I was at Target the other day enjoying the unequaled felicity that is a woman alone at Target when I saw a young mother wrestling with several young children, some of whom were crying and one of whom had decided to run away to live in the bedding section. I wasn't aware that the desire to live in Target took hold until after puberty and found myself impressed with said child's maturity and sagacity. I could have told the child that, speaking from personal experience, no matter how hard you cried the Target employees, being selfish and close-minded, would not let you live in the bedding or any other section. Chaos was ensuing but the mother was keeping her cool fairly well. Being in my own temporary childless state I was able to indulge in the humor of the situation all while smiling sagely to myself. In nothing are people capable of seeing greater humor or feeling a greater sense of sympathetic superiority than in seeing someone else suffering through humiliation from which we regularly suffer but from which we are currently taking a break. So I stopped and told the mother that she was doing a good job. I know how much it means when someone gives you encouragement during a trying time. I remember once a man stopped me in church and proceeded to go to some length telling me what a wonderful mother I was. I was deeply touched. Tears came to my eyes. Being told in church that you're a good mother is particularly gratifying as trying to get children through church without resorting to shockingly unchristian behavior is a feat so noteworthy and rare as to be deserving of universal regard. I desperately needed to feel approbation and it filled my soul with gratitude and strength. Then he proceeded to tell me not to worry because there was a wonderful man out there for me and to just hold on. In fact, the whole time he was effusively complimenting my mothering skills he thought I was my sister. But I did realize how nice it would have been to have been given encouragement from someone who was actually referring to me.
So I stopped and told the mother that she was doing a great job. She looked surprised and relieved and fairly incredulous and then said something about looking forward to the day when she could shop alone. Suddenly she looked ashamed. She laughed a little and said, "I guess I shouldn't say that." In that moment I knew exactly what she was thinking. From the moment that people find out that you are pregnant until approximately, as far as I can tell, the rest of eternity, people are always telling you to "enjoy every moment". Generally it's at times of least possible enjoyment. When you're waddling and in pain and haven't slept in 3 months, when you're baby's screaming, when you're sobbing because you know for absolute certain that your child is going to be the youngest offender ever on the FBI's Most Wanted list and there's nothing you can do to stop it. But I understand where these people are coming from. They are generally people looking back on the lives which have gone by much faster than what they had ever thought possible, wishing they had allowed themselves to enjoy it more rather than waiting for it to rush by. Looking back on energy wasted hoping for a time when life would place happiness on their lap, all wrapped with a sparkly gold bow and bursting in confetti and congratulations only to realize too late that life couldn't care less whether or not you are happy, much less go out of the way to provide it for you. I totally understand that. I am amazed at how fast our children are growing and am more and more coming to the realization that the time is going to pass regardless of what speed you want it to and so you might as well chill out and relax and have some fun with it as opposed to being a demonic rage monster or a whiner or somebody who just sits around and waits for things to happen.
For example, one of the things I'd most like to hit younger Mary over the head for was thinking that "real" life was on hold while we were going through grad school because it turned out when Matt was done and we started "real life" it was exactly the same as the life I had considered on "hold". I could have had a lot more happiness if I hadn't spent so much time saying, "When we're making more money, then...", "When Matt has a better schedule, then..." And I can see a little better now that it's the same way with child rearing. The older the kids get the more I realize that nothing is going to come along and make it easier. I've spent so much time saying, "When the kids are older, then...", "When the kids are all in school, then..." I've dreamed of the freedom of gloriously child free hours; hours spent in eating lunch while indulging in a book simply lousy with coherent thought, of going to the store without having to take out insurance beforehand in the hope that our children could be filed under an "Act of God" to cover the ensuing destruction. And I'm not gonna lie, it is marvelous. But it's still life. There's still just not quite enough time to get everything done. Life still keeps going at it's same pace.
But allowing yourself to enjoy life is not the same as enjoying every moment. Screaming children, depression, financial difficulties, communication breakdowns, hospital stays, fighting, tantrums, all these things are part of family life and, frankly, suck. It is not possible to enjoy them because they are not enjoyable. They hurt. (And enjoying pain, I'll remind you, is actually a mental illness. If you find yourself liking these experiences you may want to consult a professional). Telling a young mother to "enjoy every moment" while her child is throwing a tantrum at the register is tantamount to telling someone who just broke their toe while running to make sure they "enjoy" it because if they don't it shows they're not grateful they have working legs.
The pressure to enjoy everything your child does is not only absurd, it also takes away from the enjoyment of the actually enjoyable moments. When a child sits in my lap and hugs me, or tells me they love me, or feels happy about an accomplishment, these moments bring real pleasure partly because they coexist with moments that don't. I am able to feel joy when my daughter cleans her room on her own without being asked because I remember the times when getting her to do anything she didn't feel like doing was equivalent to trying to negotiate with a rabid dog that is both blind and deaf and intent on personal and domestic destruction and you're frankly scared of it. Simply because those times were miserable the times when she decides on her own to be responsible and human and thoughtful are delightful. I am able to feel happy when my son makes me laugh because there are times when he does things that make me sad.
So to all those well meaning people out there, and all the parents stretching themselves thin trying desperately to enjoy that which is impossibly unenjoyable, I would say this: allowing yourself to experience negative emotions doesn't take away from the good. It doesn't take away from gratitude. It doesn't take away from joy or your ability to be a good parent. Nor will it cause years of regret in a time distant from now when it is too late to go back and change things. On the contrary, such allowance will deepen and enrich the entire, insane experience of life. Laughter is all the sweeter from following tears because, in the end, attempting to enjoy everything amounts to enjoyment of nothing.