Your happiness... is not my responsibility

I've mentioned already it's been a whirlwind month of summer activity at our house. And we had a whirlwind of activity earlier this summer with our trip. In between, there was a short lull, in which I caught my breath and cleaned the house.

There's been a lot of visiting this summer - family, friends, and meeting new people on our trip. There's been a lot of sleeping in different places and being open to schedule changes and staying flexible. Summer is a great time to stretch yourself this way because the days are long and light, the food is good (and plentiful), and let's be honest, the children can be sent outdoors when you need a bit of quiet.

One of the things that can hinder us moms and women from opening ourselves up to experiences where we are stretched in terms of hospitality and friendship, is the false notion that we are responsible for everyone's happiness.

The hardest thing for me about time spent with other people, including my extended family and hospitality in general, is the burden I put on myself for everyone's happiness.

I don't know if this is something most women struggle with. I don't want to make generalizations. I know my husband does not bear this burden, whereas I do (if I let myself).

I can't speak for other women, but I think mothers especially come by this burden quite honestly because we want our family to be healthy, nurtured, nourished, and cared for. Loved.

But at some point we also add to that list happy.

Other people's happiness is not our responsibility. Our children's happiness is not our responsibility.

Now before you think I'm a mean ol' mom, hear me out on this one.

Our desire to ensure our children's happiness starts out innocent enough. Babies are simple beings. Their needs and wants are pretty much the same thing. And so, in providing for their needs you also meet their wants and they are happy. Or in the case of colicky babies, as was Laurent, you can't seem to meet their needs and no one is happy. (smile)

But things get murky as children grow and their needs and wants differentiate. And now their emotional well being is not simply tied to nursing, snuggles, and lots of physical touch.

It starts to get complicated. Now there is expectation and desire, disappointment and frustration. And we moms want to smooth it all over. File down the edges of life so that everyone is "happy".

Even those of us who don't have a strong Feeling bent to our personalities, are constantly taking the temperature of our children's happiness. Or maybe that's just me.

Add a few more people to the mix - parents, a spouse, adult siblings, friends, etc. - and you could suffer under a weight of expectation and responsibility that is not yours to bear.

If you ask a lot people what they want for their children's future, happiness will be in their reply somewhere. I get that. I too want my kids to be happy. What parent doesn't? I want to be happy!

But happiness in itself is the wrong aim. If we set our sights on that and aim our children in that direction I believe we will suffer with the disappointment of unmet expectations.

Contentment is perhaps a better aim, and I say perhaps because this is not an answer post. A post where I propose the problem and swish my wand and voila - I have an easy answer!

So, what do I mean by contentment?

I have found no better definition or answer to this than the one penned by the Apostle Paul, two thousand years ago in his letter to the church at Philippi. And here's what he says:

I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength. (NIV translation)

This is a hugely popular scripture for Christians, and with good reason. To be content in our circumstances, whether living in plenty or in want, that is the ticket to happiness. Happiness that is not dependent on life going your way, or because of your own amazing-ness, positive situation, good job, or even your needs being met; but happiness that is dependent on God, and his strength.

I am working through this myself. I am in the midst of this (quite steep) learning curve. And here's what I'm learning:

Firstly, I am to train, teach, love, and disciple my children. I am to raise them, to the best of my abilities, with the tools they need for a successful adult life.

My end goal is not their happiness but their salvation and surrender to Jesus Christ. But that again is ultimately not my responsibility. I do my part and I trust the Holy Spirit to do the work in my children's hearts.

As this relates to other people and releasing the burden I unnecessarily bear for their happiness, my job or responsibility to others is simply to be a conduit of God's love to people around me. I keep courageously committing myself to this goal, in spite of all the ways I regularly fail in that regard.

I am not responsible for people's happiness, I am responsible to respond to the Holy Spirit molding and changing me into the likeness of Christ. (For the record I am nowhere near this aim and never will be, but Christ is the model for living I am trying to follow.)

