How to be Happy

We’ve all been there: down in the dumps, our stress meter is red-lined and we’re ready to run away and find a sunny beach.  As someone who struggles with depression and anxiety, I’ve definitely spent more time than I care to think about feeling down. Here’s a list of the things I did (and do) to help move myself from unhappy to happy.

Recharge

  • Take care of yourself.

No one else’s wants are more important than your needs. Pay the Bills. Keep your home clean. Eat healthy meals when they are hot. Get as much sleep as you can. Get exercise. Drink water. Go to the doctor (make the time!). Get your hair cut.

  • Your wants are as important as anyone elses wants.

Do the things that make you happy, even when they are of no use to anyone but you. Paint. Read. Play video games. Go get a massage. Have a night out. Go to the movies.  Do whatever it is that you do to make yourself enjoy the world around you

Engage

  • Learn to say yes and mean it.

Say yes to play. Say yes to adventure. Say yes to going out. Say yes to laughter. Say yes to cuddling. Work yes into your life, and when you say yes, engage joyfully and fully, not out of a sense of obligation.

  • Connect with community.

Get involved in something that connects you with people and your community. Volunteer. Go to Church (I say this as an atheist.). Join the local theater group. Go to game night at the comic shop. Do whatever you can to connect with people.

Detach.

  • Remember that the only person you can control is you.

Everyone else makes their own choices. You can lay down boundaries and consequences, but you can’t actually change anyone but you, which means you can’t take ownership of anyone elses behavior or feelings. Including your children.

  • Acknowledge other people’s emotions and backdrops.

Let people have bad days. Let other people own their own emotions, positive and negative. Including your children.

  • Learn to say no without guilt or excuses.

You don’t need to justify your reasons, you don’t need to have reasons. You can say no to anything except meeting the needs (not wants) of your children.

  • Anger and frustration are symptoms of feeling powerless to change the things that are bothering you.

Recognize when those things triggering anger are not things under your control and be willing to adjust your boundaries and consequences accordingly or change your mental framework and perspective.

With all of that said, if you feel persistently unhappy, or gray, or irritable, get help. Depression is real. It is also very treatable. And, as with any other illness, it’s easier to treat the earlier you catch it. So, if you think you might be depressed talk to your family doctor or seek the help of a licensed therapist. I have and I can promise, it helps.

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Was that necessary?

“Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!” She yells from her bedroom, insistently, but without fear or urgency.

I peer sleepily at the clock. 4:58. I get out of bed and stumble to her room to the tune of a repeating chorus of high volume calls for me.

“Yes, Fiona!” I say, sleep coloring my voice with gravel, “What do you need, Baby? I’m here.”

“Oh,” She says, “There you are. Okay. I go to sleep now.”

With which words she falls, face first, back into her pillows. Her breathing is steady. Her arms are limp. She is truly sound asleep. I cover her with a blanket and head back to my own bed.

I’m torn between amusement and annoyance, but fall quickly back to sleep.

Was I really needed for that?

The Perils of Aging – Part 2

We were sitting on the couch, snuggling. She had been disappointed by something or another and had been crying in my lap, now we were just cuddling as she lay gazing up at my face.

I looked into her tear filled eyes and smiled. She smiled back and touched my cheek lightly.

“Mama?” She asked softly.

“Yes, Baby.” I said.

“What are those wavy things?” She asks.

“What do you mean, Sweetheart?” I ask.

She points just under my eye where age and years of sleep deprivation have conspired to start forming soft wrinkles. “Those wavy lines. What are they?”

“Wrinkles.” I say, chagrined. Here we were having a beautiful moment and she has to go and point out that I’m getting old. Seriously?

“Oh.” She says softly and lets the subject go.

Until dinner time, when she announces proudly to my husband, “Mommy has lots of wrinkles. You should look.”

Wall Art

“Fiona!” I exclaimed, not quite yelling, but close, “What did you do!?”

She stepped in front of the wall to hide it. Her arms spread wide across the dark pencil lines. Her expression scared.

It was that look of fear that stopped me in my tracks. However “not yelling” I might think I was, she clearly felt differently.

I took a deep breath. Just pencil. Just walls. Kids do this stuff. I reminded myself

“Oh no!” I said, keeping my tone light, “You drew on the wall. I can’t put your art on the Fridge if you draw on the wall.”

