When I was in 4th grade we learned about the suffragettes and the women’s right-to-vote movement, and I was PISSED. Not at the suffragettes, of course, but at the fact that this inequality existed and that it existed in the not-so-distant past. Nothing in my 9 long years of life experience had suggested that such a thing was even possible. I did not take it well, nor quietly, and my vocalizations earned me a swift trip to the principals office. But this utter shock of mine was testament to the way my mother raised me. I was taught that women are strong, powerful, and, I guess if I am honest, were in fact the superior gender. It was something I was brought up knowing, and to find that there was a time when this was not common knowledge deeply affected me. And this is the narrative I ascribed to that experience for nearly 20 years. But over the past few years, when I really reflected, a deeper and more intimate and personal lesson has begun to occur to me: a lesson about the woman who raised me, and her bravery and courage in the face of impediments, and the world-view that she passed on to me, her only daughter.
In her mostly male-dominated, stressful, high-powered career, my mother worked hard to ensure a level of abundance and security for her family, an indefatigable drive that began when she was 15 years old, and her father died suddenly, leaving her own mother alone with four children to care for. My mother, in seeing the difficulty and struggle my grandmother went through to provide and to ensure stability for her children, determined to become self-sufficient. She worked her way through school, didn’t shy away from taking on responsibility in her career, and earned the admiration and respect of her peers. Truth be told, as a result of this ambition, for much of my life she was incredibly stressed. She put enormous pressure on herself to never let any aspect of life slip, and to be everything to everyone: a perfect wife, mother, daughter, sister, and employee. She rarely stopped to ask herself what she really wanted, if she was happy, if maybe she needed a nap.
But lately, I am witnessing her go through a renaissance, seeing her release fears, and gravitate to what really inspires her. The pain that she felt from that sudden shock so many years ago, that tremendous impact that influenced so many of her subsequent choices, is loosening its grip. Now talks of greenhouses, opening a restaurant, and cross-country moves are regular. There are new recipes to try every time I go home, daily journaling, and gardening. Watching her transition into a grandmother is monumental; I see a new life emerging for her, a beauty and a happiness that is radiant. As an adult, now with a family of my own, as I try to navigate the uncertainties and stresses of life, I find myself learning from her more now then ever before. She is giving me strength to be brave and to take risks, and is showing by example that there are many acts in life.
‘You are responsible for your own happiness.’
When I came to my mother with a problem, she would offer me a sweet cup of tea, look me in the eyes with love and support and then clearly state that it was my responsibility to change anything that was making me unhappy. I could not look at people with sadness and expect them to change. I could not complain about a problem and expect it to disappear. I could not admire my joyful friends and expect to catch their happiness like it was contagious. It was my job to find my joy — and it would likely be lifelong effort. I’ve come to realize that not everyone was raised with same level of encouragement for the pursuit of happiness and I am eternally grateful to my mother for impressing on me that not only did I deserve happiness, but it was my duty to create it.
When I was younger, I saw being responsible for my own happiness as a way out of any problem. It gave me control and agency in situations where I felt powerless and sorrowful. It was the boost I needed to gather my courage and leave that job/relationship/class/apartment that was causing me angst and stress.
After graduating college and entering the ‘real world’, I realized that being responsible for my own happiness was about more than freeing myself from the negative influences in my life. It was about my commitment to self care. Slowly but surely, I learned to invest in the big and little things that were good for me. As I embraced self-care, I took more and more responsibility for my own well being and the ways in which I failed to supply myself with the opportunity for happiness.
I’m still discovering the many layers that this lesson has to offer. Most recently, I’ve been inspired by what it teaches me about choice. Sometimes, life throws things at you that you simply cannot escape or change. Hardships that no amount of therapy or exercise or self care will cure. When those things happen, how can I be expected to take charge of my own happiness? When I’m faced with a deep, dark, unchangeable sadness, how can I be held responsible for something as far out of my reach as joy? During these times, I look to my mother and I see just how much I have to learn. I admire how she has taken this mantra to its highest height. How she has taught herself to find joy and value in every moment. How she has instilled in herself the ability to come to each day and choose happiness time and time again.