I listened to a Planet Money podcast this morning (I’m way behind; it was weeks old) that talked about happiness metrics for countries. As part of the discussion, economists posited that they could determine a person’s happiness level with a few simple question – age (the older you are, the happier you are), marital status (married people tend to be happier), children (parents are less happy than non-parents)…
And yet, looking back on my last nearly 32 years of parenting, I have to say I get what the economists are saying.
There are a lot of unhappy times for parents. Terrible twos. Teething. Sleepless babies. Night terrors. Bed wetting. Sibling rivalries. Dead pets. Broken bones. Wrecked toys. Broken “pretty things” in the living room. Spilled milk. Rebellion. Surly teenagers. Broken hearts. Broken commandments. Bad choices. Academic struggles. And on and on.
And yes, there are happy times, too. And each family has its own mix. And sometimes things can move from happy to sad – or sad to happy – in an instant.
Despite my years of experience, I’m no expert, just battle worn. But it seems to me that one reason why parents are less than happy is because of unrealized expectations. As a new father I had the crazy idea that my kids would be happy when I corrected them, that they would gladly receive my parental counsel and want to follow it. I’m sure that’s the way I was with my dad, wasn’t I? Wasn’t I?
Of course in the church we know the stakes for families are very high. And so are the potential rewards. Parents in the gospel understand the value of making and keeping sacred covenants, and we want our children to know the blessings we have known. And when they don’t seem to want them, we are sad. We’re disappointed. And we’re scared.
It’s all too easy to look across the aisle in sacrament meeting at the Perfect Family and wish our family could be like theirs. Children of all ages well groomed and attentive in sacrament meeting (or gazing lovingly at their parents in adoration, or charitably assisting younger siblings at whatever wonderful thing they are trying to do). We tell ourselves that if we have regular family scripture study and Family Home Evening, everything will work out in the end. And we wonder how far we must be from the end, because things don’t seem to have worked out yet.
Here’s one thing I’ve learned along my 32 years and counting of parenthood: my happiness as a parent cannot depend on what my kids do. I cannot build my own image of myself as a parent or a person based on what someone else with his or her own agency does. Not only is it silly on the face of it, it’s counter to the fundamental teachings of agency. God is no less God because I sin. He is not defined by my choices. And I am not defined by my children’s choices.
In the rooms of 12-step recovery programs, one learns pretty quickly that setting up expectations for others leads to resentment, and resentment leads to indulging in addictions. One way we break that cycle is to abandon the idea that we can set expectations for others. In those 12-steps, one learns that the only person I can control is me. (And in the case of addiction, I may not always be able to control me.)
Does that mean we don’t have standards? Of course not. We set standards. We have family rules. We also have consequences when someone doesn’t live up to family rules. But we don’t expect our children (or ourselves) to be perfect. In fact, we expect that our children (and we) will fail along the way, and that they (and we) will bear the consequences of that failure. Some parenting experts teach that we should HOPE our children make big mistakes while they live at home so that we can still have an influence on them.
Our Heavenly Father knew we would fail. He knew we would make many mistakes in our journey home to Him. That’s why he sent His Son to suffer and die and be resurrected for us – so that we could overcome our very natures, so that we could recover from our regular failures.
I don’t know if Heavenly Father feels sadness the way we do. I suspect he sees the end from the beginning better than I do, and so perhaps he does not have the hopelessness that I have felt as a father. I do know this, though. I know that when I pray about my children, I’m reminded in the Spirit of good things they do and good things they will do, even if some of what they are doing now isn’t so good. I believe that is the Spirit teaching me to look forward with the eye of faith, to believe that it will all work out in the end, and to realize that if it hasn’t worked out, it’s not the end yet.
And that makes me happy. Tired, but happy.
BTW, you can read a re-posting of one my most popular posts from A Latter-day Voice at Real Intent here.