You’re Only as Happy …

Younger Son has been on an uphill climb these last weeks. Me, too.

Navigating the peaks and valleys of college can be tough, and looking the end of the college years in the eye is even tougher. Was the choice of major the right one? Where do you go with it? How do you strike out on your own? What does that even look like (and how, HOW do you earn enough to pay for it)?

All those questions have come crashing down, presenting puzzles with few obvious answers. He’s struggling to figure it all out and it’s hard. I want so badly to help. To convince him that it’ll all work out. To fix it. To kiss it and make it better.

There’s a saying that goes, “You’re only as happy as your UNhappiest child”, and I’m feeling the weight of that truth right about now. It starts when they’re tiny and you’ll do anything to take the sting of those first immunizations or the cramps of colic away. You actually feel it in your gut, as if they are still attached to your body. As you soothe them and rock them the pain subsides. And so does yours.

As they grow the hurts change. The bumps and bruises as they’re learning to walk give way to the insult of the first playmate who grabs a beloved toy and runs off with it. The wound when a best friend chooses another best-er friend morphs into the agony of the first love that disappoints.

We mothers feel it, too. Some of it pains us more, some less. We (hopefully) learn to step back and not take it on as our own hurt, but help comfort and teach them how to work through it, because indeed it’s part of life. But somewhere deep in our beings, where no rational explanation can reach, it’s there like a nagging sore.

Sure, I know my kid is going through the normal angst of young adulthood. I know this is important stuff to wrestle with, and that the skills he gains will serve him when future struggles arise. I know that he has plenty of counsel, both at school and at home, and he will figure it out and land on his feet.

I know all this and yet at 2 AM when the menopause monster keeps me awake it’s what I think about. When I’m bursting with excitement about a small victory at work or warm with appreciation for another beautiful, sunny California day, there’s a little post-it note in the back of my head that says “yeah, that’s great, but don’t forget who’s not feeling so carefree today.” It takes some of the wind out of the sails of my contentment and adds a bit of weight to my worries.

My Dad used to say the job of parents is to make themselves unnecessary. Loved, yes. Needed, yes. Necessary? Not so much.

And so we’re  stuck being only as happy as our unhappiest kid. Even though it’s not within our power to make them happy and it wouldn’t be the right thing to do anyway. Just like it’s sometimes hard to give them what they need, rather than what they want, it’s equally hard to remember that it’s not about us.


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Rachel Zahn, MD is a pediatrician turned health writer who had three kids during medical school and pediatric training—crazy, huh?

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