Choosing Happiness as a Mom

I learned the most important lesson about motherhood from my dad

Sometimes I imagine myself living in a home with a white couch. There is a sandy-colored cashmere throw draped over the armrest. My toes are painted, and my manicured hands are gently wrapped around an oversized handmade mug I bought on Etsy. The light trickles in through a large bay window. Maybe a book of historical fiction is open, facedown to a page somewhere in the middle. It is quiet. And the countertops are not sticky.

This is not my reality. I am the mother of a 3-year-old girl, who is the most brilliant and stunning dose of intensity I could have ever been gifted. She is mercurial, creative, witty, and determined. She has mastered the punch-line timing of about nine different jokes. Her name is Eva June. Named for my grandmother who, to me, was the greatest woman to ever walk the earth. I also have a 5-month-old son who is nothing like his sister. He is gentle, soft-spoken, obliging, mellow, and easy to please. He does not, however, sleep through the night. We love him anyway.

Right now my husband and I, plus our two kids, are living on the second floor of my parents' house because my dad has cancer. This past May, he was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer that had metastasized to his liver and lymph nodes. His chemo regimen and its subsequent effects on his diabetes have been extensive, and we are a family that pulls together when life falls apart. So here we are.

My husband is doing the literal heavy lifting, the trash removal and recycling, hauling heavy bags of groceries for my mom. He also hauled my father in and out of the house when his neuropathy was bad and he needed a change of scenery. I help my mom cook for my dad – 2,000 calories a day, meals low in sugar and carbs, high in fats. I help calculate insulin numbers for injections, and regularly prompt him to drink the 64 ounces of water he needs daily to flush out the chemo drugs from his kidneys. In my spare time, I breastfeed my infant and run a market research company.

I'm only three years into this motherhood gig. But so far, I've learned that being a mom means that I never get to do anything exactly the way I wish I could. Motherhood has pried the grip of perfectionism from my clammy, white-knuckled hands. I dream of that white couch while I sit on the one my baby just puked on. I crawl into bed at night, fantasizing about clean linen sheets that smell of fresh lavender, while pulling up a comforter littered with crumbs from the pretzels I fed my daughter for breakfast. I work from home in between baskets of laundry, sometimes with a sick kid by my side.

It is so easy to get down. Down about my dad's health. Down about the tight quarters. Down about the 15 pounds I still haven't lost because there are coconut crème cookies in the cabinet that whisper softly to me when I am up at 3 AM feeding the baby. Down about not having enough money to order that jewelry I just pinned on Pinterest, or any reason to buy the 4-inch stilettos I saw at Nordstrom last week. Where on earth would I go in my current life dressed in 4-inch heels? What, of the things that need doing, could I possibly accomplish in those?

So there is a longing for a life that I somehow believe I should have. But it is tempered daily by the wisdom my father taught me early in life that happiness is a choice. It is not a state that results from favorable outside circumstances. It is not the product of a carefully curated outcome. It is not something you save for vacation, for when you get a new bag, for when you get your tax return back, or for a string of green lights when you are running late. It is a decision you make, no matter what.

I'm not saying that support, professional or otherwise, isn't necessary or beneficial for mental health sometimes (or a lot of times). I know it is. (For me, antidepressants and a good therapist have been key.) But despite all that, I believe that happiness is in my reach and in my power.

I admit that I lose sight of it often. And in those 3-AM sleepless moments of self-pity, my husband gently steers me back to gratitude. He reminds me that this life is a good one. This life of waking up to a pee-soaked diaper carefully folded by my pillow because it never made it into the trash in the middle of the night. This life full of peanut butter and jelly fingers on my couch. This life of holding small hands in parking lots. This life of wearing elastic waistbands and Spanx. This life of cold, dark French roast. This life of rocking a sick child and humming in a steamy shower at 2 AM. This life of crumpling into the nook between my husband's bicep and his neck and falling asleep as soon as I close my eyes. This life of chemo meds and fear. This life of two children brimming with newness, running through the same halls near where my dad is fighting hard and resting. This life, so very far from white couches, hot coffee, lavender-scented linens, and cloud-soft cashmere. This real life. It is a choice. It is a good one. And most days, it is so much better than the life I don't have.