Working Mama Mondays: Do we want too much?

Recently I read a very interesting article from the Atlantic (thank you Jirraffe!). The article is called How to Land Your Kid in Therapy and it asserts that the nurture-you’re-child’s-self-esteem-and-happiness-at-the-expense-of-everything-else culture of the past generation might actually have backfired. The author talks about a surprising number of adults, in therapy, “who reported that they, too, suffered from depression and anxiety, had difficulty choosing or committing to a satisfying career path, struggled with relationships, and just generally felt a sense of emptiness or lack of purpose.”

Now this article was interesting to me as a parent, who hopes to veer her own daughter away from a similar fate but by the end it was clear to me that I identified more with the adults in therapy affected by their own upbringing than the current parents concerned for their children. I saw myself in the author’s clients, sitting on her couch, battling depression and anxiety and struggling with a general state of “just not happy.” This article was about me.

Now my parents were not of the variety that sheltered me from the disappointments in life. Still, I will admit to expecting more happiness from my life, more fulfillment from my job, more general enjoyment from my days. I do assume that my life should make me happy. That it’s not only completely possible but that I absolutely and unequivocally  deserve it.

And you know why I believe that? Because I was I was told that, by everyone, all the time. I still am.

Except that the older I get and the more I learn about the world, the less I believe it. In fact, I’m beginning to suspect it’s all a load of crap. Where do we get off teaching our children that they can be whatever they want to be? Does it benefit them to believe that they can, and will, find a job that both fulfills them and affords them the quality of life they desire? Honestly, I don’t think many of those jobs exist and the people who are fortunate enough to have them are the exception, not the rule.

The reality seems to be – from what I have gleaned from my short three decades in this world – that most people trudge through 40-50 hours a week at a job they might like (if they’re lucky) but more likely tolerate, just to have a smidgen of free time on the weekends and the opportunity for a week away twice a year. Most of the time they are struggling to feed their family, provide healthcare coverage and keep a roof over their head. Having a job they love that also affords them a decent living is at best a luxury, at worst a dream-never-come-true.

I’m not blaming our parents for this discrepancy. Maybe they truly believed that we could have it all. They likely had so much more than their parents, if the trend continued their children could have their cake and eat it too. They didn’t foresee the economic crash and the continuing downturn. They weren’t told that their children’s generation would be the first to have less than they did. I don’t think they meant to lie to us, but in the end, I believe they did.

Recently Mel asked “what’s the best and worst thing about being an adult.” Mi.Vida and I promptly agreed that financial responsibilities and stresses were the worst but when it came to the best, our opinions diverged drastically. Mi.Vida believes that the best part about being an adult is you can do or be, whatever you want. I couldn’t disagree with that more.

If that were true I could quit my job and become a writer. Maybe not now, maybe not tomorrow or next year, but some day, if I worked hard enough, I could do it. That is what I was taught and that is what my partner still believes. I used to believe that, I honestly did. Now, frankly, I don’t. My new goal is maybe, if I’m very lucky, I can make enough writing that I can teach part time and write part time. But be a writer? Have my writing pay my rent and insurance and childcare? That is anything but a given, no matter how hard I work. The idea that someone might assume so strikes me as absurd.

In more ways than not, I have lived a charmed life. I was given everything I needed and infinitely more. I set goals and worked hard to achieved them. I went to the university of my dreams. I became a teacher in a good district. I thought I was building the life I wanted. Now I’m not so sure that teaching is for me. I want to stay home with my daughter, I want to write. I want to take pictures and travel to Spanish-speaking countries. I want to do so many things but the reality is I can’t. I also can’t leave my job. And even though teaching is probably not what I want to do, deep down in my heart, the reality is it has to be enough. In all likelihood I am going to be teaching for the rest of my life and I will have to find a way for that to make me happy.

And why shouldn’t it? I enjoy my job as much as I don’t. It’s difficult and stressful and monotonous but it can also be fun and inspiring and challenging. And of course I have breaks during the year and the coveted two months of summer. I chose this profession because it was compatible with a family and when my kids are in school, it will be. And while I’ll never earn much, I can make choices that would ensure job security and the ability to pay my bills. That is more than a lot of people can say. Heck, that is more than 99% of the world can say, who am I to be disappointed?

I’m also fortunate enough to have the choice to write, in my free time, if I’m inspired to do so. Why don’t I focus on that luxury instead of wallowing in the fact that it can’t be my job? Why do I always want more? Was I taught seek unattainable fulfillment? I certainly wasn’t taught not to expect it.