She looked at me suspiciously. Clearly this was not the response that she had envisioned.

We’d been round and round on the “you don’t need me to entertain you, go play”, “I’m not a playground, go find something else to do”, “Hitting me to get attention isn’t a good idea, go play” merry-go-round all day. Interspersed with attention and play and activities – don’t think I’m ignoring her.  This was just one more method of gaining attention. Which, if she got her way, would be 100% of the attention, 100% of the time. I’m sure this is developmentally normal, however, it’s annoying.

Still, she had drawn on the walls to get a reaction (A reaction that despite trying to garner she didn’t really want? What’s with that?), and now I was disrupting her plan by taking it easy.

“Can you tell me about your art?” I asked smiling. My smile was more at her expression than anything else, but still, it counts.

Wall Art

“It’s a fish store!” She said, “See here’s the big fish. And this part says, ‘Fish for sale’. And this part says, ‘You have to feed him’!”

And she pointed to the various parts of her creation.

“Oh,” I said, “It’s a great fish store! I wish we could keep it.”

“We can’t?” She asked hopefully.

“Nope.” I said sadly, “It’s on the wall. We can only keep drawings on paper.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah.” I got out a couple of erasers. “You and I have to work together to clean this off.”

“Noooo!” She cried.

“Yep.” I said calmly, “Next time you want to draw just ask me for some paper. I love your drawings and wish I could keep this one, but it’s on the wall, so we have to erase it.”

“You do it!” She said and threw the eraser at me.

I handed the eraser back to her, “Nope. It’s your drawing, you need to help. But we can have a race.” I erased a line down the middle. “Can you erase that side before I get this side?”

And we erased it. Slowly, with stops and starts, and a few tears.

“Next time, if you don’t want to erase your art, what should you do?” I asked her, as we finished cleaning the wall.

“Ask for paper,” She said in a sad little voice.

“That’s right!” I said and hugged her.

I thought to myself: There, I handled that well. She learned the lesson without it being about my anger. Gold star for Mama!

…Until the next day, when she decorated another wall. This time in crayon. Little stinker.

Snapshots

Yesterday was rough. It was hard in that way that only the parents of young children really get. The morning was rotten. Between the 800 million demands to “come play ponies with me” and the screaming that happened each time I said no and redirected her, I began to feel as though I must be doing everything wrong.

I feel that way a lot. I feel like no matter how hard I try to be patient, to be calm, to be firm and consistent that I must be doing something wildly wrong. Honestly, I think that most parents feel this way, especially on the bad days.

And yesterday morning was definitely bad. By the time my husband came home at lunch, I wanted to hide in my room and cry, or go out for drinks with professional women who had never even heard of children. I was craving adult interaction and sick of parenting.

And we needed groceries.

Yuck.

I don’t really like grocery shopping. At its very best it’s a chance for me to put on headphones and dance my way through the produce listening to jazz and blues. At it’s worst? Well, I think the worst was the time that I carried my daughter out of the store while she screamed for her daddy and hit me. Or the time that when she decided to just sit down while holding my hand, so I kept walking. Gently dragging her behind me across the glossy floors to the stares and disapproval of other shoppers.

I really didn’t want to take her to the store yesterday. It seemed like a profoundly poor plan.

We really needed  groceries.

As we got in the car to return my husband to work, I started to tell her that we had to go shopping but that if she was good, then afterward I would take her to the park and stopped. A dim lightbulb slowly flickered on in my head.

Why not offer the reward first? Why not provide the stimulation, and exercise, and fun first?

So, we went to the park. We played on the swings, pushing her as high as she could go and dodging out of her way as she came flying back, grabbing and tickling her feet as she rocked back and forth in the sunshine. She threw her head giggled and laughed and squealed. And the stress, and anxiety, and frustration of the day slowly blew away the gentle spring breeze.

She joined other children and I called a friend as I sat in the shade watching a complex world evolve around a half-dozen small girls. The created a world that involved dragons and pirates and a world that only they could see, treasures that only they could find. And she played and danced and fought and created with them. And I talked to a friend on the other side of the country. And we both found what we needed.

