By Heidi Stevens
I was sharing lunch with a friend recently when the conversation turned to happiness, specifically our parents’.
She recalled the first time she saw her dad truly happy, well into her adulthood, after he’d moved a continent away and built a boat for himself. It was lovely, she recalled.
Parents are the first people we’re crazy about. We grow up witnessing and measuring every one of their emotions. Joy is the one we like best, the one we try hardest to inspire, from the moment we realize other people’s emotions are something we get a say in.
Which brings me to my mom, who I am, to this day, crazy about. Most everyone who knows her is. She turned 70 recently, and I called a dozen of her friends ahead of time to invite them to brunch.
“I would do anything for your mom,” one friend replied.
I could have called 60 more people and gotten the same response.
I’ve watched my mom, in my lifetime, create a legacy. I’ve watched her gather a few girlfriends and start a conservation revolution in my hometown of West Dundee, Ill.. I’ve watched her restore habitats and save wildflower species and protect wetlands from being drained and paved over and turned into who knows what. A tanning salon, maybe. Another Chili’s.
I joke that I’m the only one of my friends lucky enough to have a vegan, Prius-driving environmentalist mom who joins protest rallies against the Keystone oil pipeline.
I’m not joking about the lucky part. Lucky that I have a mom who’s kind and funny and energetic and impassioned, yes. Even luckier that she’s healthy, of course.
Most of all, though, I’m lucky I get to see her happy.
My whole life I’ve watched her find joy, through travel and books and bird-watching. With my dad. With her friends. On walks and at work.
She took joy in us, too, my older brother and me, when we weren’t fighting over who started it and who should shut up and who looked out whose car window.
She took joy in us separately, mostly. We weren’t that enjoyable as a set.
Anyway, a joyful parent is a gift like no other. When parents carve space in their lives for happiness, it gives their kids permission to do the same. Happiness looks like a skill and a priority, like exercise or friendship. Something you have permission to do, should, in fact, find time to do.
I went through a phase, during and shortly after my divorce, when I would ask my friends, “Was your mom happy when you were growing up?” I was lurching toward my own happiness again and I hoped (believed?) my kids, 2 and 6 at the time, would be better for it. My friends and I would talk about how different our childhoods would have been if the answer was yes instead of no; no instead of yes.
I think often about those conversations as I raise my own kids, wondering, always, how to strike the right balance between selflessness and self-preservation; between time for them and time for me; between their friends and my friends, their pursuits and my pursuits.
I never find the right balance because I think it’s ever-shifting. But I keep trying, and that’s in large part because I watched my mom try, and often succeed.
So here she is at 70, preparing to embark on a camping trip to Vermont with my dad in a few weeks, followed by a birding trip to Brazil with her San Diego pal a few weeks later.
In so many ways, we’re nothing alike. I am at home in a sea of humanity, surrounded by noise and buildings and traffic and strangers; she’s at home in the woods. I kill everything I plant; she grows prairies.
But on the happiness front, I want to be just like her when I grow up.
And I hope my kids say the same about me someday.