I believe we are encouraged to want too much. Our consumer culture is driven by desire and as parents we haven’t and don’t do enough to counteract that. We need to teach qualities like “perseverance, resiliency, and reality-testing” which the Atlantic article asserts actually lead to success and fulfillment. We need to teach our children, and ourselves, to weather disappointment, to go without. We need to teach gratitude, appreciation, generosity and selflessness. These are skills that will benefit them and us, that might some day provide contentment.

The reality is, we might not get to be what we want to be, or we might have to sacrifice greatly to get there, and the same can befall our children. If certain lessons are learned; that frequently life brings disappointment, that sometimes their is no just reward for our efforts, that we must be grateful for what we have and stop continuously looking for more, that sometimes we won’t be happy, maybe, just maybe, we will wake up one day knowing how to be satisfied with our life.

And maybe some day, if we’re very lucky, we can learn to be truly happy with what we have.

21 responses

  1. Wow. I couldn’t agree with this more. You put into words so eloquently what I felt about that article. Ever since we read it, Darcy and I have been trying to work on teaching the twins those skills you mentioned: resilience, facing reality.

    This is going to take away my street cred, but I watched The Notebook last week (yes, it’s a guilty pleasure) and I feel like where you and I live is sort of becoming like the South, as portrayed in the 1940s. A land of plutocrats at the very top and have nots everywhere else. Those at the top mostly come from money. A lot of money. They drive their Range Rovers and Porsche Cayennes with the “Mem.ber of the 11/.99 Foun.dation” license plates super fast. Those who profit from the biggest IPOs and tech successes have an entry in that only the super privileged get, and they profit far more than anyone else, more than even the early employees. They send their sons and daughters to the the best schools. They buy their children Mandarin lessons to better equip them to take advantage of the special privileges they will be offered in their future. And, worst of all, they write “for a living”, in some cases.

    It’s not fair.

    But for the rest of us (the bottom 95% of us), to paraphrase Noah from The Notebook: “It’s never going to happen for us.” If we accept that, and move on and enjoy our reality, life would be a lot more enjoyable. I haven’t figured out how to do this.

    Jeez. I just wrote a political rant. Who knew I had one of those in me?

    • I think you’re right. It is about accepting our reality and learning to find the good in it, to find the happiness in our lives. We do have so much but we’re surrounded by people who have more. It’s hard to see the people have all the things we want and not want them for ourselves. Maybe I need to move somewhere far away, where everyone has very little. Maybe then I can find happiness. Maybe not… 😉

  2. This is a wonderful post. I haven’t read that article but I understand the concept. I think there’s no doubt that when reality doesn’t meet expectations, we are disappointed. I struggle to make any conclusions when it comes to things as difficult to pin down as happiness, though. It seems to be influenced by so many factors and is lived very personally by individuals.
    I say it a lot and sound like a serious old timer when I do but I personally believe that much of happiness is about the relationships that we cultivate with others, family and non family, and that the sense of belonging within a community goes a long way toward making life better. A lot of things have affected our ability to do this in our generation (which is why I think many of us have turned online for our community. But, alas, I don’t think it’s exactly the same).

    • I think you’re right, that community plays a huge role in happiness. And I think so many people have lost their communities and their families live far away and it’s very hard to find happiness when there is so little connection with people. Mi.Vida and I are so lucky that our families live near by. I think without them I would lose my mind. I just wish we had a family of friends. That would truly make things more bearable, happy even.

  3. I read that article too and also identified with the therapist’s clients. I was taught that with hard work, I can accomplish anything. And I have accomplished a lot, but I haven’t been satisfied since I started trying to conceive because no amount of hard work will have any effect on it. Now I try to find more satisfaction in my daily life as a way to live a happier existence – I don’t think “pursuing happiness” is necessarily a bad thing (or futile, as the article seems to imply).

    • I too was truly floored when I realized that in the arena of TTC and pregnancy loss, effort dedicated to the cause did not ensure any kind of result. It forced me to re-evaluate the world (which probably says something for how fortunate I’ve been thus far). It was really, really hard though.

      I don’t think the article implies that “pursuing happiness” is necessarily a bad thing, but I I think they suggest people are going about it the wrong way. In the past we’ve believed that self-esteem and avoiding discontent makes us happy. The article instead suggests that cultivating resilience and acceptance can lead to happiness. And I do believe that is a better path to contentment, I just don’t know yet how to walk that path.

  4. Hm … complicated. On the one hand, I agree that resilience is a skill that too few parents teach their children, shielding them, instead, from disappointment. We’re struggling to teach that to my son now … that not everything works out like he might want it to.