Soon it was later than I’d meant to leave it, so we left the park and headed to the store. I expected the day to go back to being dreadful,  but I kept laughing and teasing and playing with her as we shopped. And, soon enough we had the groceries we needed and we stood waiting in the seemingly endless checkout lines, where Fiona tried to nibble on my fingers and I tried to tickle her under the chin while keeping them out of her mouth. The woman ahead of me in line turned around and smiled at me.

I smiled back and she chuckled and said, “You win the great mom award today. Watching you with her shopping has been a pleasure.”

I said thank-you, and told her that Fiona was a great kid, and we chatted a little about her own children who are in high school and college.

And I know it sounds like bragging to tell this story, but it isn’t meant to be. See, it’s a story about not really seeing other people’s lives. She saw this tiny snapshot where it all came together. She didn’t see the dozen tantrums, and desire to run away from home, and the sense that I’m a failure as a parent. She only saw my tiny victory where we were okay.

Maybe some days when I look at the world and I feel like a failure, because Fiona is screaming and trying to run into the street while the other little children follow their mothers like perfect little ducklings, are me doing just that. Seeing a tiny snapshot.

Public School vs. Private School

We have a choice coming up in this house. Faster than I’d like. We have to make a decision about where Fiona will go to school. This is important because school is one of the defining experiences of a person’s life and because a good education sets the foundation for an easier life, but hard because there are a lot of benefits to both.

On one hand, I am a huge proponent of free, accessible public education. I think that it is in our societies best interests for all children to have access to quality education, education that teaches them the skills that they’ll need in the work world, grounds them as members of society, and provokes their curiosity to learn, create, and discover. I also think that when engaged, educated parents withdraw from the public school system it does immeasurable damage to the schools, because those parents are less likely to fight for that universal service if they, their children, are not the ones that need them. The public school system loses out. When that happens we all lose out.

On the other hand, my first responsiblity is to Fiona. It’s to providing her with what she needs to become a happy, successful member of society.  She deserves an education that provokes her curiosity, helps her create and discover, and grounds her as a member of society. She deserves an education that meets her where she is academically and emotionally. My job as a parent is to ensure her well-being.

I’m not sure that public school can do that for her. My daughter, right now, knows her alphabet upper and lower case. She knows the connection between sounds and letters.  She is beginning to write her letters and numbers.  She read her first sentence last week. (“He can go like a train.” – from Mr. Brown Can Moo  by Dr. Seuss – Which we had purchased earlier that day) She can add small numbers. She can sort by color and shape and size and make comparisons between groups and objects. She knows more than, less than, and can count objects up to twenty and numerically up to 33 (at which point she usually gets bored and wanders off). If I start her at a higher number she can count higher. She knows that people do different jobs and the names of most common ones and tools that they might use. She knows the difference between (and the words for) diurnal and nocturnal. Yesterday we talked about the difference between birds and mammals. She knows that bees collect pollen and nectar and that hummingbirds are the littlest bird and that they drink nectar. I’m pretty sure she is academically gifted.

However, she’s still not quite four. She tries to color inside the lines and write, but is very easily frustrated because her hand won’t do what her mind can understand yet. She has a short attention span and high emotional intensity and anxiety.

Lately she is frantically concerned with death and wants me to tell her in detail the things that could kill her. She seems especially concerned that she could die if she swallows toys or magnets. If a small toy goes missing she becomes convinced that she ate it and will now die. (This is kind of hard for me because her tenuous grasp of reality and vivid preschool imagination means that sometimes she insists that she did swallow these objects.) Cue hysteria and crying and pacing around the living room.

She doesn’t know how to deal with other children when they don’t act as she expects and constantly wants to play with older children. She struggles to entertain herself and to work independently on anything, though with time and with patience on my part she is slowly building this skill. She is emotionally still just a young preschooler.

Still all this adds up to a concern that our over tested, over worked, over strained public school system may not be able to meet her needs. I think that in a classroom of 30 children, many of whom will enter school unable to count past 10, she’s going to be unchallenged and that she will succumb to boredom and anxiety and act out. Honestly, I can’t blame a teacher who has the responsibility of making sure that all of her students have the skills needed to progress to the next grade, for being unable to devote much time or attention to children who already possess those skills.

