off, pitting spouses against each other over who gets the easier assignments on the to-do list and who gets the spare hour for a bike ride or nap” (51).
My ex, it turned out, helped with the party quite a lot. He came over early and decorated the apartment. He bought the pizza and went with me to Party City to buy favors and decorations. He hugged me in front of Party City when I lost it over the balloon, and I could see in his eyes that he hoped I would get a grip.
I sort of did. The party, it turned out, did suck. We managed about eight kids—four friends from school, and an assortment of old friends from Brooklyn, and a random kid I basically pulled off the street. The kids trashed my apartment and M.’s toys. She got stressed trying to navigate the weird social dynamics of having old and new friends together. When everyone was gone and I was down on all fours pulling bits of cake out of the rug with my hands, M. told me that “it was the worst birthday party ever.” I felt a scrim of bloody rage fall over my eyes.
“No, it wasn’t,” I shot back. I worked so hard!! It’s not my fault!! I wanted to shout.
“I didn’t have fun!” she said.
“That hurts my feelings,” I said and I saw that she was confused. Was this party about her or me?
I put on a Tinkerbelle movie and took some deep breaths in the other room. I texted my boyfriend who was kind and helpful and reminded me that it was okay if the party was a bust. I remembered Elsa’s song in Frozen, “Let it Go,” and I realized it was finally time to do just that.
After M. watched Tinkerbelle, I asked her if there was anything fun that happened at the party and she admitted that she loved making the cake with me and when I told everyone that she was the baker. She also loved the hour we managed in the playground before coming to my apartment for pizza and cake. I asked what she didn’t like and what wasn’t fun? She said, “The fighting, everyone was fighting and the boys broke things.” I remembered all of my own party anxieties growing up and that still found parties overwhelming and weird. I said, “You know it’s okay that you didn’t have fun for at the party. Birthdays can be hard.” She nodded and started writing in her “fairy field journal.”
I guess I’m writing this essay partially so that I can do a post-mortem on the birthday party and figure out what to do next time. Maybe next summer we won’t have a party or we’ll do it in June when all of her school friends are still here? Maybe someday we’ll have one of those event parties? I doubt we can afford one and I dislike them on principle, but who knows?
But the party—this vexed situation—that I created, but is also at the heart of modern middle-class American parenting in particular, gets at a larger thing I’ve been thinking about lately as a parent, a teacher, and a person. How can we make space for sadness, for bad feelings, and for being unhappy?
In one of my favorite parenting books, How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, dealing with negative feelings is central to raising healthy kids and also to resolving family conflicts. The authors write, “Steady denial of feelings can confuse and enrage kids. Also [it] teaches them not to know what their feelings are—not to trust them” (2).
I’ve thought a lot about this in relation to M.’s dad and my separation. At first, I wanted to do anything I could to make it okay for her, to relieve my own guilt and anxiety over what we were doing to her and to her family. I wanted to fix it and make it okay. Thankfully, at the moment that M.’s dad and I were separating, we were lucky enough to be attending a nursery school that had a strong therapeutic/emotional component. At the heart of its curriculum was a belief in play and a mandate to help children express and process their feelings in a positive way. I remember one morning when I dropped M. off, several children were crying. It was just one of those days, a “sad day,” as her teacher called it. M. and I looked on as the teachers comforted the kids. The mantra at that moment was, “It’s okay to be sad.” The teachers offered up activities after they’d let the kids cry, but mostly they just made a comfortable space for the sadness and asked questions about what was making each child sad. They didn’t try to distract them from their sadness or even minimize it. M. and I both walked away from that morning with that mantra in our heads, “It’s okay to be sad.” M. sometimes reminds me when she’s crying and it guided me through much of those first hard months of our family’s split. It was sad, and it was better if I just acknowledged M.’s sadness over her parents’ separation rather than try to pretend otherwise.
Moments like these (the failed high-stakes birthday party, my separation and future divorce, and the “it’s okay to be sad” morning at the nursery school) and books like Senior’s All Joy and No Fun and Faber and Mazlish’s How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk make me wonder about the complicated feelings Americans have about happiness and success. Our “Declaration of Independence” states that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are among our rights, but do we privilege happiness at the cost of other less-tidy emotions? And what do we lose out on when we ignore sadness in ourselves or in our children?
