Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Perspectives on Happiness

I reconnected with an old college friend recently on Facebook, and our exchanged messages made me think about my youthful dreams for the future and how unfulfilled those dreams are now that the future is very much the present. In my twenties, I honestly believed only a PhD would make me happy. While I still think I would have been an excellent medieval literature professor and I’m fairly certain that path would have led me to happiness, it would not be the same happiness I have now. My perspective has changed a bit since my twenties. Having children will do that to a person.

When I turned 32, I experienced an intense yet short-term depression because I didn’t have a PhD yet and felt like my life was a complete failure. (Can you say “Drama Queen”?) Fortunately, I heard the siren’s call of my biological clock ticking at the same time and very shortly found myself blissfully pregnant.

My apologies for mixing metaphors. I can’t help myself sometimes. Really.

Gandhi said, “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” My parents raised me with the saying “If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right.” “Thinking, saying, and doing” this pithy little gem is why I always had stellar job evaluations, from the time I worked in fast food at age 17 to my last paid job as a writer/editor at a major computer memory manufacturer.

It’s also why last Thursday I went from just sweeping my floor to sweeping and then vacuuming the baseboards and then Swiffer WetJetting so hard I broke the handle on my Swiffer and was forced to bend over double using just the bottom half of the handle to finish the last third of the 2,000 square feet of hardwood floor in my house.

Okay, I exaggerate. We don’t have 2,000 square feet of hardwood, but it felt like 2,000 square feet, especially after shoveling all that snow and ice the day before. Oh, my aching back! When I told George about this, he asked why I didn’t quit mopping when the Swiffer broke.

Failure—quitting is just a form of failure—is generally not an option in my world. I see all the tiny details which need to be done and am incapable of stopping myself once I start a job until every little detail is finished…as perfectly as possible. And don’t try to interrupt me once I get started because I will punch you where the bruises don’t show. Just ask George.

This monomaniacal focus is a curse that has led me not to clean something until I have six hours and plenty of hormones built up to carry me through the ordeal, which explains why my house is generally so messy that I won’t invite friends over because I’m too embarrassed for them to see the chaos. Karen, I hope you’re paying attention here.

Gandhi was right. Harmonious “thinking, saying, and doing” does make me happy. Not necessarily while I’m “doing,” mind you, but once I am done, an amazing sense of accomplishment fills my heart to bursting with joy. This joy motivates me in all areas of life, but as you might imagine, it’s exhausting. If I had a job in academia, my brain would constantly be working on papers, syllabus, conferences, lectures, tests, committee meetings, planning, grading, and so forth, striving to do its best to cover all those details. I would hardly be able to cope with the infinite details of motherhood such as clipping fingernails, or wiping bottoms, or doctor appointments and snotty noses and chapped lips and barf buckets, or shopping for clothes for kids who grow overnight, or preschool Valentine’s parties, or school paperwork and homework, or corralling the 1.6 billion toys that appear by spontaneous generation in my home, or limiting computer time despite the whining and begging, or arbitrating disputes, or cooking, or doing 20 loads of laundry a week….

I could go on, but you probably need to breathe. Besides, if I keep going, I’ll realize that my current feeling of being on top of all these details is actually an illusion.

I cherish this illusion.

My dreams of a tenured position at a major university and a curriculum vitae ten pages long are dead, and instead of filling me with grief, the memory of those unfulfilled dreams leaves me with a fond smile. You see, if I had gone back to an academic career after Jack was born, I would have been forced to leave that career when he was diagnosed anyway. The wacky schedule of a special-needs mother is often incompatible with a paying job, but it does allow the over-achiever in me to volunteer in Jack’s school as an early literacy tutor, to volunteer at Nick’s school library and book fair fundraisers, to take a Disciple Bible Study class, to write a blog and a book, and to make a bunch of cards for the troops.

I sure do a lot for someone who doesn’t get paid, but can you imagine what I would be like if I were paid to do these things? Don’t you think that an obsessive-compulsive perfectionist who can’t stop mopping her own wood floor after the mop breaks would go crazy trying to get stellar job reviews from both family and an employer? Don’t you think, given this strong evidence of mental instability, that all the pressure I put on myself would be incompatible with happiness? I thank God above and George below that I have a choice and don’t have to find out the answers to these questions for myself.

Helen Keller said, “Many persons have the wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness. It is not achieved through gratification but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.” If we are to be happy, each and every one of us has to figure out our worthy purpose. No two purposes are the same, just as no two people are the same. Furthermore, our purpose is not a constant; it changes over time, which means we need to reassess our priorities frequently and sometimes may even surprise ourselves with a new and worthy purpose we hadn’t expected. No one is more surprised than I am that my worthy purpose has changed so much and that the PhD means so little to me now.

Right now, my worthy purpose is being the best mom I can be for my boys, and in our particular situation, that means not working at a paying job. As the boys get older, I imagine this will change. But for now, my plan for a dissertation on the significance of sacramental symbolism in medieval romance can wait. I doubt many people are heartbroken over this.

I certainly am not.


  1. What a great post!! I love reading your commentaries.

  2. When I was growing up I always thought I needed to be something that ended in -er: teacher, doctor, banker... I felt like a failure for not being one of those things, for dropping out of law school, for letting my husband support me. then a friend told me I did become the most important -er job of all: mother.
    Thanks for another beautiful entry. Best cup of coffee I've had all day. :)

  3. I am so glad you didn't do your PhD :-) If you did, then I wouldn't be able to read your insightful blog postings, and we would not have "cyber" met!! Heheheh -- and for crying out loud....stop when the mop are making the rest of us look bad LOL!!

    Hey, I did a tutorial for you on my blog -- lining the punched circles up!! I expect to see some creativity based on this!!

    :-) ... whenever you finish moping the darn floor LOL!!

  4. Through the years I have volunteered alongside at-home moms who used to be lawyers, computer consultants and science teachers. Susan, you have discovered what so many of us older boomer moms have: There's LIFE out there! A consuming career can give one a narrow perspective. Another surprise: Teenagers need you more, not less, as they navigate those years. Eighteen years pass quickly, and after that there are many wonderful opportunities waiting! Your life sounds interesting and full.

  5. Dear Susan,
    I will be back to your blog again whenever I stop being compulsive myself and need a real break to think.
    I wholeheartedly agree with your thoughts so eloquently expressed. At age 32 I had a major medical event and my life was spared. I thought God had let me live to do something GREAT. I came to realize that being wife and mother - and giving my best to be a blessing each day - was the best thing of all.
    Thanks for your words of wisdom.


Thanks so much for taking time to comment!