Free to be Happy

Max and Fred, our first week in the U.S. two years ago

A childhood trauma had hardwired my brain to fear and expect loss. Though the experience is long behind me, a couple of years ago I began to realize that I was not completely free of its grip. 

My happiest moment was July 4, 2008, when we moved to the U.S. after having spent 8 years overseas. Of course, I was also happy the day I married Max and the day I gave birth to Fred. Somehow, though, moving home had a different momentous feeling…perhaps because I wasn’t gaining something as much as I was reclaiming something that had felt lost. Yes, I had made the choice to experience Japan but, after a few years, I had desperately wanted to come back. The U.S., for all of its problems, is the place that felt most intimate to me, the place where all my dreams of “happily ever after” took place. And so that ability to return, with a husband who was willing to sacrifice his home for mine, is something I will never take for granted.

But as grateful as I was to finally have “everything” that I had wanted, I never felt truly happy and at peace…because I couldn’t allow myself to. For the first three years of our marriage (until Fred was born), I had feared constantly the day I would lose Max. And now that I am a parent, I fear the unspeakable. My anxiety over having the rug pulled out from under me, of losing everything that I have worked and waited for, made me go through life waiting for something to happen rather than savoring what was right in front of me. I remember sitting at a cafe the first week we were in North Carolina, looking out the window into a sea of green that I had thirsted for after almost a decade in the concrete jungle of Tokyo, and I started to cry. This is where I wanted to be, and yet I feared being punished for being too happy. 

A few weeks ago I wrote about my frustrations being on auto pilot, of not feeling motivated to get through the daily obligations of life. Your supportive comments led me to a deep self-reflection and further conversations with Max and a close friend, all of which led me to the following conclusion: Time will pass regardless of how I spend it, and so I’d might as well spend it happily. I know this sounds trite and cliched to most people, and yet for me it was never at all obvious. I had known no other way to live except with anxiety and in fear of loss, and to let go of that need to prepare for the worst is easier said than done.

But this time, I feel that I have done it – that is, I am determined to try and change. Because I have hit rock bottom, and I am sick and tired of worrying. I see Fred growing right in front of me and growing with so much joy, and I’d hate to look back and realize that half that time I was worrying about things that may or may not happen instead of relishing the little boy who was becoming a man right before my eyes.

So this weekend I began shifting my attitude. On Friday Max and I took the morning off to chaperone a field trip at Fred’s school and then enjoyed an outdoor cafe afterward instead of returning to work. On Saturday, I finally mustered enough positive energy to clean out the boxes from our family room/office, to make way for a brighter and happier space. I also tried a new citrus body scrub and painted my toenails. Small, trivial indulgences to most people that I have rarely allowed for myself.

And then the other evening, in the rarest of rare moments, I invited Fred to come along on a bike ride with me. We rode along together through our neighborhood, up and down hills, laughing and taking in the sights of our beautiful small town. As I pumped my legs to make it up the hills, I felt the new will that told my body to keep pushing despite how hard it felt, and when the bike glided down, I decided to let my body go – not thinking about going too fast or falling or crashing – and to just enjoy the ride…light, effortless, and free.

22 thoughts on “Free to be Happy

  1. Painting my toes is always a good sign for me. To take the time. To have the time. To be willing to use my time to do something nice that no one cares about but me. It’s good.
    I’m glad you hit your worrying bottom. Hooray for happiness!

    • Thanks Alex. I’m really trying to remember to make the time to do the small things for myself. They make such a huge difference!

  2. I LOVE this picture of Fred and Max!! So cute.
    Good for you – for treating yourself to those “small, trivial indulgences”…sometimes those are the best, because they are “the little things in life that make us happy.” You deserve to be happy, you truly do!! 🙂

    • Thank you Christine! I love that picture too – in many ways it represents them, and also how I am different from them. They are so happy and full of life. Next time we take a picture like that I need to be in there!

  3. Great post! I think we all get tied up with worrying a lot, it’s part of parenting. But you highlight an even more important part of parenting – letting go and enjoying the moment, enjoying our children and these precious days. I try to do this as well. And I hear you about the small indulgences. It’s hard to treat ourselves sometimes but really important to do it. Next weekend some friends of mine are meeting for lunch and then a movie. I’ve really been torturing myself about whether I should do both. I feel like I should just go to lunch and then leave. But after reading this I think I should do both! Cheers!

    • Yes, you should do both! It’s such a weird mindset we adopt once we become moms – so much guilt for doing nice things for ourselves. I hope you have a great time!

  4. Glad to hear that you have decided to lighten up and relax. If you aren’t already a follower, check out Gretchen Rubin’s blog (and book) The Happiness Project. I know you will find it helpful.

