Our Children’s Happiness, a Parent’s Happiness: A Two-Way Street

 I’ve heard it told that what can be most damaging to a child’s healthy development are a parent’s unfulfilled dreams.  These words have hovered in my mind insistently over the past year as I’ve had to make many monumental , or what felt like monumental , life decisions while in the midst of a protracted and currently unresolved divorce.  Friends who have lent me their ears and wisdom while witnessing me struggle through tortured decision-making processes repeatedly reminded me that my sons don’t just need a father in their lives; they need a happy father in their lives.  Of course, as you can imagine, I have also heard quite a bit that the children need to come first, which I believe.

Understanding the relationship between these two objectives—my happiness and my children’s happiness—has been more than a little vexing. Where do they coalesce? What if they seem, or indeed are, at odds with one another? What is the balance? If I put their happiness first, as I think I usually have, how do I model for them how to build happiness if what they see most are my efforts to create conditions of happiness for them but perhaps not so much for myself?  I don’t want to teach them through my behaviors to sacrifice their happiness for others but rather how to pursue happiness for themselves and work to create a happy world for all.
Last Fall, as an exciting job possibility and very needed life change began to unfold for me just as the divorce process commenced, I was confronted with these questions and many more in a concentrated and intense way.  As I blundered through a torturous and prolonged process of making a decision, trying to figure out what was best for all involved, I discovered in the end, with an amazement that moved me deeply, not only what I want for my children and myself, but what my children want for me.
Despite my hesitation to go forward with the job prospect,  my colleagues and mentors urged me to go to at least have the experience of the interview, meet new people, and perhaps open doors that might provide future opportunities. And I can’t lie: the position of Dean of Arts and Sciences at a state university in the foothills of the Catskills, a region to which I’m drawn, was incredibly attractive.  And I had been seeking and desperately needing a change for some time. As chair of the English department, I worked with great colleagues and a model dean and enjoyed phenomenal and interesting students; we worked together to create a powerful and nourishing sense of community. Yet the antagonisms with upper administration had created a poisonous and exhausting environment full of constant turmoil.  I wanted an opportunity to use my energies to help build a model institution and to do so in an environment and with people who wanted to expend their energies similarly. Too often I find myself swimming against the stream at my current institution and find myself exhausted rather than renewed, energized, or invigorated.  I wanted to swim with the stream.
So, I went. And the fit was perfect.   The provost was an energetic, warm, and open man who clearly loved thought and imagination and wanted a humane, cooperative, and vibrant learning and teaching environment.  The chancellor was equally humane, warm, and thoughtful and clearly put great care into overseeing her institution and took great pride in the university community she created. Indeed, the previous dean was let go because, I was told, he was divisive. This situation was ideal for me.  The other deans were great and the faculty beyond collegial, thirsting to pursue academic work in a nourishing environment.  As it turned out, they wanted me, and I wanted them.  I knew it was a position in which I could not fail because everybody wanted my success. The provost and chancellor shared my faculty- and student-centered vision, and the provost I knew would be a great mentor to me and someone from whom I would learn a lot. At one point in negotiations, he even intimated he saw the opportunity for me to be the next provost.
And yet I was filled with dread.  What was best for the boys?  I work at a state university that always feels on verge of crumbling under the overwhelming state budget cuts to higher education, and I live in a state in which the legislature is constantly assaulting the pension system, not to mention underfunding it, offering little retirement security, as the state of Illinois opted out of the social security system. So, maybe what was best for the boys was that I have a stable job in a good work environment with trustworthy people. The benefits were great. The New York pension system was fully funded, and I would pay into social security.  The provost gave me everything I needed, and the place and community seemed to call to me.   Plus, I could move out of a city marked by record-high murders and a troubled public school system to a small community with great campus resources for the boys, including childcare on campus, and a stunningly beautiful environment with fresh air.  I am the breadwinner and am counted on to support the children, and the boys’ mother is also expecting me to provide substantial financial support for her.  So, while it’s true the boys would have to be separated from one of us, as it was their family life was being disrupted rather profoundly, and it is important I have stable employment and professional opportunities.  The family depended on my ability to support them financially. And New York would offer them a better than nice state university system when it came time for college.
Still, the uncertainty of whether the boys would come with me or of how they and I would fare if separated weighed on me.  I was worried about what the divorce would mean financially. There would be obstacles and issues, legal and otherwise, working out the living situation for the boys. What if the boys did not come with me and I saw them only during summers, holidays, and whatever other visits I could manage? I was worried in this scenario they might feel abandoned and experience a wound and tearing deeper than what the divorce might inflict. I was worried I would be miserable too.  If they did come to live with me during the school year, which is what I would have desired, would being apart from their mother be wounding or cause undue stress on them?  Would it be too much for them?  It just wasn’t worth putting myself in a position to even have to face this decision.
