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What is the secret to happiness?

for The Brooklyn Paper

I avoid speaking with other mothers and fathers, and not just because I’m busy writing a book or cleaning my house. The writing is slow-going and my toilets and window sills are filthy.

I just can’t stand the stress over getting ahead, of getting our kids ahead, of who’s doing what and where, of what’s best to buy and why, the “defending one’s life” that is the subtext of almost every post on Park Slope Parents and in the thoughts of perfection-seeking parents everywhere.

Where, exactly, do we want to go? Where, exactly, do we want our kids to go?

Thing is, in this beautiful tree-lined neighborhood, blocks from the park, filled with award-winning restaurants and boutiques packed with beautiful things, we are already there. The question now, of course, is how to enjoy it.

This conundrum — and cliché — of American life is best expressed on the Chinese fortune on my fridge is: “If you’re not happy with what you have, how do you imagine you’d be happy with more?”

So, what’s the answer?

Maybe more sex?

That could be the answer, but are people having a lot of sex with their spouses? With people other than their spouses? With someone? I hope so. I have been to so many parties where someone “jokingly” refers to putting keys in a bowl and swapping partners openly, like they supposedly did back in the 1970s.

But the keys are never actually exchanged.

Maybe we just need to have a sense of humor. Laughing gets me a long way when I start to get too serious, when the stress of imagining not if, but how, I’m screwing up my kids smacks me right in the face.

Having a sense of humor helps me out of a slump fast — and I even extend it to fashion. I dress strictly by my own counsel these days, like the silly sassy schoolgirl from the ’70s I never dared, quite, to be. I put my hair in pig-tail braids or two side buns that make me look like Princess Leia, (“an old Princess Leia,” Eli was sure to remind me). My quirky image in the mirror never fails to make me laugh, and I get a lot of smiles from passersby who think I’m a little touched and, therefore, happy. Sometimes, appearances are everything.

Maybe the ticket is talking to more strangers, striking up conversations with neighbors we don’t know, giving out gold stars to other people when you realize they are trying. A sense of community, so very possible in this close-proximity burg, is crucial.

Maybe it’s lowering expectations. I’ve stopped planning almost entirely. Spontaneity diminishes the stress of trying to predict a perfect outcome.

Joy is certainly not in wealth, as my son Oscar, all of 7, made clear the other day. As he clipped pictures for a class collage, he thought aloud that he wanted to be richer. But then he changed his mind.

“No,” he amended. “Because if we had billions of dollars, we’d buy everything we wanted. And then we’d have nothing to want.”

Kids know this inherently, instinctively, that the most intense pleasure comes after a wait, that the sweetest mother’s milk comes after a good long cry. As parents we often forget that, of course, both for ourselves and our kids, that denial can be delicious.

I take my cues, often, from my kids. Oscar is passionately excited when he gets what he wants after a time. He can try on 10 pairs of shoes, complaining “this one’s too tight, that one’s too loose,” but when he finds the perfect fit at last, he is fabulously gap-toothed-smiling pleased. And he loves the hell out of those shoes, wears them proudly every day, no regrets, no compunctions. He only expects one pair. He scoffs at my own lack of restraint whenever I stop to ogle shoes in a store window.

“Really? Another pair of shoes? Really? You have, like, a million,” he’ll say, rightly.

And with his voice in my head, I have bought no shoes this winter, just fixed the old ones and found a few, new to me, on the street. It is part of my joy to listen to my own rules rather than conform to others’ concerns. I say bedbugs be damned.

Do what it takes to enjoy. Take a little something (but not too much) to help ease the pressure, a puff of something or a little wine. Breathe in the fresh air with a walk in the park and appreciate the beauty of nature.

Let yourself get hungry so food tastes better, let the laundry pile up. Play music, dance, entertain friends in a relaxed fashion in your house, order in if you don’t cook or make it potluck, even if your place is the size of a shoebox. Who really cares?

Stay in pajamas all day and don’t feel guilty. Maybe the ticket to enjoying is to take a little pause sometimes to realize what we have, what we might really want, what we might enjoy now that we’re here, smack dab in the middle of the American Dream. Maybe. It’s worth a try.

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Reader Feedback

Joey from Clinton Hills says:
sigh, I keep waiting for that Key party invitation.
Feb. 15, 2011, 10:33 am
Tom from CG says:
Great article, thank you for sharing!
Feb. 15, 2011, 11:53 am
jcw from park slope says:
Why do I feel you were shouting out to me to invite you over to my "shoebox" size apartment for dinner? :) Nice article.
Feb. 15, 2011, 3:36 pm
JP from park slope says:
Sex, drugs....where's the Rock 'n Roll? I suggest blasting the Zep while in your pajamas, although the kids always make us listen to that ——ing Owl City ——.
Feb. 16, 2011, 10:51 am
Reb from Slope says:
Nice Steph.... Thanks.
Feb. 25, 2011, 9:20 am

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