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Friday, April 20, 2012

Happiness, pleasure and the joy of being broke

There's a wonderful lyric from Malcolm Williamson's opera version of Oscar Wilde's 'The Happy Prince' that has always made me thoughtful. The prince is indulged in all things material, and never allowed to feel sorrow. After his death, he becomes a statue looking out over the misery of poverty outside the walls of his palace; it touches his leaden heart with pity, and he sadly sings:

"My courtiers called me The Happy Prince,
And happy indeed I was- if pleasure be happiness."

I think pleasure and happiness are words that we need to define very carefully in our parenting. So often we do something on the pretext that it will make our children happy, yet in fact what we're doing is giving our children pleasure.

And when the ability to give our children pleasure at the drop of a hat is taken away- usually by a change of circumstances such as the loss of a job, a relationship break-up or an illness that affects our income- we worry that we will no longer be able to make our children happy.

Let me just reassure you on that point.

First I might just define 'pleasure' and 'happiness' for you, as I (and Oscar Wilde) understand the words.

'Pleasure' rhymes with 'leisure', and I think it tends to be closely related to that word. It's a concept of indulging ourselves in what pleases us. But it tends to need constant boosting, and it often has something of an unpleasant aftertaste.

We eat the whole block of chocolate, and feel a little sick; we spend all morning reading a book, and the washing up is still sitting in the sink when we go to make lunch. We go on holiday, come home and have to unpack and wash clothes.

We don't get pleasure by remembering the taste of the chocolate or the time reading. We want more. Another square, another chapter. It's fleeting, and it can leave us vaguely dissatisfied. We enjoy looking at the holiday snaps, but often it just makes us wish we were still there instead of back at work.

Happiness, on the other hand, is a different beast entirely. It can be as all-encompassing as a good relationship with our partner, or a memory that is so sweet that little things remind us of it and make us thrill with joy all over again.

Let me explain that second one. We have a totally beautiful bird where I live, the rainbow bee-eater, which comes in spring with a flash of colour and a beautiful, chirruping call. It's not the elusive and flamboyant bird that creates happiness for me every time I see it or hear it- it's the memory of my first spring living here, when I was finally freed of the terrible burden of a bad relationship and surrounded by the beauty of nature.

So think of that now in terms of your own lives, your own children. What makes them happy, and what merely gives them pleasure?

How many of us have had that wonderful- (tongue firmly in cheek here)- that WONDERFUL experience on Christmas Day after the child unwraps the last present? All that love and care you've put into choosing presents to make them happy, and when the last piece of wrapping is ripped off, they scream and want MORE.

That's pleasure. Not happiness. Poof- gone. Nasty aftertaste.

Yep, that happened with my son. Guilty as charged. I've thought about all this since then- I didn't read The Happy Prince till much later in my life. I mean, when my son was little, there were toy shop owners who rubbed their hands together and doubled their prices when they saw me walk down the street. (Kidding.) (I think.)

And then there's the time you sat on the beach with them building sandcastles half the day- the time you got down on the floor and actually played trains for half an hour- the time you made the effort to understand why they wanted something so desperately, and finally recognised that what they wanted and what you wanted were two different things, because they are not you.

Those are the moments that have made your children truly happy.

John Lennon had it right, too. Can't buy me love. Can't buy me time. Can't buy me understanding.

My memories of my own childhood Christmasses aren't of a bazillion presents followed by a tantrum, because my parents were pretty desperately broke a lot of the time. What sticks with me is not the bright, shiny plastic fantastic, but what happened after the few carefully chosen presents were opened. I remember the atmosphere.

If there was a game, we'd all sit down together and play it. I had that Mousetrap game for years- my son even played with it- and I'm still hooked on Scrabble. There was a lot of laughter. I remember the laughter.

Books? The afternoon would be spent with everyone slumped around the living room together, with their noses deep in what interested them. (The operative words there are 'everyone' and 'together'.) No pressure, no running around screaming because someone was trying to achieve the perfect Christmas lunch and something went wrong.

A doll? My mother would always have made clothes for it herself, and I'd investigate them with great interest because I knew she'd spend time later showing me how to do that. A doll was an ongoing promise of input.

A guitar? That was an expression of trust, because my parents absolutely could NOT afford that guitar. It wasn't just a wooden thing with strings that made noise. It was a symbol of belief in me, because I'd begged- begged- for that guitar, and even taught myself to play on someone else's instrument to show I was serious. A guitar, in a house where nothing but classical music was ever played? Sacrilege.

But I got it.

Now, that was happiness. A promise of time and loving attention, which I knew from experience would be kept. An expression of understanding that I was not them, an expression of belief in me, trust that I meant to persevere with playing that instrument and not just toss it aside when I got frustrated, trust that I knew what made me happy. That guitar got me through more adolescent crises than you could ever believe. It was a foolproof way to express my unruly, too-big feelings, and I often wonder if my parents ever realised just how brilliant an investment it was.

And so let's say that you've indulged your children in pretty much every shiny thing they've ever wanted (or not even known they've wanted), because you can. Because you love to see their faces light up with pleasure. Because you can't help going into toy shops and splurging, thinking "this will make him/her so happy!"

Let's say you're now in a situation where you simply can't do that any more. Is the sky going to fall, Henny Penny?

At first there's going to be fallout, sure. Brace yourself and prepare to be completely honest and authentic. Arm yourself with useful phrases.

"I understand you're disappointed."
"I hear that you really wanted (that toy / that dress / to go to that camp / whatever)."
"It's okay to feel sad about that."
"This isn't easy for you. It's hard. I see that."

Hang in there, hold your ground; don't go maxing out the credit card to prop up pleasure. This is going to be better than you could imagine.

And when the screaming subsides, start propping up happiness instead. You will have to replace getting out the wallet with pushing aside some commitments, with doing some deep thinking about who your children are and what they need for happiness, with spending your time instead of your money on your kids.

"Would you like to go to the park / beach instead? That doesn't cost any money."
"Let's go through your toys and see if there's anything interesting in the back of the cupboard."
"Do you want to play a game? You choose which one."
"I can't afford takeaway tonight. How about you tell me what to cook? Or do you want me to show you how to cook your favourite food, so you can make it whenever you want?"

Like I said, I had a few Christmasses from hell with my over-indulged, first-grandson-on-both-sides, wealthily-parented son. Then the parental relationship imploded, a business venture failed and suddenly the cash cow went dry. Oops.

I've been there. I survived the fallout. And now that I've got the perspective of time and space, I look back and recognise that being broke was one of the best things that happened to me as a parent. Truly. I couldn't hide behind purchases any more; all I had to give was myself, with complete honesty.

In the end, my son was comforting me when I couldn't afford stuff he wanted. I can still hear his voice saying "It's okay, mum, don't worry about it." And that makes me so happy. Me being broke actually made him a much nicer person.

We both would have missed out on so much if I'd stayed rich.


  1. I LOVE THIS POST!!! You couldn't have said it better. My daughter is only two but quite often when we are in the middle of ordinary routines like bath time, reading a book, or going for a walk she will look at me and say "I so happy mommy". It melts my heart. I think todays society is overly focused on material things and kids these days, I feel, tend to be very selfish and self-centered. I was not brought up that way and neither will my children! Thank you for sharing this!

    1. Thanks, Diana. I think today's society is cripplingly time-poor and our children suffer because of it. It's not necessarily the parents' fault- who can afford a house on one income these days?- but it's a creeping malaise that is stealing our kids' right to parental input.

      Sounds like you're getting the balance right! I know exactly what you mean by 'heart-melting'. That's how I used to feel when my son was so grown-up about stuff I just couldn't afford.


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