In that molding and changing I will seek to serve people, it is my heart's desire to do so actually, but I can't ensure anyone's happiness in that. I can't ensure they will be happy with what I offer - the bed I provide, the meal I cook, the time I spend, the gift I give. How they respond to what I offer is not my responsibility.

I offer from my heart and in my limited capacity as a real person with a real budget, real sleep needs, real needs for a certain amount of quiet and rest, real health needs, etc... I offer from what I have, however limited that may be.

For the record, I have wonderful friends and family. I don't have cantankerous extended family that are never happy with what I bring to the table. It's probably the opposite. I am very blessed to be able to learn this lesson in an environment of love.

I have realized the importance of this lesson in my life as I am learning to be content in many situations (and am being stretched in that regard), and as I watch my children grow beyond the reach of what I can control and do for them.

As my children gain more independence it becomes obvious that I can't ensure their happiness, it is out of my control. Perhaps, as a homeschooling mama bear, I am learning this lesson a little later in the game than most.

The great thing about letting go of happiness as our aim is the freedom it brings to everyone around you.

As a family, we want to serve each other in love, but my kids are no more responsible for my happiness than I am for theirs. They don't have to make choices "to make me happy". Of course the irony is that we want to please each other and we do many things for each other because we know it makes the other person happy.

The distinction I think is realizing we're not responsible for other people's happiness. We are only responsible to give from what we've been given.

I just wanted to share this with you in case you're having a hard time letting go of something (say a teenaged child?), or extending yourself in new ways (such as hospitality and friendship), or moving into a new situation. A situation in which you will not be able to control the outcome. Which, may I remind you gently, is life itself.

Releasing ourselves and others from the burden of happiness (I'm responsible for your happiness, you're responsible for mine) brings freedom to our lives and in that freedom we experience the joy that we were seeking in the first place.

I have read many great writer's takes on happiness and contentment and I am not able to recall, leafing through my notebooks or with the handy search function on my computer, the ideas and quotes I have written down over the years. Yeesh. What good is writing down ideas if you can't find them later? Gotta work on that.

So I'm unable to end this with something pithy and wise but I welcome your contribution in the comments. Pithy or otherwise.

Do you feel the burden for other people's happiness? How have you learned to serve and love others without carrying this burden? Do you think this is harder for women and mothers than other people in general?

Personal Growth Skype Chat

Earlier this month I hosted a free homeschool chat via Skype with 10 FIMBY readers. We had a wonderful time. I love FIMBY readers.

I have scheduled my next chat for Friday, September 6th at 4:00 EST. I gave first dibs to the overflow group of the homeschool chat. There are still a few spots remaining. This chat is full.

Please read this description for how these chats work.

To put your name on the list (it's first responded, first served) you must use the contact form here, i.e.: comments on this post "don't count".

Possible topics of discussion for this personal growth chat:

  • Growth in motherhood, specifically around the themes of surrendering to motherhood and then letting go, again and again, as our kids grow. (Letting go mostly of our preconceived notions, etc. and then of course letting go as our kids grow, which is the place I'm in.) What do we hold onto? What do we release?
  • Friendships with other women, loneliness and isolation. An expansion or discussion of the themes in this post.
  • Growth in marriage specifically around supporting each other's dreams and working together to reach goals.
  • Fear - walking through the fears that hold us back. The fears are always going to be there, lurking in the shadows. So how do we move forward with courage to live the life we want?

The specifics of the chat will be based on the group gathered, responsive to the participants' needs.

Renee Tougas participates in affiliate marketing, including the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program. Whenever you buy something on Amazon from a link you clicked here, I get a (very) small percentage of that sale. See disclosure for further explanation.

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  • Kimberly

    Kimberly on Aug. 20, 2013, 3:11 p.m.

    So moving and needed right now in my life, as I'm dealing with letting go of something...why is it so hard?  We know and understand that many times it's for the best but yet it's so very hard.  I know I have to let go of this creature in order to see growth and changes within myself and family, it still doesn't make the pain of letting go any easier.  I turned this over to the lord and asked for his guidance on this decision and just logged on and read your post.  I have to take this as a sign to let go and move forward.

