If mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy. It’s a folksy sort of phrase, and one you hear a lot. As a mother, I will concede that it has a grain of truth. When I’m not happy, I’m not exactly fun to be around, and that doesn’t make for a great home situation. Although, as I wrote that it occurred to me that if anyone in my house is unhappy, it has a way of spreading. If one of my kids is miserable at dinner, it’s not a pleasant meal for anyone. If my husband’s having a rough go of things, we feel it. Unhappiness and happiness are both catching sorts of emotions.
Regardless of the truthfulness (or lack thereof) of folksy sayings, one of the most common uses for this particular expression is to say that if moms aren’t taking care of themselves, their families suffer. It’s very similar to the oxygen mask analogy. That particular piece of wisdom refers to the instructions that we all hear on a plane – in the event that the cabin loses pressure, put on your own oxygen mask before helping others. This is because if you asphyxiate and die, you’re no help to anyone else. From this, we draw that we need to take care of ourselves, before we can take care of other people.
I do see some truth in this wisdom. I know that when I’m tired and hungry and feeling emotionally overwhelmed, I’m not at my best. When I’m not at my best, I can’t give my best to other people. I also know that I’m not setting a very good example for my children. I want them to learn how to make sure there own needs are met. It’s not always easy, but if I can make sure my needs are met most of the time, everything else in my world is just easier. Happiness sometimes flows from that.
While I absolutely believe that it is important to meet your own needs, sometimes I see this idea that a mother must meet her own needs taken to another level. It becomes not so much a suggestion as an admonition. Making yourself a priority becomes something that you must do. Make sure that you get enough exercise. Make sure that you get lots of “me” time. Make sure that you and your partner have regular date nights. Make sure that you have a good work-life balance. After all, you have to be happy, because if mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.
I see some problems with this thought process. The first problem is that, let’s be honest, parenting requires a degree of self-sacrifice. This is true for mothers and fathers. When you have children you’re spending your time and money and energy on those children. You’re putting their needs ahead of your own some of the time. If you can find a way to make everyone happy, that’s fabulous. If you can’t, though, you have to choose and compromise, and since two-year-olds aren’t all that good at compromise you’ll probably be giving more than you get. In the long run, I’ve found that I’m happier if I embrace that reality.
The second problem I see is that not every mother chooses to do all those things that she’s supposed to be doing to make herself happy. If you really want to see a movie, by all means, find a way to make it happen. But if you really are happy hanging out at home with your kids in the evening, that’s okay, too. Maybe you haven’t been to a theatre in living memory, because making sure you’re home for bedtime works for you. There’s nothing wrong with that.
The final problem I see is that very few people give this same message to fathers. Nobody is telling them that they need to put their own happiness first. Whenever we start telling women that they have to do something men don’t, we run the risk of setting an unrealistic gender-based ideal. We’re telling Mama that she must be happy for the sake of her family, but we’re not telling Dad the same thing. That sounds more like a guilt trip than self-care to me. Maybe we’re assuming Dad is already taking care of himself, but speaking for my own family that’s not always true. So let’s level the playing field on this one, and let men and women make their own decisions.
With seven and a half years under my belt, I may not be what you’d call a seasoned parent, but I’ve learned a few things. One of those is that kids grow up way too fast. When I look back on my children’s babyhoods, I don’t wish that I had seen more movies. And if I could go back in time, it wouldn’t be to go on another dinner date with my husband while I sweated about how my wee one was doing without me. Instead, it would be to experience all of those little moments of their infancy that passed all too quickly. To feel their tiny fingers wrap around mine one more time. To nurse them again, or hold them while they slept. Those are the moments I miss.
I don’t think that mothers should just accept unhappiness. Rather, I think we should let them define happiness on their own terms. If that means I don’t make it to yoga classes regularly, and I’m fine with that, I don’t owe anyone else any explanations. And don’t ask me for one, because like they say, if mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.
Have you ever felt pressure, as a mother, to pursue someone else’s definition of balance and happiness? And do you find that you’re the bellwether for the rest of your family’s happiness? I’d love to hear your thoughts!