    On the other hand, I do feel like we sometimes decide, too early, that what we have is simply the way it’s going to be. While I think we should be happy with what we have, I also think that one of the beautiful things about human beings is our capacity for hope. And that we don’t teach our children how to hope within reason. There’s a middle ground between “be whatever you want” and “suck it up.” I just watched the Indian movie Three Idiots last night, and as a former advisor of kids whose parents were pushing them to be doctors or engineers or whatever, I can really appreciate the message(s); the heart is a fearful creature, and sometimes we need to tell it “all is well” so we can gather the courage to do something bold.

    Then again, I just resigned from a job where I’d been building a career for 12 years. Yes, I am fortunate that I have a husband who can carry me on his benefits. But even if I didn’t, I think I would have found a way to do what I did. Because I believe we owe ourselves, and our children, happiness.

    Thanks for this thought-provoking post!

    • I think the reality is that we’re only have this conversation because we are the luckiest of the lucky. For the majority of the world, there is no, I want to do this, this would make me happy. There is only making the bare minimum to survive. That is the reality for the majority of people in the United States and the rest of the world. We are in the small percentage of people who can even dream of doing what fulfills us. And honestly, currently in my life I cannot quit my job even if it doesn’t make me happy. And I could only quit it later in life if I’m (a) very, very lucky or (b) my husband makes sacrifices to support me. But we both want to write and it’s not going to happen for both of us, let alone one of us. Maybe I’m being negative. Maybe I’m being realistic.

      Will I continue to write? Yes. Will I continue to hope that something amazing might come of it? Absolutely. Do I understand, deep down, that it probably won’t? Yes. I think that is the difference. I haven’t lost my hope but I’m more realistic about if things will actually happen. As for what I will teach my daughter? I’m not quite sure yet. I hope I will know when the time comes.

  5. this is a wonderful post. and yes thought-provoking.
    on one hand now that I’m a mama, I can see the temptation to teach your kid to dream big and soar high, but I’ve also seen how life ultimately requires some grounding in reality. life seems to be about finding that balance between doing what makes us happy and fulfilled and doing what we have to do.

    • You’re right, it’s a balancing act and one that is difficult to maintain. As I was saying to Justine, I think I will always hope that something could come of my writing, I know longer have any expectation that I could. I realize now that it’s as much about luck as hard work or perseverance. And I think that is the difference. We can teach our children to aim high but make sure they understand that it’s not always just hard work that brings results, sometimes it’s good fortune or connections or other circumstances that aren’t available to all.

  6. Oh, this is right on. I was definitely raised with the mentality that if I work hard, I can have whatever I want. Problem is, my dad worked hard at a profession that in turn made him a ton of money, so yeah, he can buy whatever he wants. I worked extrememely hard in school, but had no interest in medicine, law, business, or engineering. I became a teacher because I loved it and was good at it, and now I’m a mom and work part time at a dog kennel- not exactly anything that’s going to bring in the bucks. I am SOOO struggling right now with happiness in what I’m doing with my time, yet unhappiness, or disatisfaction, in our financial situation. My husband is really struggling too- he loves his job as a coach, but long-term, what is that going to mean for our family?

    • My partner also wants to do something that will make no money. RIght now he is a lawyer but works for a non-profit making less than me. He wants to write (we’re both crazy) which is one of few professions that would guarantee he made less than he makes now. Part of me feels like he should just suck it up and get something that pays more, at least while your kid(s) are younger and at home. But then part of me realizes by the time their in school he’ll be in his late 30s, so can I really ask him to make that kind of sacrifice? I can’t. And that is why I won’t get to stay home and I won’t get to write. It’s not always all about you and you can’t always do what you want.

  7. Absolutely! I was brought up with some disappoinment and I did without a lot of things I didn’t “need” but wanted really badly. It taught me very good lessons about life. When I see my step-son getting almost everything his heart desires and taking it all for granted it kills me. He has parents that spoil him (I honestly think it’s a competition between them) and a step-mother (me) that tells him “no” quite a bit when it comes to certain luxuries. It’s such a hard line to walk with your kids because you want them to be happy and have the things you didn’t have, but at what cost down the road? My husband is never satisfied with what he has, he always wants more. He was a spoiled child, too. We go ’round and ’round sometimes about why he can’t just be happy with what he has and trying to teach my step-son the same thing. At the same time, why can’t I just be happy with the 2 of them? Why do I still crave to be a mother of a child of my own? It’s crazy to think about all the ways we should just really appreciate what we have and not strive so hard to keep moving up and having more. This is a great post and I wish more parents would read it and take it to heart. It’s hard to break the cycle, though. As parents, we don’t like to see our kids cry because of physical pain or emotional pain or the pain of disappointment….so we keep feeding into the monster. Again, great post! Really gets people thinking and talking.