Reading Barbara Ehrenriech’s Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America watching Slavoj Zizek’s The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology remind me that happiness is a particularly American ideology. The success of books like Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret and Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project indicate that like most ideologies, this one functions well within the dominate structures of late capitalism. If we can just make our children and ourselves happy, then we can ignore the truly difficult problems that are happening all over the world. Happiness or the pursuit of it is an ideological hamster wheel. We run on it, exhaust ourselves trying to get at it, and we become blinded to so much of the mayhem around us.
I did it. It was easier for me to try to create the perfect birthday party than to process the horrors in Israel-Gaza, the growing Ebola virus in Africa, and the fact that 219 Nigerian schoolgirls are still missing.
I wanted my daughter to have a “happy birthday,” because like so many American parents, I sometimes think that my ultimate parenting goal should be to raise a “happy kid,” and I struggle mightily with my own political failings and how to teach her in ways that are age-appropriate about just a fraction of what is going on in the world.
At the heart of All Joy and No Fun is English psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, who writes, “Happiness is an unfair thing to ask of a child. The expectation casts children as ‘anti-depressants,’” and makes parents more “dependent on their children than their children are on them” (234). I suspect too, that our American obsession with happiness makes us much less likely to engage with the political realities around us. We try to focus on ourselves, on our individual happiness because the larger social political landscape is so vexing, and distinctly unhappy. Maybe our founding fathers had it wrong. Why is the “pursuit of happiness” a right?
I started reading Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project yesterday and I finished it in twenty-four hours. I’d seen on tables in bookstores for the last couple of years, and writing this essay made me think I should check it out. There’s much in it I admire and agree with—making failure fun, writing a novel, making new friends, singing with your kids, fighting right, sleeping more, and exercising better, to name a few. I admire too her honesty about herself, her attempt to “be Gretchen” and idea of the book project itself. What a fascinating thing to attempt! She’s a diligent researcher and she makes sticker charts for resolutions complete with gold stars. And yet, I also found the book depressing and exhausting. Sentences like “I am happy—but not as happy as I should be,” and “I had to create a scheme to put happiness ideas into practice in my life,” reminded me of the endless striving I’d done when M. was a baby to keep up with the other married folks I knew in Brooklyn. I don’t want to work really really hard to be happy. I don’t want to apply a Martha Stewart-like laser focus to it, and it troubled me that Rubin, for all of her smart and reflective willingness to tackle this huge emotion refused to try therapy and meditation, two of the things I’ve found the most useful in my quest for what I can really only bring myself to call, stability.
And maybe I don’t even want to value happiness anymore. Maybe I’m sick of trying to achieve it, which is not to say that I’m not delighted when I feel it. I am! It’s lovely! Oh, that dopamine is powerful stuff! I’d like to really laugh at least once a day and go dancing every other weekend! If I had a fairy wand that worked, I’d wish a mind-blowing, endorphin-inducing orgasm on everyone at least once a day! Err, that is, if you want one!
One of the few good things about going through a separation is that nobody really expects you to be happy anymore, at least in the early parts of it. For someone like me who has had her fair amount of childhood trauma anyway, this has felt like a glorious reset button. Fuck it. Let’s stop pretending. Happy? Let’s just get through this day without crying on a student.
Near the very end of the documentary The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, one of my favorite philosophers, Slavoj Zizek reminds us that the basic lesson of psychoanalysis and cinema is that, “Our dreams stage our desires and our desires are not objective facts. We created [our dreams], we sustain them, and we are responsible for them.” Because of this, he argues that “the first step to freedom is not just to change your reality to fit your dreams, it’s to change the way you dream.” He warns us too, that to change the way you dream is painful; freedom hurts. I’d like to stop dreaming and scheming about happiness for myself and for my daughter. When happiness comes, I’d like to enjoy it, instead of fearing that it will never return. Lastly, I’d like to stop privileging happiness above sadness, fear, anger, or boredom. This essay is my attempt to dream a different dream.