    So wonderfully written I can feel your heart and soul.

    I would love to attend your chat but it's right in the middle of my work day and I don't have skype at work, but how I would love to be there.  I can feel how you are growing and being called to new adventures and opportunities.

     

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  • Jamie {See Jamie Blog}

    Jamie {See Jamie Blog} on Aug. 20, 2013, 3:38 p.m.

    I sooooo feel the burden for others' happiness. My sense of empathy is huge and I tend to absorb others' emotions, so I think I take that temperature-sensing to an extreme. It's a daily challenge to NOT succumb to the emotions around me. I used to think I was a people-pleaser, but I've finally realized it's not so much about how I want them to like me as it is how much I simply want them to be happy and I feel largely responsible for it.

    And the challenge of learning to be content. This has been the hardest year of my life, but I'm learning (too slowly, it seems) to be content regardless of circumstances. Some days I fail miserably. But the fact I'm keeping my head above water right now tells me I'm getting there. Maybe this is what real maturity is.

    Thanks for another wonderful post -- one I needed to read.  

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    • renee

      renee on Aug. 20, 2013, 4:09 p.m.

      Jamie, your comment really made me think because I am not especially emphathetic. Yet, I feel a strong burden for people's happiness so I wondered why is that (since it's not the empathy gene). I think I am driven by duty to make people happy. My personality type is very duty-orientated, hold up the law & social structure type thing. So for example, if my children (or spouse) are unhappy I have failed in my duty. I think that's the part I have to wrestle against. My duty is to do my part, the part I am gifted to do or called to do, or whatever. But someone's response to that is outside of my duty, and my responsibility. 

      Interesting how these two different personality types might carry the same burden but from a different cause - empathy vs. duty. Neither is better or worse way of looking at things, of course, just different. 

      Thanks for your comment and helping me understand a little more how we all come at this.

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      • marie

        marie on Sept. 10, 2013, 3:36 a.m.

        I think your comment about empathy and duty is very insightful (or super self-aware). I think the problem with duty in the happiness obligation is that it is enabling behavior. If we take responsibility for other people's happiness, how will they learn?

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  • Jess

    Jess on Aug. 20, 2013, 11:39 p.m.

    Thank you for this post.  It comes well timed for me as I (and I agree that there may be some gender link!) tend to feel the (erroneous) burden of the happiness of those around me.  And while I intellectually know I am not responsible, I often cannot move past it (and man does it drag me down).  Thank you for articulating what I need to hear!  

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  • Sarah m

    Sarah m on Aug. 21, 2013, 12:12 a.m.

    I really love this message and think it's a lacking one in our culture---the only thing people want in our culture is happiness in any form. Mostly, I don't even think most people know what that is, just that it's continually out of reach. I think being poor for years and struggling with many things at once, early in our marriage helped us immensley to define what we see as "happiness", why we wanted it, and why contentment was what we needed to be actively pursing instead, along with deepening our relationships with God (which contentment and joy flow out of, naturally). 

    I loved what you said, also, about what your purpose was in raising kids, and the end goal not being happiness. I don't think any parent is actually capable of that, anyway. Thank goodness!

    Our main goal is raising kids is that we teach them what we know about God as He's related it to us in the Bible, and choosing to have faith in Him. It's freedom just to know that if we do our best in those things, the rest is not up to us.  It's God's job. Aside from that tall order (cough!), is that they learn to take care of themselves before they leave the house (like paying bills, doing laundry, cooking meals, etc.) and have a good sense of humor....because that comes in handy a lot! :) 

    Sarah M

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  • Ruth L

    Ruth L on Aug. 21, 2013, 3:21 a.m.

    I really concur with your blog on happiness..... I too, like to see those around me happy, but how much better to be content, and with that experience the inner peace and ultimate happiness.... thanks for sharing, Renee!!

