I learned a lot of things from my mom but how to be happy was not one of them.
I had to figure that one out on my own and it was not easy. You would think that happiness is instinctual and that it would come naturally. Not for me.
My mother was not a happy woman. At least that is how I saw it. She was the daughter of an alcoholic who embarrassed her as a child. Just before she died she told me this story: When she was a child, her father piled the kids into car and drove them to school. Then he went to the local tavern and got drunk. When school let out he would be drunk, sometimes sitting on the curb. Instead of walking with her classmates, she took the alley.
She woke up one morning and her pony, which was actually a work horse on the farm, was gone. No one said a word about it. But her father had been out drinking the night before and she suspected he may have lost it gambling. He kicked her out of the house when she announced she wanted to go to college. Women didn’t need college, he said. She earned her teaching degree and taught in a one-room schoolhouse. She later earned her master’s degree in education.
My mother worked and worked and worked. She cooked, cleaned, ironed and planted a garden every year. She canned cherries, pears and peaches and made pickles, jams, jellies and applesauce. She shoveled snow, split wood and sewed. I never saw her go to a movie. She had no friends that I knew of.
She married an alcoholic, my father, and I cannot remember them ever holding hands, kissing or expressing any physical affection for each other. She seemed so sad, angry and resentful. Unlike my father, she never spent money on herself. She darned socks and wore her sweaters threadbare.
But she wanted us kids to be happy. She was a smart, wise woman but she never knew that a child cannot be happy if her mother is not happy. I struggled throughout my childhood to make her happy. Good grades. First place ribbons at swim meets. More good grades. More blue ribbons. Come on, Mom. Please be happy.
I’m no psychiatrist but from what I have learned about depression, I believe my mother had dysthymia: a low-grade, persistent depression. I genuinely believe that my mother thought her unhappiness did not affect us kids – that her feelings belonged exclusively to her and that they were not contagious. But depression is a family disease.
All I wanted was for her to be happy. When her grandkids were born, she finally seemed happy. We had the most fun after she was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer. She let loose, spent some money on a renting a beach house. She walked the beach, made bubble wands for the grandkids and smiled. I think she died happy. I miss her so much.
A few years ago, after I came out of my last major depression, my therapist asked what made me happy. My daughter made me happy. My dog made me happy. A clean house made me happy. Fitting into a size 4 pair of jeans would make me happy. A date with George Clooney would make me extremely happy.
“No,” she said. “What do you do just for yourself that makes you happy?”
We worked on it. Years of drinking left me estranged from my brother and sister. I had no girlfriends. I never went out. Doing something just to make me happy without making someone else happy seemed so selfish. I hadn’t a clue.
I worked on it. It was not easy and it took some time. Finally, I settled on scuba diving. I had always wanted to learn to scuba dive. So, I did that. I didn’t know if I would like having girlfriends but I decided to give it a whirl. Turned out I liked it. Now, I go out to dinner with my girlies. We shop, go to movies and take vacations together. I am still working on the size 4 jeans and the date with George Clooney
At first I had to force myself to find genuine happiness. I did it. Not just for me but for my daughter. A child cannot be happy if her mother is not happy. My happiness is not my daughter’s responsibility. It is my responsibility. So, I did it for her. Then I did it for me. And now I do it for the three of us: Me, my daughter and the memory of mom.
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From Psych Central's World of Psychology:
Best of Our Blogs: January 7, 2011 | World of Psychology (January 7, 2011)
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Last reviewed: 5 Jan 2011