Operation Make Margaret Happy (or how to decide to not make it your life's work to make anyone happy, even your own dang kids)

There was a period of about six weeks between the question, “Should we move to Oakland?” and the day we got to the city to unpack our old things into a new old house. Those few weeks were full of logistics and the emotion of leaving a place I’d called home for nearly a decade. I was heart hurt over the friends I’d leave, the long drives that would be out of reach, the familiar things that would grow into the unknown once I left them behind. This was all concerning, certainly. But I could breathe through the fears and then against them until they dispersed, or at least, diminished. If I’d only had to deal with the worries my husband and I came up with together…I really think the move would have been a thing of adventure relatively untarnished by worry. 

But I’m a mom. And dealing almost exclusively with the emotions of my partner and myself, is something I gave up when I gave birth to my first child. (An aside:  You know, it’s not that it is so simple dealing with just your heart and the heart of a partner. It’s not that I gave up something easy for something hard. Anyone who’s taken a peak into their own mind on a quiet day can testify to the difficulty of “just” dealing with what exists on the inside. That is no small task and I think we should all - children or no children - take more time to honor it. End of aside.) Viola, at three years old, took to the news and reality of the move with great aplomb. But my oldest daughter, Margaret, was heartbruised at the prospect of moving and and then heartbroken at the initial reality of the thing.

And when I couldn’t help her breathe until the fears scattered, I was heartbroken, too. 

While it seems that my kids’ worries should have a different weight than my own - that years and distance give me more perspective - that isn’t always the case. Because really, for better and sometimes for what seems like worse, their hearts feel like physical extensions of my own. Only I can’t alter the rhythm they beat because they don’t truly belong to me. And I can’t always talk away the simple things they don’t yet understand, because knowledge won through experience is not something you can pour out onto the ground like so many drops of water. 

For the first two weeks, Margaret went to bed crying about having no friends, aching for family, missing a neighborhood she could wander. I cried myself to sleep, too. Because while I knew there would be friends, right now there weren’t. And while I knew this move would make our immediate family even stronger, I worried about the bonds with the people we had left behind. And while this new city held more opportunities than I could yet name, I keenly felt the loss of long walks by green fields and newly bleating lambs. 

So, I decided to put a plan together. I couldn’t steady the beat of her heart, but heaven knows I could help provide the environment and activities that would allow her to do it for herself. My plan had three parts. 

I was certain that by the end of a week after implementation of the plan, everything -EVERYTHING - would be fixed. I, Mother, would make my kid happy. 

Operation Make Margaret Happy

Phase 1: Make our home environment a colorful and stimulating sanctuary. 

This one. Well, this one got off to a rollicking three figure start at World Market. Certainly, I thought, a rug under the kitchen table, curtains around the front windows, MAYBE A FUN PILLOW, will make her feel more at home. And I don’t know…for her bedroom. What about a reading nook? Yeah! So many good ideas! OUR HOUSE WILL BE A HOME AND HER HEART WILL BE HAPPY. It’s so, so simple.

You know, I wasn’t all wrong. It was nice. The rug warmed, the curtains added color and my goodness if that accent pillow didn’t sparkle.  At first, the girls were only mildly impressed with my sanctuary building, but they didn’t know I had an ace up my sleeve. 

The reading nook. 

A holy corner in their room comprised of mismatched quilts and and a flower shaped canopy. Who cares if half way through Project Make House a Home, I ran out of money? So there were no shelves in their room yet and the books spilled out of broken cardboard boxes. No matter! We had a reading nook! I would look at it while I picked my way across the toys and clothes on their floor. Ah, a good mother provides a safe haven. And then I would smile and know it was good. 

That nook with the canopy was GREAT until Viola swung like Jane from it’s netting and tore the damn thing in half. And you know, I cried like a baby when that happened. Because that canopy was my last (until the next paycheck) great hope for sanctuary building. The girls, on the other hand, weren’t nearly as bothered by the whole thing. They’ve been using the carcass of the canopy as a wedding dress (horror) and snake trap (awesome). The books are still housed in the torn cardboard boxes. 

