By Jennifer Berney
I don’t participate in my children’s fun or even bear witness to it. Instead, I make myself joy’s adversary. I’m trying to change that.
Too often when my children are full of joy, I take it as my job to curb it.
Take the following scene, for instance:
“Get your pajamas on!” I yell to my older son for the umpteenth time. It’s eight thirty in the evening and I wanted my two sons in bed half an hour ago. But instead they are still naked from their bath, chasing each other through the living room. My toddler jumps out at my older son from behind a half-closed door. He shrieks, and our small house fills with peals of laughter. “Enough!” I shout. I put my hand on my son’s bare back, and guide him into his bedroom. I close the door between him and his little brother. In moments like this, I don’t participate in my children’s fun or even bear witness to it. Instead, I make myself joy’s adversary. I’m trying to change that.
One of the best pieces of parenting advice I’ve ever received came from an older friend, her child already grown. “I was good at being present through the hard emotions,” she said. “But I wish I’d been more present for the joy.”
When she said this, my jaw dropped a little. So far I had measured my parenting on how well I tended to my children through their daily disappointments, their struggles and grievances. But when it came to how well I engaged with their happiness, I never measured that.
I began to consider the moments when I interfere with my children’s fun. There’s always a reason: it’s bedtime or it’s time to leave for school. They’re messing up the bed I just made, or their shrieks are hurting my ears. It’s true that sometimes the fun must end. But it’s also true that sometimes I can make room for it by starting our bedtime routine earlier, for instance, or training them to help me remake the bed that they’ve unmade.
The more I think about these things, the more I must face a truth about myself: Joy is a challenging emotion for me. Sadness comes easily. Anger hovers in the background. Anxiety is ever-present. These are my resting emotions. I don’t want to overstate it here. It’s not that my life has been particularly hard, or that I’m a chronically unhappy person. It’s just that joy is such a big emotion. One I find hard to inhabit comfortably. When I embody it, I feel like I’ve put on an outfit that doesn’t quite suit me—like I’ve borrowed a friend’s neon party dress to wear to a PTA meeting.
I suspect that I’m not the only adult who feels this way. I suspect that for many of us, by adulthood joy has left our emotional landscape or we must go to special lengths to engage it: we might finish a bottle of wine on Friday night, or empty our wallets for brief thrills like sky diving or bungee jumping. Some of us might have even wanted children, in part, because we thought they might help us regain the sense of joy that has dimmed over the years. But then, after a year or so of parenting, we might claim to be so overburdened with the tasks of work and keeping house that there is no room in our lives for such a big and frivolous emotion.
At first glance, joy doesn’t help us to vacuum the car or put away the groceries. But I do wonder if joy may act as a medicine, a balm, if it might help me move with ease through life’s sharp turns and corners, if yesterday’s dose of joy might make today’s to-do list feel less daunting, or less important. And so lately I try to take note when my children are joyful. I try to open myself to this strange and foreign feeling.
Yesterday morning my children were ready for school and we still had ten minutes to spare—a small miracle in my world. To entertain themselves, they took turns jumping off the coffee table and into my arms. As they leapt, they shouted random words like cat-face! or jellyfish!
In the past, I might have acted as catcher for a hundred jumps and never noticed what a good time this was. I might never have noticed how good it felt to have their full weight land on me, each of their bodies creating a gentle ache with each landing. But at some point, after at least a dozen falls and catches, it registered: this is joy. I opened my arms wider. I cheered. When they finally landed, I held them tighter.
On the couch that morning, no miracle occurred. All of my resting emotions—my sorrow, my anger, my worry—remained. But for those minutes I also felt suspended, held inside a bright and hazy light. I was at once two selves, present and distant, joyful and fearful, a human existing in time, space, and also light.
Jennifer Berney is a Brain, Child contributing blogger. Her essays have also appeared in The New York Times Motherlode, the Brevity blog, and Mutha. She is currently working on a memoir that chronicles her years-long quest to conceive a child. You can connect with her on Twitter, or on her personal blog, Goodnight Already.