This is the question one of my almost three year olds asks me about 25 times a day. She asks this when we are late for the week’s second doctor’s appointment, when we are drawing Winnie The Pooh characters on the sidewalk, when I am coming to collect her and her twin after another failed nap attempt, when we are sitting on the floor happily doing an alphabet puzzle, and when I am trying not to lose it by yelling, THE KITTY-KAT BODY PROBABLY ATTACHES TO THE KITTY-CAT HEAD!! (Sorry, I’ve been holding that in all morning.) All day long it is some version of, “Mama, you feeling happy now?”
Most of the time I am feeling happy. I love my life and I love being home with my daughters. I have found a satisfaction and contentment my previously anxiety-ridden self did not know or think was possible. As she also likes to say (often correctly), “Mama, you feeling happy now ‘cuz you’re with your girlies!!” In these moments, seeing her look up at me, head cocked to the side and hearing her correctly sum up my current feelings, I feel so proud. I feel as though I am doing something right. I have taught my child emotions! She can correctly identify feelings! I look back at her and, unconsciously imitating her lilting tone, I say, “Yes, I am feeling happy now. Thank you. How are you feeling, darling?” These are the golden moments of early childhood parenting.
At other times, am feeling sad or frustrated or homesick. In other words, sometimes the answer is no. In these situations this question can make whatever negative feeling I am experiencing more potent and palpable. I struggle with how to respond. Do I tell her the truth? Do I lie to her? Do I find some kind of middle ground? Do I simply close the car door in her innocent little face so I don’t have to answer? I have done all of the above in the same day and likely in the same hour.
Sometimes I can force myself to bend at the knees and get down to her level just like the parenting books suggest. I can say in a quiet, calm voice, “Actually, baby, mama is feeling frustrated/sad/worried right now. But that’s okay, everyone feels that way sometimes.” Then, if I’m feeling extra virtuous, I may throw in a chorus of Daniel Tiger’s song about sadness. I feel like a saint. I have conquered parenthood! Take THAT Mama Tiger!
On other days, when I am feeling downright furious that they won’t stop Tigger-Bouncing and crashing into things, this question can bring out the worst in me. This is when I grit my teeth and say, “No! I am feeling frustrated!” Or I do close the car door in her face. Or I leave the room and lock myself in the bathroom for two minutes. Or I throw the plastic cereal bowl in the sink. This is when I resent knowing the importance of recognizing and discussing emotions with young children. I resent knowing I will feel guilty about my actions later and feel even worse. I want to be mad! I want to be a toddler myself! I want to stomp and cry! I want, I want!
Then, this happens: about 30 seconds passes and I hear a sweet little voice from the carseat behind me go, “Mama, you feeling better now?” And I start to chuckle. Not every time of course, but often. I am not cured or lifted entirely from my bad mood, but I do laugh. I laugh because I am reminded that I am “The Adult” in this situation, and the ridiculousness of this scenario still shocks me at times. I laugh because she is the sweetest, most darling being on the planet (along with her sister, of course), and I have the pleasure of raising her. I laugh because kids know so much and so little simultaneously. I laugh because we are both trying our best. No one can be happy all of the time, but we are also not sad or mad or frustrated all of the time. Emotions are a mixed bag. Kids need us to be patient most of the time. I find solace that I still fit that description.
So, Mama, you feeling happy now?