     

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  • Rebecca Smith

    Rebecca Smith on Aug. 21, 2013, 12:04 p.m.

    Thank you for sharing.  I am letting go of myy 11th and 9th sons who are attending public school after being homeschooled all the previous years.  This is their 3rd day.  It is hard to see them leave and not be happy as they are struggling to find "nice and friendly" kids that include them, despite cousins being there and friends from church and soccer.  Children today just do not seem to be open to including others.  They have their circles and although we are dressed "correctly" and live in a very nice area - it is still tough.  This is a very interesting experience for us all.  We hope to stick it out until Christmas and see how we feel at that point.  Until then I hope each day will get some better.  They are gone for 7 hours, 5 days a wk - in an environment where I can't be there and make them happy.  This is hard as we have always been together each day.  I know they will learn from this experience and grow, but for now, it is hard.

     

    Thank you for sharing and reminding me they have to take an active part in finding their way without me there to guide them each step.

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    • renee

      renee on Aug. 21, 2013, 3 p.m.

      Dear Rebecca, my heart hurts for you. When Celine went to camp this summer I ached at her absence and my worry of not being there to soften the edges of her experiences and be the welcoming arms in her day. It was bible camp so there were a few less worries, but still, she went there knowing only two other people, she's homeschooled (no one else here homeschools), and she's an introvert. 

      For 5 days I had no idea if she was adjusting well or having fun or "happy". When we picked her up on Friday night I was thrilled to hear she thoroughy enjoyed herself but she did share that she was lonely at first and didn't know where she fit and so she prayed for a friend, and God answered that prayer. 

      Mom wasn't there but God was. This has to happen in our kids lives so that they know their ultimate source of strength and comfort is God, not mom. Of course I didn't want to put my young children in this situation. I believe little ones need their mamas (&papas). We show them what it's like to trust a heavenly Father. But as our kids grow we do have to let them go in small and big ways.

      (Celine's story shared with her permission.)

      xo, Renee

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  • Angela

    Angela on Aug. 22, 2013, 3:21 p.m.

    Have you ever wondered, when checking in on your kids' level of contentment, if a void exists in their lives? Around the time my daughter turned twelve, I started to sense this void. We had been homeschooling for three years at that point. I doubt she could have put words to it at the time, but I intuitively felt she was missing out on being with peers often and regularly. She was lacking the opportunity to be "in the mix", choose her own friends, and develop those special bonds unique to that stage of life.

    She returned to public school in 7th grade, and is now a 9th grader. We have given up some things having made that change, but she has gained so much, and is more content.

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    • renee

      renee on Aug. 22, 2013, 4:14 p.m.

      It seems you may have interpreted this post to mean my kids aren't happy. That's actually not the case and our kids are really content, even though we go through little life bumps and transitions where we are all stretched, until we find a new place of contentment.

      What I was exploring here is the idea that we can't ensure our kids' happiness. But like you say, we can try to figure out what they need (you call it a void) and then bring our best to the table to meet that need/void (which may mean, as was in your case, sending a child to public school).

      But the end result, whether it brings happiness or not, is out of our control. And if the change doesn't bring the contentment we were seeking for our children, we keep trying to be sure, but not with the burden of happiness on our shoulders. I don't know if that makes sense.

      I appreciate your perspective and the effort you took to meet your daughter's needs. That's what it's all about. Our children have never been to school and it's not the norm in their/our lives and having never gone they don't have that experience to return to.

      However, when I noticed a real shift around the same age in our oldest we sought friendships more actively than we had when we was little. We have found those friendships with creativity (and some sacrifice, like you say, on the parent's part, which we were happy to do). Making these independent friendships at a more peer-focused time of her life has increased her contentment hugely. And she wasn't miserable before, just not as content. And like she's told me many times in the past few months, "I'm just so happy!" Music to my ears. 

      So I absolutely agree, as parents we should seek to fill voids in our children's lives that they are unable to articulate. And once we identify a need in our children's lives they don't necessarily know how to meet that need and it's our job as creative, experienced and loving parents to help them come up with solutions and present opportunities that will fill that void.

