“Mama,” my three-year-old said with tears in her eyes, “when you told me to STOP? That made me not happy anymore.”
I sighed. “Sweetheart, it’s not Mama’s job to make you happy.”
She looked up at me, confused. “But why not?”
And I thought of all the things I could tell her to try to explain.
It is not my job to make you happy, but it is my job to keep you alive and healthy.
That’s why I make a variety of healthy dinners, even though most nights you tell me how disgusting they look. I’ll sneak spinach into your smoothies because you turn up your nose at salads. I’ll insist that you eat some actual food before having that sucker you got at preschool. You wonder why I get so frustrated at meal times? It’s because I’m trying to keep you well-fed and you’re not making my job very easy.
That’s why I take you to the pediatrician once a year. It’s important to check your growth, talk about milestones you’re reaching (or not), and keep you up to date on immunizations. We go to the dentist–and I hate going to the dentist–to keep your teeth clean & in good shape. Given how bad my own eyesight is, I won’t be surprised when we add the eye doctor to our regular rounds. I know you hate being poked and prodded, but the discomfort is a small price to pay to keep you healthy.
That’s why I stay awake at night, worrying about coughs and fevers. When I hold your hair out of your face while you throw up, it’s not because I enjoy it. The humidifier, cough syrup, tylenol, eczema lotion, diaper rash cream, and princess band-aids I keep on hand at all times? They’re for you, little one.
That’s why I won’t let you play in the street or walk through a parking lot without holding my hand. Know now that I’m going to yell when you try to touch a cactus or get too close to the edge of the water or go to grab a hot curling iron. And it will be years before you understand the anguish of always wondering whether your teachers, caregivers, and friends’ parents are protecting you from bullies and abuse.
That and more is part of my job.
It is not my job to make you happy, but it is my job to help you learn to be a decent person.
That’s why I won’t let you say mean things to your siblings. I’ll tell you a million times before you’re grown: people are more important than things. You know how I feel about hitting and pushing: I won’t tolerate it unless you’re truly defending yourself. While I don’t force you to share, I do remind you to consider other people’s feelings and try not to be selfish. I insist on good manners at the dinner table, politeness toward grown-ups, and honesty at all times. You don’t have to like everyone, but you do have to be kind.
That’s why I will nag you about homework and hold you to high academic standards. When I go to parent/teacher conferences, I want to know the truth about your behavior and school performance so I can support your teacher in correcting problems. I’ll make you sound that word out again and again, make you practice your times tables over and over, ask detailed questions about history and science…because I want you to learn these things. It’s important.
That’s why I make you work. You put away your laundry and pick up your toys now, but just wait. More is coming. Soon you’ll be doing your laundry. And dishes. And taking out the garbage. You’ll be vacuuming, mopping, and mowing the lawn. Before you move out of my house, you’ll know how to clean a bathroom properly. While all these jobs sound exciting now, you won’t feel that way forever. I’ll still make you do it. No child of mine is going to be “that roommate.”
That and more is part of my job.
It is not my job to make you happy, but it is my job to love you.
Perhaps that seems like the easiest thing of them all. Of course I love you! You are marvelous! You are clever and beautiful and hilarious and kind and silly and absolutely perfect! You are mine!
But when you make choices that disappoint me? When you don’t live up to your enormous potential? When you irreversibly damage someone, maybe yourself, on purpose? When you lash out angrily, screaming, “I hate you! You’re the worst mom ever! I wish you would just die!” What then?
What will I do when you’re not so easy to love?
I will love you, dear one, because that is my job.
So no, you aren’t always going to be happy. That’s life. It’s something we all learn sooner or later, and I’d rather you know now.
I do want you to be happy, though. That’s why I will do my best to help you grow into an independent, capable adult who can seek her own happiness.
And when I say and do things that don’t “make you happy,” know this: I’m just doing my job because I love you.
(Photo credit: Let Me See You Sparkle Photography)