We were finishing up dinner at our flat in Los Angeles years ago when my friend Donna, who I both liked and respected, said that her aim in life was to be happy. My first reaction was to hold for a lightning strike or some other kind of sign that the heavens were disappointed in her. My next was embarrassment for her. I had never heard anyone say that aloud before. I thought you were supposed to say something like you wanted to contribute to society, end war, feed everybody – you know, the standard disclaimer in all the beauty pageants – “World Peace! And also, hopefully a Series of My Own!”
I honestly did now know that you were allowed to say something so superficial and selfish in company.
It was a great eye opener for me, a real ‘aha’. It’s funny how some of life’s greatest lessons come in such unexpected, everyday contexts, at least for me. Donna was an artist and relatively new mommy, like me, we were both in our thirties, married more or less happily, trying to get our lives together. In my mind all my hopes for myself and my happiness had been seamlessly transferred to the two adorable young lives I had the privilege of bringing into the world. I was so smitten by them and by my great responsibilities towards them that my only happiness was watching them thrive and grow, NOT because I’m a supermom, I’m not even on the short list, but because their happiness was inseparable from my happiness. If there was a nascent grown up non-mommy self in there, it was pretty much buried beneath the everyday routines and adventures you can have with other people who are so young, and, true, the occasional dinner party.
But I thought about it for a long time afterwards. Like many others I had been raised to expect my value as being what I could do for others, I could ‘count’ as a person because I could help someone else, I could do service. Seen through that lens any aspirations and preferences of my own seemed hopelessly, unforgivably petty.
But Donna wasn’t petty or selfish, she was a lovely human being, wife, mother and friend but she was a human who didn’t mind telling the truth.
That dinner, which I’m sure none of the other three people around me (her, her husband, my husband) even remember was a life-changing one for me because I realized that not only could I value my own happiness in-and-of-itself just cuz’, I could actually make choices and effect change around it.
Six thousand years of female inculturation is no small thing to overcome and I can claim only a very partial success at doing it, but I did start to do it. I did begin to ask myself what I wanted, really wanted, not just the mother of the year crap, respect of the community, a feeling of usefulness. Other things, too. Time off, was one, Time in nature and with friends. Time alone. That’s hard when you have a toddler and I got a lot of resistance but you know, childcare is not an inherently female thing, it just works out that way. I stopped tentatively asking my husband if he could ‘babysit’ while I got a haircut and just asked him if he would be home Saturday morning. I tried to stop profusely thanking him for doing anything for the kids (still working on that). Many, many years into this thing I stopped going with him to visit my Mother-in-Law in Virginia every time he went because it super didn’t make me happy or even healthy or even, barely, alive.
Donna didn’t tell me that happiness is an inside job, no one can convince you of that unless you are already on the path to find it, but it is. What I do know now, that I didn’t know then, is that its okay to look for it very, very hard, and to be proud of and content with yourself when you find it.