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      • Angela

        Angela on Aug. 22, 2013, 6:02 p.m.

        Thanks for responding Renee. I understood your post, and agree that although we obviously want our kids to be happy, we are not solely responsible for making that happen. 

         

        I am always assessing my kids' needs, and doing my best to sense their level of contentment. A few years ago I noticed that while my daughter nearly always seemed happy, something felt incomplete. I believe it was my empathetic side that was taking notice. After all, I would not trade my middle school and high school years, and all of my "friend experieices" for anything. 

         

        She did it gracefully, but I know it was somewhat stressful for her to transition back into school, and we all realize what an imperfect system it is, believe me! But having a close group of friends, being part of her school's cross-country team, and succeeded academically and artistically have all been so good for her! She is making her own way, with our support, and support from lots of other people that were previously unknown to us. I think that is one of the things I like the most about our new situation. Many people have something to offer my children, and my children have many things to offer "out there". Not everything is filtered through me, though I do keep a close eye on what's going on and I am involved, and I like that.

         

        I think I felt a little selfish when we homeschooled. I see what you are doing now, all of the experiences your children are having, and I think it is so great! And I know we are missing out on certain experiences because we are back in public school. I simply wondered if you had explored any of this in your own thoughts. I always appreciate hearing your perspective - it gives me lots to think about. (big smile)

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        • renee

          renee on Aug. 22, 2013, 7:13 p.m.

          Angela, I think with any choice we make we will miss out on certain experiences. I see that all the time in our life choices. We talk about this with our kids a lot also - what do we stand to gain? what do we stand to lose? And no choice is perfect but there is freedom in that also. You know it's not going to be perfect but I guess we're all just looking for the choice truest to our values - for us and our children.

          Thanks again for your thoughts Angela and I'm glad to know I wasn't misunderstood in my post. There are seasons where my kids go through unhappy streaks but this ironically, considering what I wrote, is not one of them. 

          (And I'm envious of your emphathetic "tuning in", I'm not gifted in that department so I sometimes I have to do a lot of trial and error before figuring out the problem! But I'm getting better with practice. I found parenting babies so hard that way. I was thrilled when the kids could talk and tell me what they need.)

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          • Angela

            Angela on Aug. 23, 2013, 3:17 a.m.

            Thank you for your thoughtful reply Renee. You are right on with your statement that we are all just looking for the choices truest to our values. Thank you for keeping this blog - I do enjoy it.

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  • jacinda

    jacinda on Aug. 22, 2013, 9:23 p.m.

    Thanks for the great post.  At times I too find it tricky to untangle my feelings and remain unattached from other people's happiness. What I have found super helpful is seeing myself, my hospitality and my deeds as the gift I am offering. I can only give the gift of myself and the rest is over to the receiver. I have found this profoundly freeing and means I am able to try new things and offer more of myself to others because I don't carry the burden of expectation. 

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  • Jennifer S.

    Jennifer S. on Aug. 24, 2013, midnight

    I love, love, love this post Renee. As a born people pleaser - it is such a good reminder for me. Also, I love to see your faith expressed so openly. I have been intrigued by your family for some time and have been reading your blog to see what adventures God leads you into. It has me wondering what we might be able to be more intentional about pursueing in our own family... I am very different from you in personality (ESFJ) and we have a very different family life but hearing you say that your primary goal for your children is for them to belong to Jesus just makes my heart sing "me too sister". I have often thought that the most common answer to the question of what we hope for our children is "for them to be happy" but if I am ever asked this point blank, my answer will have to be "for her to know Jesus and love him and follow him all her days". Anyway, just wanted to let you know that this post made me smile and want to give you a hug and a high five :)

    Jennifer

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  • angi

    angi on Aug. 24, 2013, 11:24 p.m.

