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“Mommy, I want you to be happy.”

The first time my 3-year-old said this to me it was like a punch in the gut. Because I wasn’t happy in that moment. Not at all.

We were standing in the parking lot at daycare and neither one of my kids would get into his car seat. Neither wanted my help to get into his seat, either. It had been a long day at work, with a stressful commute, and even though my kids were probably wiped out from the day too, I could have really used four good listening ears.

So I had my mad face on. And my terse voice, and tense shoulders. I desperately just wanted to go home, fast forward the day, and get to bed. ALL of that was on my face and in my tone. There was no fake cheeriness, just a clear message of “Mommy’s not happy, fall in line.” I wasn’t hiding it, but I also wasn’t expecting to be called out.

Preschoolers learn emotions from family, friends, books, cartoons and those handy little emotion dolls. They start to recognize happy, sad, angry, and surprised. They also quickly realize that happy is the most fun state to be in. It’s the one in which there are giggles, and “sure, five more minutes” and maybe even a treat after dinner. So when I was clearly not happy, my son wanted to flip the script. Fast.

The hard part was that of course I wanted to be happy, too. I love being happy! Happiness rocks. Plus, I had so much to be happy about. Two amazing kids, a wonderful husband, my health, a good job, a roof over my head, food in the fridge . . . Was I the worst for being unhappy in that moment and letting my kids see? Was I setting a bad example of what it meant to have a positive attitude? And how wonderful would it be if I could be actively grateful every minute of the day and approach each challenge with a bright smile? No flies on me—let’s do it!

But it’s not realistic. I’m human. Sometimes I’m not happy. Sometimes there are very good reasons why I’m not happy. Sometimes there are garbage reasons why I’m not happy. Fortunately, it is not an undercurrent of unhappy that seeps into everything I say and do. Nor am I battling depression like millions of brave men and women around the world. But there are minutes, or hours, or days when things just aren’t lining up. I get frustrated, angry, or sad. It’s reflected on my face and in my body language and in my voice. I’m not happy about not being happy, but that’s just real life.

Parenting offers me a new lesson every day, and the one I’m working on now is the permission to be unhappy. Now when I get upset and my son tells me that he wants me to be happy, I try not to get bent out of shape or beat myself up for having feelings. Instead I say “Me too, bud. But right now I am not happy.” I explain why I’m feeling this way and what steps I can take, or we can take together, to get back to happy. I’m hoping that will help him understand that he doesn’t have to be happy all the time either. I may not agree that he is mad that I didn’t let him drive the car, but he’s allowed to be mad. There’s nothing wrong with feelings, and it’s healthy to express them.

The other night, my son told me he understood that he couldn’t eat ice cream for dinner, but he was still a little mad at me. And right now he wasn’t happy.

You know what? That made me kind of happy. Maybe I’m doing something right.

Becca Carnahan

Becca Carnahan is career coach, author, and mom from Massachusetts. Her writing combines funny and relatable parenting stories with career advice to make the whole process of finding or creating a career you love a lot more fun. Sign up for her weekly working mom newsletter at withlovebecca.com.

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