Why happiness as a parent is always going to be qualified

two women's faces morphed back-to-back

By Ilyse Dobrow DiMarco

If a photographer were tasked with taking random snapshots of my life right now, she would end up with thousands of pictures of me washing the dishes.

Shot one: me putting on the smelly Latex dishwashing gloves, to protect my oft-Purelled hands from drying out in this bitter winter cold. Shot two: me separating the Paw Patrol and Harry Potter water bottles into their component parts. Shots three, four, five, and six: me washing each of these component parts. Shot seven: me trying to de-crust the green bowl filled with oatmeal/yogurt/pasta sauce. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Had this same photographer followed me years ago, pre-motherhood, she would have gotten a much different selection of photos. For instance:

Me at 19: Up on a stage, singing in front of a crowd, oozing with energy and excitement.

Me at 26: In an office with my graduate school advisor, having an intense discussion about new controversial research findings.

Me at 29: In China, with my husband, gazing in amazement at the Great Wall.

I don’t mean to suggest that my life then was better than it is now. In fact, I’m very happy with my life now. I have a husband and two children I adore, a supportive extended family, and a job that challenges me. But the happiness I feel now is of a very different shade than the one I felt 10 or 15 years ago. And honestly, sometimes I miss the feeling of those early years.

Back then, there were times when I truly felt like I didn’t have a care in the world. And when I did have cares (that stressful upcoming exam, that friend who seemed mad at me, that part I really wanted in the musical), I could address them with relative ease. But these days, even when I feel at my happiest, I am overwhelmed with an endless amount of cares. I’m basically whatever the opposite of carefree would be: care-filled?

My current cares aren’t only dish-washing related. As a parent, I care about everything. I care about my kids, how they’re feeling at any given moment, how they’re doing in school, whether they’re eating well and sleeping well and whether their pants have holes in the knees, in which case I have to buy more pants.

Then there are the daily cares that grew more challenging to address once I became distracted by parenting. I care about my husband and our extended family and about any personal or professional issues they may be experiencing at any given moment. I am a psychologist and am deeply committed to the people with whom I work. And I care very much about the fragile state of our nation and the world. 

I am constantly contending with so many cares.

Here I am at the sink again. Here I am signing the kids up for soccer again. Here I am preparing for the holidays again and attending a family party again and decorating valentines again. Wash, rinse, repeat. Engaging in all of this caring, day in and day out, certainly puts a damper on my mood. It’s hard to feel completely content when I’m knee-deep in glitter.

The happiness I experience these days feels like a qualified happiness. The prospect of a kid-free weekend, for example, away with my husband. While I’m ecstatic at the thought of finally being alone with him, I am preoccupied with the burden that two days’ worth of babysitting is placing on my parents and in-laws. Or when I’m particularly pleased with something I’ve written for work, but can’t stop thinking about the number of hours of TV I let my kids watch in order for me to finish it. Or when I am happy about how much my sons are loving school this year but can’t get my mind off of the news of yet another school shooting.

There should be a word or expression for feeling generally happy with your life while all-consumed with an endless cycle of cares about so many daily issues. Because that would describe me, basically all of the time. Perhaps happy, with an asterisk? As in, I think I feel happy* today (*but there are loads of wash looming at home and crap I forgot to buy those Beyblades for my son and how can I begin to process the latest horrible news from Washington?)

Most of the time, I recognize that all the dishwashing, carpooling, pants-ordering, and emotional supporting are a small price to pay for the gifts I’ve been given, these beautiful children and my amazing family and fulfilling job. But there are times when I just want to giggle all the way through a Parks and Recreation rerun without having to worry about whether my three-year-old son is in bed where he should be instead of staging a stuffed animal singing competition in his closet, a battle we wage every single night, over and over again.

I realize that the cares won’t ever let up. If my 73-year-old retired mother is any indication, the cycles just seem to multiply as you age and your family expands. I think that a qualified happiness—a happiness* riddled with responsibilities, concerns, and commitments—might be all that we parents, and all adults, for that matter, can hope for.

Dr. Ilyse Dobrow DiMarco is a clinical psychologist and writer based in Summit, NJ, specializing in parenthood-related stress and anxiety. She still sings her heart out, much to the dismay of her two young sons who, sad to say, are already embarrassed by her.

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