  8. It is hard to break the cycle. Just yesterday Isa had to get blood taken and it was really traumatic. When she woke up from her nap I had a fun activity tent set up for her, which was a gift for her birthday but I was going to save. I definitely got it out because I wanted to make up for the horrible experience earlier. And even as I was doing it I was thinking, did you, or did you not just write that post yesterday? You’re such a hypocrite! So yeah, I have a long way to go.

  9. This is a great post – so well written. I agree, we’ve been conditioned to want more than we ever will receive. I think we are a society of unhappy people.
    Hell, I’m unhappy, despite all I have. I remember thinking 13 years ago, when I was newly married and living with my husband on a HHI of $17K/yr that if I could *just* make $40K/yr then I would be so happy and could never want anything more in life. I laugh at that statement now. How naive I was to think that!

    What I want more than anything in life is to work as a sonographer in a IVF clinic or to work for an organization that promotes infertility related causes. The reality is that I don’t have the time or the $$ to go back to school for sonography and I don’t live anywhere that would make the other part of my dream a reality.

    Life is not always simple and it’s interesting to see how things pan out when push comes to shove.

  10. It’s very much a cultural thing. It has always bugged me, the message in American movies, tv-shows, etc. that you can be whatever you want if you work hard enough.
    A blatant lie, I always felt. I remember arguing with fans of the American Dream on this side of the ocean, that it was a naive way of thinking.

    I don’t have the impression that in (my part of) Europe this is what was taught to my generation. You should make the best of your opportunities, yes. And society should offer a helping hand to those with less opportunities, that often too (though the amount of help is always under discussion).
    Perhaps it’s because of World War II, which left Europe largely in ruins. The generation of my grandparents lived through this. Drives the message home that shit happens and that you can’t be whatever you want if only you’re determined enough.

    But I’m just guessing.
    We have imported the cult of happiness though. Along with coca cola I think.

  11. This is a very thought provoking post. My parents also raised my sisters and I to believe that we could accomplish anything we wanted to if only we worked hard enough. I wound up going to law school and shortly after, I landed a job at a large commercial bank making good money. Shortly after having my son, my hubby quit his job to stay home with our son because I was making way more than he was. However, I wasn’t happy. I hated my job and found the work to be monotonous and boring. I was able to pay the bills, but is that all there is to it? I secretly thought about leaving my job. Everything came crashing down 2 years ago when I got laid off. After months of paying a ridiculous amount of money for Cobra health coverage, hubby landed a job, but because we were in a deep recession, the job he landed was very low paying, and he had to work the night shift . I guess this is my long winded way of saying that although I did everything I was supposed to do, I guess it wasn’t enough. Very disappointing to say the least. Regardless, I am happy to be able to spend time at home with my son and hope that I can teach him some of the lesson you and some of the other commenters mention above.

  12. This is an excellent post; really thought provoking. I seem to be falling in the lines of Justine; that there has to be some middle ground between “dream big, little girl” and “suck it up, buttercup.”

    But this really resonates with me, simply because I too am unhappy with my life. I was told that if I worked hard, I could do anything I wanted. That’s not really true – certainly not when it comes to family building and happiness. I have accomplished a LOT by using hard work, yes – a MBA and masters in accounting and a CPA to boot – but it doesn’t actually make me happy.

    Truthfully it’s the lack of CHOICE that makes me unhappy now. The older I’ve gotten, the more my choices have narrowed, and now, yes, I’m now in a career which is, eh, okay. I don’t love it, a lot of times I don’t really even LIKE it. But it will take a LOT of work and energy and sacrifice to do something else, and now I have a family for which I have to consider before I can make a different choice.

    What, I think, I’d like to teach my O as he grows, is balance. That working hard CAN help him realize his dreams of doing whatever it is he wants, but perhaps at the expense of something else which might make him happy. Good and bad, yin and yang. I think we were only focused on the yang.

  13. I agree with you 100%, and I struggle with how to do it differently with my child. I think the biggest load of bulls**t is this idea of “having it all” and “happily ever after” that our generation has been spoon fed. In my case, it wasn’t my parents (as immigrants that worked really hard for everything they had, and knew the meaning of compromise & sacrifice) but from society, the media, stupid Disney movies, etc… Its been quite revelation to me that despite all my hard work and waiting marriage, motherhood, career, etc… are not and never will be the ideal that I thought I deserved. That there is a LOT of compromise & struggling in day to day life and that is how it is going to be FOREVER. There is no perfect, there is no happily ever after…its making it through each day, doing the best I can. I’ve been struggling with the same feelings of depression, anxiety, and “not quite happy” lately, because I’ve finally “arrived” at the point that I always thought would be pure bliss—married, house, kid, career—and the reality can not match the fantasy I had in my head.

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