However, I may have the option of opting out. There are a plethora of private schools in this area. And it shows in the public schools which have defunded gifted education, art, music, and drama.  The private schools offer all these and more. Computer design courses, elective studies for first graders, minimized homework loads for young children, small class sizes, highly qualified teachers. The personal advantages of private school are high.

So is the price tag. Private school education in this area starts at around $15,000 and rises depending on the quality and focus of the school. The schools that would best meet her needs seem to cost around $20,000 per year. That’s a tad outside of our budget. (Did I say a tad? I meant: Holy Hell! How to people afford that crap! That’s more than our car!) I read the financial aid forms and started giggling. They have special lines for extra investment properties, boats, yachts, and a place for you to enter the cost of your annual vacations. I don’t believe that we’re in the right income bracket for this stuff.

The schools where we currently live, though,  are… weak. Luckily we rent and can move, but housing in the areas with good schools costs substantially more. Over the course of a year, the additional cost in housing to live in a good school district works out to around $10,000. Which is less than private school tuition, but those good public schools are still struggling. They’re still facing funding and program cuts and those cuts go have to go to programs that focus on bright and artistic children because we have a societal mandate to educate everyone. Which is good for society.

It sucks for us though.

My daughter is not even four years old. Why am I worried about this?

If I want her to go to private school we have to apply this coming fall. That’s right. This fall.  And the application process is gruelling. It’s comparable to college applications. And it’s more competitive. One of the schools we’re looking at has openings for 18 children in the entering kindergarten class. They have close to 2000 applicants from around the bay area. It’s a good school.

So, I’m considering our options and I’m leaning towards private school, but I find my inclination distressing. I want her to go to public school. I want to engage with society in a way that benefits us all. I want to be able to help out my daughters public school class so that all of her peers get a high quality education.

I don’t think that I can sacrifice her education to do it.

What do you think? Do you think that public school should be abandoned when it doesn’t meet the needs of the child? Or should we fight to make it meet the needs of every child?

Two Brave Wolves

“Tell me a story about night!” She demands, as we drive away from the doctor’s office.

My mind is buzzing with words like adenoids, tonsils, and the looming specter of possible surgery and its attendent risks and benefits. I don’t know any stories about night.  I struggle to turn off my thoughts and worries and be creative for her. Knowing that she’s been listening to the doctor too. And she, too, is anxious.

“Mommy?” She asks when I wait just a little to long.

I relax my thoughts and voice and begin.

“Once, long ago, when the earth was new and the rules were a little different than they are today, there were two young wolves.

And they argued over who was braver. One wolf said that she was so brave that he would stand on the top of the tallest mountain. And they raced each other to the top.

The other wolf said that she was so brave that she would swim the widest river. And they race each other across.

Finally as the light began to grow long and the night drew nearer, one said to the other, “I am so brave that I will sleep out in the meadow away from our cave and mother.” Ah, thought the second wolf. That is very brave. “I will, too.” She said.

So, they laid in the grassy meadow as the light grew long and the frogs and crickets grew loud. And the night noises surround them and the night smells filled their noses. And it grew darker. And darker.

The two wolves huddled close together. They couldn’t see. It was too dark.

They could hear things, but they sounded very different from daytime noises.

The smells that filled their noses were very strange. The missed the smell of their mothers warm fur and the sweet scent of their own warm den.

And they grew very afraid. They shook against each other. And when they heard a small noise at once they both began to cry.

They raised their noses in the air and howled. AAarROOOO. Arr-ar-ar-OOOOO! Ar-arRoooo!

The night grew very noisy around them. Finally Sister Moon came to see what was making all the noise. As she looked down on the scared, brave young wolves she smiled. “Silly wolves,” she chided,  “You do not have to be afraid of the dark. I will always come to show you the night.”

They looked around and saw that the field that they had laid down in the light was just the same in the dark. There was nothing to fear. They both howled again, but this time with joy. Aar-Rooo!

And even now, when you find yourself afraid of the dark, you just have to wait and the Moon will come to show you the night. And even now, when the moon rises in the wild places you can hear the wolves call to her. “

From the back seat she howls, “Aar-Rooo!”

I smile over my shoulder at her. My fear is washed away by the knowledge that sometimes things are just the same as they always were.