Too Much of a Good Thing, Or Where Did I Put My Air Mask?
I like my coffee dark, but yowza. On the final morning of my nine-day full-time grandmothering trip, my decision to use all the remaining coffee grounds for that one last pot definitely resulted in too much of a good thing.
Any one who makes coffee, or cooks with garlic, or indeed cooks or eats anything at all, knows that too much of a good thing is no longer all that good. My coffee that day was more swill than the hoped-for elixir. In positive psychology terms, it’s what Tal Ben-Shahar calls the Lasagne Principle. Tal explains that he loves the lasagne his mother cooks, and savors the opportunity to eat his mom’s lasagne on a regular basis. Regular, but not every night. Having to eat even the best lasagne meal after meal after meal would soon become altogether unappetizing.
Here’s what I love: my 3 year-old granddaughter Madeleine. Living in a different state from this beloved child, I both anticipate and savor opportunities to spend quality time with her on a regular basis. However, on that nine-day trip, I began to feel as though I was having metaphorical lasagne for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and midnight snack. Morning and afternoon snacks, too.
I was round-the-clock grandmothering because my daughter was attending an important professional conference thousands of miles from home. We both knew her extended time “at work” would be very challenging for Madeleine to weather. Thus, I chose to put on my “Bama” hat and help both my daughter and granddaughter flourish during their time apart. It was a good decision, and … at times, it felt like too much of a good thing.
Like any metaphor, the lasagne comparison falls short. Choosing to care for Madeleine in her own environment was a great deal more textured than sitting down for a heaping helping of Tal’s mother’s lasagne. Still, I’ll carry the metaphor just a little further, perhaps to the straining point, to note that there were plenty of side dishes as well. For example, my husband Bob (AKA, “Poppa”) volunteered to come with me. He put in his regular work week at an office about 40 minutes away, but his presence in the evenings and on the weekends was immeasurably helpful — even though Madeleine continued to want my attention most of the time. Though she was especially clingy in her mother’s absence, and I was especially solicitous for the same reason, Poppa nonetheless provided respite.
From Metaphor to Reframing
We can find the good in almost any difficult circumstance — or, conversely, spotlight the negative in even the best situations — by the frames we put around our experiences. One way of framing these nine days of intense child care (24-7, thanks to co-sleeping) is to label it a sacrifice. It cost us thousands of dollars to make the trip, I gave up at least $600 in paid freelance gigs (and, as I’ve mentioned in previous essays, it’s not like we have lots of spare thousand dollar bills lying around), and lots of my work did not get done (classes not planned, sermons not written, movements not organized …). It was not an inexpensive trip. Plus, I had to choose between helping my daughter get to an important professional conference or going to my own important professional conference. Goodbye, International Positive Psychology Association 2015 conference.
However, there are many ways of framing this story. In most life situations — including this one –we can choose between focusing on the positive aspects instead of, or as well as, the negative. So let me reframe those nine days: what an amazing opportunity for my granddaughter and me to grow even closer. Since she and her mom lived with us for Madeleine’s first 16 months of life, we have a very tight bond. But babies — they just keep growing! And they don’t remember all the hours devoted to their infant care. Now, Madeleine may be old enough to remember the time Bama came and took care of her while Mama was away. I hope I will long remember how precious she was at this three year old stage. It’s just astonishing how fast young children develop. It will only be a few weeks till we’re together again, but I’m sure she’ll be very different already.
Here’s one more frame: much of the work we do in building and strengthening relationships is, indeed, work. The same is true of parenting and, sometimes, grand-parenting. Although I disagree with the title of Jennifer Senior’s book, All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood (because, happily, my daughter and her daughter actually have a lot of fun together), raising children is very hard work. But rather than focus on this trip as a sacrifice, I like thinking of this time as an investment — in our relationship and in helping to shape her as a happy, healthy, empathic, emotionally intelligent, and just generally awesome human being.
For me, the truth of the situation meant using all three frames. I’m okay with that, life is complex. There were sacrifices and there were joys and there was hard work in the now as an investment in the future. Not a bad mix, really.
Even so, after a few days I started to feel an undercurrent of unhappiness.
That’s okay. I’m not one to run away from unhappiness. Though I never wish to wallow, I embrace unhappiness as part of life’s journey. However, given my perch as a student and advocate of greater happiness on both the personal and systemic levels, I often wonder at and explore my unhappiness. Plus, when I posted on Facebook that I was having some grandmothering struggles, one of my sisters expressed surprise at my complaining tone. My daughter also emailed me to ask what was going on, why was I having a hard time.