After talking with their mother and making some agreements, in the end, I turned down the position, although I did let the boys know that their old man did in fact get the offer to be a dean.
This summer another opportunity presented itself, in upstate New York again at a public institution.  This time I talked about it with the boys before I went for the campus interview.  I asked them what they would think if I took a position elsewhere.  My youngest son asked if that meant they wouldn’t see me at all.  I let him know that I would never let that happen and that it was my desire to be with them as much as possible.  I explained that if I did take the position, of course our living arrangement would change (currently the boys spend half the time with their mother and half the time with me), and that I wouldn’t be able to tell them how it would work out—that, in fact, if their mother and I couldn’t figure out a workable arrangement ourselves, someone else, probably a judge, looking out for their best interests, would perhaps make the decision.
As we talked about it, I was surprised by what they already understood and thought.  They already knew my employment was important to the family and that it was important that I have a good job.  My oldest son said that New York sounded cool and had a sense of adventure about it.  They wanted to know about the job.  I explained to them what was appealing about the job to me and the way it would allow me to use my energies and talents in creative ways I would enjoy.  They both hoped I would get the offer.  My youngest, often the most outspoken and direct, declared with great certainty, “This is a great job for you, daddy. You should take it this time.”  I was struck rather speechless, which is rare.
In fact, they wanted to know about the previous job in New York I didn’t take and why I didn’t take it. Then they didn’t know about the divorce, so I explained to them that it was hard for me to take the job in the middle of a divorce without knowing how it would impact our ability to be together.  When I described to them the campus, the town, and the job, they both thought I should have taken the job, and my youngest made it clear that I had made a mistake, though I shouldn’t feel bad about it, he counseled.
I wonder how many parents actually ever really learn how their children understand them and what their children wish for them.  We as parents are so busy focusing on their aspirations and supporting them in achieving their goals that I’m not sure we take the time not only to share ourselves with our children (how we live, love, hate, make decisions, think, feel, mourn, respond to the world, etc.) but to allow them to share their sense of us as full human beings.  In short, while we often reflect on what we want for them, how often do we learn what they want for us? Or even bother to think that they might even be wanting something for us?
Especially going through a divorce, I felt the need to shield my sons as much as possible from what was going on. That’s what you’re supposed to do, right? But I found when I opened up to them later that my sons had quite an acute sense of who I was, what I needed, and what would keep our relationships strong and nurturing through any reconfiguration of circumstances the divorce might entail. They possessed quite a bit of insight into the situation, but above all I saw how important my happiness was to them and how sure they were of our relationship and how it would sustain itself through any changes we faced, which was something I worried about tremendously.  This information really blew my mind.
It was hard to know what was best for them and for me, what would make them happiest in an already difficult situation for them.  I still think about the decision—mainly with regret as the divorce process drags on.
What became clear to me was that they had a concern for my happiness and also that they knew me in a way such that they understood what I needed to be happy, what made me tick.  They knew, if only on an intuitive level, how important it is for me to have good work that allows me to be creative, and they also understand my desire to be able to support them in what they want to do. 
I gleaned a lot of information about how they thought and felt, what they understood, and what they were prepared for when I opened up to them about how I was thinking and feeling about my work.  I learned I can talk to them about how I am making decisions and thinking about our life situation, focusing on my own motivations, feelings, and reasoning. And I can include them.  Far from seeing this sharing as inappropriate or something from which I need to shield them, I have come to see it as essential that we discuss our mutual happiness and work on it together—that is how we arrive at the balance.  I’m concerned about their happiness, and they’re concerned about mine.  I know they want to be happy, and I have to learn how to be happy so I can model the pursuit happiness for them.
I didn’t get the second job, but what I did get was a new understanding of my children and how they think about me, a new and more effective way of interacting with them that respects their depth and who they are, and a clearer way of approaching our lives together as we try to create happiness for all of us.

I don’t want them to sacrifice themselves or their happiness for others, although I do want to instill in them a sense of purpose to work for a happy world for all and not to ignore others’ misery.  Yet I’m sure, like many parents, I am focused largely on making sure I provide for them and create opportunities for them to develop their skills and abilities so they can fulfill themselves and their missions, whatever they may be, throughout their lives.

In doing so, it’s likely my own happiness has not been a central objective in my life.  It wouldn’t hurt to have a flight attendant on the aircraft that is my life to remind me to put the oxygen mask on myself first before attending to my children. Maybe I cannot lead them to happiness if I have not cultivated my own.
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