Phase 2 : Create an affirming culture of creation through cooking

I just knew, knew that if I could engage Margaret in cooking every day, she would be find peace in her new circumstances. Because cooking is many things. It is order and control of circumstance. It is a moment to create something entirely new from raw materials. An acknowledgment that our creative power alchemizes (all those different ingredients made this one new thing!) and sustains both spiritually (that divine act of creation!) and physically (we do, after all get to savor and gain nutrients from that new thing we’ve created!). It’s a really miraculous act we get to engage in up to three times a day. And I just knew, I KNEW, that after a week of cooking with me, Margaret would be able to see her new circumstances as so many ingredients with which she could make something new and sustaining. I planned the first day with great care, her favorite recipes, a mise en place that would make Gordon Ramsay blush, lovely music in the background. I ushered her into the kitchen with a smile of great anticipation. 

“Margaret, today, you will learn to cook!” 

She smiled and was really excited at the prospect. For about three minutes. By the third step in the recipe she looked at me and squinched her nose up,

“Um, mom? This is so great. But you know, I just love how you cook this, do you think you need me to do it? And, ummmmm, Viola is coloring in the other room. And I kind of want to do that. And watch an episode of Curious George. This is really fun, but you could do it? And I could go do something more fun? Is that okay?”

I tried briefly to explain the whole alchemy and sustenance thing, but she just kind of smiled at me nervously, like..this is when my mom officially loses it. Right here, in this kitchen, while she compares cut carrots and onions to some pretend process that makes gold. But doesn’t. Because it’s pretend. You know what isn’t pretend? My desire to be on the couch watching Curious George.

I finished making dinner myself and she returned every few minutes to tell me about what that hilarious monkey had gotten himself into this time. 

Phase 3 : Is this a house or a library?

We have always been a reading people, and I thought it was enough. But as Margaret wended her way through our changed circumstances, I decided we could do better. Books carry salvation and we all needed a little saving. 

I started with access. 

Yeah, a lot of their books are still piled in those damn boxes, but I took as many as I could and spread them on the coffee table, every side table, credenza and in all the corners where chair backs meet our old latham plaster walls. A Kinfolk spread this did not create. But it meant that my children cannot escape the books. Which is really all I want out of life. They pick them up and leaf through them, play with their toys on top of them and, sometimes, issue childhood level curses when the books fall on their toes. I think these are all good, immersive experiences. Even the hurt toes. Because that falling book is like, “Hey, I’m here and I’m heavy. Revel in my absolute power!” Or something. Anyways, the books have taken over. And I like it that way. 

Then I started implementing integration.

We come home from each library trip laden with fairy tale and history, science and spirit. We compare cultural experiences we learn from painted pages and laugh at jokes made my pigeons. Riley works late, so we’ve started reading at most dinners - the stories of crazy characters filling the empty spaces at our table. We talk about the books when we aren’t reading them. Wondering what Dahl will have Trunchbull do next or making up endings for the tales that didn’t quite find the resolution we sought. Those little stories have become as real to us as the friends we left behind. And…it’s helping, if not absolutely healing. Margaret is still sometimes lonely, overwhelmed, adjusting. But now, when the tears come - she can turn her brimming gaze to full pages instead of a blank wall. (The walls are blank because I still haven’t hung one bloody picture. How’s that for sanctuary building?)

Also, now Margaret feels entitled to ignore me when I ask her to do something because, “I’m reading, Mom. And don’t you say that’s the most important thing? You want me to stop the most important thing to clean my room? That doesn’t make sense.”

Kids. Amiright?

Operation Make Margaret Happy Results

We’ve been here a little over two months and Operation Make Margaret Happy has been….a mixed bag. She’s coming along. There are now friends at school and church. When she talks about home now, she is mostly referring to the place we are, not the place we were. She cries about the things she misses less often and talks excitedly about the opportunities we have with more frequency. She is living life like most of us do, mostly happy except for when she’s sad. 

And me? I am reveling in the earnestness and hilarity and frustration of being a mom who tries...even when things rarely run to plan. And...this has been a profound change...I’m leaving behind my need to make my kids feel anything but safety and love. No matter how many dinners we cook together, no matter how many canopies we hang, no matter how many books we read, their hearts will always be just theirs. I can’t control them and am learning I wouldn’t if I could. As their mother, making them happy may not be my highest calling. Rather it may - and this is so much harder - be my sacred duty to stand as a witness to their sorrow and to show them there are arms that will hold them until those dark times - like so many clouds in the sky - are burned away by the heat and light of a new sun. 

Because, thank God, despite how it seems to a bereft six year old or heartbroken thirty year old, there will always be a new sun. 

Amen.