Are You Happy?
A reminder from a three-year-old
I got pregnant with my son when my daughters were 6 and 8 and I wasn’t expecting to parent anything younger than that, ever again.
I’d spent years of my life being pregnant, breastfeeding, sleeping inconsistently, and feeling like I needed to be on and fully charged at all hours. Now, my body and attention were my own again. The girls were in school, I’d been writing full-time for a year, and the idea of having my autonomy stripped back again terrified me. Every once in a while between August of 2019 and March of 2020, I would break out in a cold sweat wondering how I would ever handle it.
Then the world saw my fear and raised me some uncertainty, anguish, and isolation.
Three weeks before my due date, lockdown began. A week after that, my father-in-law died unexpectedly. My house was under construction, the four of us (and our dog) living in two rooms in the basement. And human contact was inaccessible to any of us.
It was a scary, lonely time. Our little part of the world was filled not with the joyful squeals of the girls playing together or watching the contortions of their sibling inside my belly, but with alternating yelling as we all got on each other’s nerves, silence as we staked out our individual corners and tried to shut the others out, and sounds from the television as we played movies to drown out the deep anger and melancholy that had descended over us.
And then there was the crying. After dark, when the lights were out and the chapter from their book had been read and there was nothing else to think of but the emptiness that had come unbidden into our lives, together or alone, we would cry.
After the baby came, things stayed hard for what felt like a really long time. Remote school for the older kids, feeding problems with the little one, estate stuff for my husband, and, of course, no help from the outside.
But, as with all horrible things, intolerably infinite in the moment yet fleeting in retrospect, the terror and pain subsided. When construction ended and we could spread out a little, we settled into a kind of peace—one that, after an adulthood full of moving from one thing to another with no rest or respite, I didn’t know could exist. In my pre-pandemic mind, we were setting alarms and leaving time for nursing before we had to pile into the car, working around baby sleeps to get to gymnastics practice and school drop-off. But the beauty of the pandemic was that we all just got to coexist. And it was the littlest who set the tone for the rest of us.
We would crowd around him as he made goofy faces, cooed along with my singing, (confirmation that Mama is, indeed, star material), and wrestled with the binky. One daughter sewed him a shirt. The other found a little doll’s hat to put on his head. The dog was very curious. My husband was gifted a bittersweet spot of joy to hold onto, even as he struggled to let his father go.
This little boy—the kid who none of us ever expected to meet—provided a tether for us all during the hardest time in our lives.
And, though times are easier, he just keeps on keepin’ on.
I wrote six months ago about how, after 18 months of speech therapy, he was able to tell me when some random “person” “hurt” him. He’s now graduated from speech and he’s got plenty to say. “I wan’ go outSIDE!” is one of his favorites, as is, “Can I sit right next to you?”
The way he says, “Oh, I love you, too, Mama,” and kisses whatever surface he can reach on my body, is enough to melt my heart. But lately he’s been saying something that breaks my brain a little.
“Are you happy?”
It’s the first thing he says when he sees us—when the first pink rays of sun peek in through the blinds, or when the screen door slams behind the girls after school, or when I emerge for a seltzer and an açaí bowl after working at my desk for hours. “Oh, hi!” He says. “Are you happy?”
It should be an easy question to answer. And maybe the default answer, when a three-year-old asks you if you’re happy, can just be yes. But my first instinct is always to sift through the swirling mess of preoccupations and distractions and see what’s left. What am I? How am I, really?
In any given moment, I’m stressed out, busy, worried, irritated, achy, and anxious—and those are just the surface feelings that came through my fingertips when I started typing this sentence. I can get in touch with those feelings in an instant. They’re right there with all the things I have to do, all the things I’m procrastinating doing, all the things I should do but won’t, and all the things I want to do but can’t. But happy doesn’t often come to mind.
For as long as I can remember, life has been a never-ending series of things just waiting to get done. And now that I work in a creative profession with very fluid boundaries, there is always something more to do, something more to know, something I’m missing that is the key to unlocking success (whatever that means).
So, when my son wakes up in the morning, I’m in the middle of something. And when I walk in the door from an appointment, I’m on my way to my desk to work on something. And when I wake him up at 2:00 from his nap, I’ve just finished doing one thing and have another waiting for me.
“Hi, Mama. Are you happy?” he’ll ask, tucking his little hands under my arms and burying his face in my neck against the brightness outside his bedroom door.
And in that moment, between all those imaginary things and the very real embrace of my son’s arms, what else could I be? I am still all those other things. But, inhaling the sweet scent of his head and feeling his warm, red cheek up against mine, I’m happy, too.
“Yeah, buddy. I’m happy,” I say. “It’s a good thing you asked, because I forgot for a second. Are you happy?”
He doesn’t hesitate like I do. He squeezes his body into mine and says, “I sure am happy, Mama.”
And I could stand there like that until the end of time.