Good question. First of all, we had a rough day. I had thought I could put Madeleine in day care for a few days, for her sake (I thought she might be more comfortable with some of her normal routine) and mine (I could get some work done). But when I left her at”school,” she was so distraught that I drove away shaking and close to tears. After talking with my daughter and with the school, I decided to go back and pick her up. I didn’t have to do work that day, and her pain was too big a price for me to pay.
One of my favorite happiness quotes comes from Aristotle: “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” Compassion for her meant no day care during my visit. Compassion for me meant accepting the fact that I wasn’t going to get any work done. Letting go of expectations is a classic Buddhist prescription for limiting our suffering, but western happiness scientist Rick Hanson suggests the same thing. In his Foundations of Well-being program, neuropsychologist Hanson espouses the value of accepting what we cannot change. Or, in this case, choose not to change. With that acceptance, I grew calmer.
Second, I thought often of Christine Carter. Carter starts her amazing book Raising Happiness (a highly recommended guide to growing deeply happy children) by emphasizing the importance of putting on our own oxygen masks first. Those nine days, I mostly could not even find my oxygen mask. Much of what I do to keep my happiness muscles toned — such as, getting a good night’s sleep, a daily meditation practice, singing in the church choir, going to yoga and bone builders classes, keeping a daily gratitude journal — fell by the wayside. I was aware of everything I wasn’t doing. Really, it was a good experiment: the absence of my happy exercises was so noticeable, it highlighted their value.
Of course, on the flip side, there was more play, more touch, more laughter, and ongoing gratitude practices (something the whole family does each night at dinner). Still, if this were an ongoing situation, in order to best teach and model happiness for my grand child, I would definitely need to put that oxygen mask back on.
Maybe there are some systems issues here, too.
At the time, my thoughts were very focused on the internal, personal factors enhancing or detracting from Madeleine’s and my happiness. But upon reflection, I began to wonder if some of the stress and distress I was felt was because I have inevitably internalized the values of a Gross National Product paradigm. I’m not sure … but I think it’s helpful to examine just how deeply imbued those values can be, even for those of us who have been striving for years to move toward a happiness paradigm.
At home, I found myself reviewing my experience through Martin Seligman’s P.E.R.M.A. lens. As usual, I found this theory of flourishing helpful. My grandmothering intensive had plenty of positivity (the “P” in P.E.R.M.A.), though there were some tears and several very sad hours. As for “E,” I was often very engaged in our activities, though (here again there is a “but”) three year-olds like repetitive play a lot more than 60+ year-olds. Sometimes, I was just plain bored. “R,” for relationships, was nothing but strong, with both Madeleine and Bob/Poppa. Meaning, the “M” word, was also powerful. Since the point of the trip was to help my daughter’s professional development and my granddaughter’s emotional development during her mother’s absence, the entire experience was deeply meaningful.
It’s the “A” that I found particularly enlightening. I realized that much of my stress came from a sense that I wasn’t accomplishing anything. Yes, yes, caring for a young child is meaningful — but it’s not like at the end of the day I could check the “done” box. I think that’s part of why I felt the pressure of wanting to do my own work. I wanted to accomplish something! I wanted to cross something off my list.
Also, despite the hard work, I wasn’t getting paid for anything. This is where my questions about internalized GNP values come into play. Did I feel like I wasn’t accomplishing anything because I wasn’t contributing to the GNP? And, therefore, everything that I poured into being the best grandmother I could possibly be was less valuable to society than a wide range of other well paid activities? Certainly, I don’t think grand parenting is a high prestige occupation.
I don’t have any answers. Maybe it was just me. I really do like to tick off my accomplishments at the end of the day. Maybe it is also the money- and material-oriented paradigm that hangs over us all. For me at least, it is worth taking time to think about this. As much as possible, I want my own personal decisions to be based on genuine well-being — not on accumulating more money or trying to meet GNP-oriented definitions of success. Trying to understand where the traps lie is a helpful exercise.
But I don’t want to end it there …
… because I’d much rather focus on the magic. I know I am blessed to have such an awesome little human in my life, blessed to have such a strong bond of love between us, blessed to share her very precious three year old world. Each day at nap time, for example, as we lay down together, Madeleine would point to the ceiling and whisper in a tone of awe, “Look! There are millions and millions of stars!” Then we found stars of various colors. She always captured the purple one, brought it down from the heavens, and put it in her belly. When Poppa joined us for this activity, he grabbed a blue one, and put it in her pocket. Fortunately for me, there was another purple star for me to reach. I put mine in my heart, for more loving kindness. Our last afternoon together of this trip, Madeleine predictably caught another purple star, but unpredictably, put this star in her heart, for more loving kindness.
This kind of magic? Priceless.