    Renee, this is a great thought provoking post.  I think it's very important for people, children and adults, to realize that they are responsible for their own emotions.  I grew up in a home where emotions were not ok to express, unless it was anger.  So many emotions - sadness, frustation, discontentment, etc,. all got lumped into anger.  I've worked really hard on trying to learn how to identify different emotions in my life and put names to thems so that my children will have a better grasp on their emotions.

    I have 5 older children (11-19) and then a 4 year old.  There have been times when my little one is just pouty and my older ones are trying everything to get her out of her mood.  I've had to stop them and let them know that if she wants to pout, she can, she just needs to do it in her room.  I don't want her to learn that she can get all kinds of attention if she just pouts.

    I really think that learning that we are responsible for our own emotions is one of the greatest gifts we can give our families.

     

     

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  • natalie

    natalie on Aug. 28, 2013, 7:26 p.m.

    thank you for this post.  it was a great reminder for me in relationships even outside the immediate family.  this is something that i came to understand about myself this year.  i, like a previous commenter, absorb the emotions of people around me.  this is not good in that it really messes me up for way longer than it should.  i have learned to recognize this...& release them.  release them to a bad mood if that is what it is.  release them to having a stressed day.  i think, like you said, i can be that conduit of God's love instead of taking on the negative emotions.  what an encouragement you are.  keep writing!  

    p.s. - i was super excited to see your note on the side about the railway children being in public domain.  thanks.

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  • Nana

    Nana on Aug. 30, 2013, 2:04 p.m.

    Thanks for this post, Renee. My happiness "language" for others (especially for my family: kids and grandkids and husband) is a food one. A challenging act taking into account: restrictions for food sensitivities and allergies, what I know to be healthy as a holistic nutritionist and like to eat myself, making allowances and opening the "borders" for special occasions. Good practise for staying relevant with my clients. Saying all this, is it just memory loss or truth, that I don't recall thinking my Mom (parents) were responsible for my happiness as a child. They definitely nurtured me -  body, soul and spirit - and I would say I had a happy upbringing. Perhaps we're just more aware now through media and social norms that have filtered this "happiness is our responsibility as Moms" kind of thinking. And now I am close to "me thinks too much", so will close and say thanks again for the wonderful expression of words from your heart.

    Mom

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    • renee

      renee on Aug. 30, 2013, 4:20 p.m.

      I think it's cultural Mom and changing parenting trends. There is a lot of burden on modern moms to make highly informed parenting decisions (that take into account the child's whole health and wellbeing) and provide a wonderful childhood for their children. This encompasses everything from birthing, breastfeedig, organic foods to "gentle" parenting, education yada, yada.

      As a generation (X & Y) we take so many things into account in our parenting beyond the basics of providing food, spiritual grounding, family solidarity, access to education (which used to be routinely handed to the schools), and a home to life in (which I think were the basics of your upbringing, and a very good one at that). 

      I don't know all the factors at play, well I could probably name many if I spent time thinking about it, but I think parenting - the practice and philosophy - is a whole different ball game in the beginning of the 21st century than it was 50 years ago when you were growing up. This is neither good nor bad. My own children will have their own parenting journey to figure out (I see this clearer and clearer the older they get).

      What I do know is that many mothers of my generation (and socioeconomic and peer group) feel a burden for so many aspects of their kid's upbringing, including their happiness. And I know I need to extricate myself from that burden, because it's not mine to bear. 

      And I don't know if happiness was your aim in my upbringing but I loved my childhood and feel so blessed that you and dad raised me the way you did to the best of your abilities (which is all I can do for my own children). My aim is that my children will feel the same. To know they are loved unconditionally, to be rooted in Jesus Christ, and to enter adulthood with the necessary skills and mindset to achieve their goals and fulfill God's purposes for their lives. 

      love you! PS. Having you as my mom makes me happy (smile).

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  • marco

    marco on Nov. 13, 2013, 8 p.m.

    Marie, you wrote "If we take responsibility for other people's happiness, how will they learn?" Oops. This is an obvious oxymoron. If you're not responsible for their happiness why should you be for their learning? (which is mostly the same).

     

     

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