    • Hi Kathleen, Thanks for reading and commenting, and thanks too for the suggestion. I know of her book and website but haven’t read either yet…I definitely will check them out!

  5. Beautiful, hard-won post Cecilia! It’s difficult to make a conscious change but so rewarding.

    An idea I came across recently: positive thinking alone is not enough. It is the DOING that makes the difference.

    I am so enjoying your blog and I think my husband might be reading it too when he uses the comptuer after me:)

    • Hi Laura, That is so funny that your husband might be reading this. I mentioned on your blog that I am both flattered and embarrassed 😉

      I agree – the doing is critical. The hardest part is getting to that “doing”! But once that’s accomplished it really feels great.

  6. Your writing is beautiful, and I often wonder if your calling is to do that.

    You are so in tune with yourself.

    It is hard to rewire your brain, but it can be done.

    It takes deliberate effort and planned thoughts, and challenging reality.

    For private reasons, I’ve had the same mindset for years. That question of “don’t tempt fate”, don’t be too happy or the gods will laugh at you. I will email you reasons separately.

    It’s taken years to realize that this is not how people live: in fear.

    That most people live happily and never question when it will stop. They live happily and celebrate it loudly, without being afraid to smile publicly ear to ear at their luck in life.

    Without this becoming a novel, let me just say that a therapist told me, “when we’re sad, we are sure it will continue forever, but when we’re happy we never question that. When we are happy, we fear it will end too soon, yet with sadness we know it will never have an end.”


    • Thanks so much for this, Alexandra. I’m very interested in hearing your story too. Please email me some time.

      Your therapist was so right – we really do believe that sadness will linger. Why are we so afraid of happiness? I guess that fear comes to those of us who had always experienced it only fleetingly.

  7. Cecilia – My mom was constantly worried about me, and now that it’s my turn, I realize that I constantly worry about my daughter. I read an article today about parents who forget their kids in the car, subsequently causing their death, and I became frantic, trying to get a hold of My Guy (who takes Little Miss to daycare), wanting to make sure she was at daycare. Completely unfounded and irrational, I know. This is what motherhood has done to me.

    Yet I try to let go sometimes, and having My Guy to help me with perspective certainly doesn’t hurt. He is my voice of reason, and he has taught me to be more gentle with myself, to find a better place within myself rather than seeking something that is fleeting.

    I’m so glad that your introspection has brought you to where you are today. Painted toe nails are certainly a good sign – I would know. Mine are still looking pretty shiny and that makes me happy. Even if I was a little crazy for a bit today. 🙂

    • Thanks Justine. Motherhood really does do that to us – it must be evolutionary or biological – the worry keeps our young alive and safe. And I guess there is a role for the more “distant” (in a good way, I mean in terms of perspective) dad too – we need that voice of reason to balance us out. I also think that, as your daughter gets older, you might worry less (hmm…maybe I take that back…I guess you just end up worrying about different things!)

      My toenails are always painted! Painted then chipped. I need to take care of them when they get chipped 😉

  8. I am glad Cecilia you have come to this realization and are making steps, those little baby steps and little changes to take you to a happier state of mind. I truly believe (see my post tomorrow) that it takes just small changes, but small changes that are important to you, to make a real difference. But knowing you need to make those changes, then wanting to make them is what really will enable you to move forward. Lovely post and it makes me happy to read it.

    • Thank you, and thanks for your wonderful post about happiness. I just read it today. I’m going to keep taking these small steps…and I will make them fun ones.

  9. It is hard to relax and enjoy life. I struggle with attempting to do that, as well. My mother always says, “You are as happy as you make up your mind to be.” And I find that to be true. For me, finding happiness is always an uphill fight, but the end goal is worth the struggle.

    • “Finding happiness is always an uphill fight” – nicely said – this is how I feel exactly. I always envy those for whom it is not an uphill fight, but I guess it is pointless to envy. We’ll try to make our own happiness!

  10. I know exactly how you feel. It sucks. Worrying takes up so much of my time. I understand. I wait, too, for the rug to be pulled from under me.

    But what are we to do?

    Sometimes I think that I worry to prepare myself. Or if I don’t worry then something bad really will happen.

    know you are not alone. hugs. And I for one am so proud of your courage.

    • Thanks so much, Terry. I remember reading about this similar topic in your blog. I have been surprised at how many people feel the same way.

  11. Just found your blog and reading random posts. I cannot tell you how much I can relate to you, to this post, to your life. I lost my dad when I was seven, and so now I live, waiting for something bad to happen. I worry instead of enjoying. I too, lived overseas with my babies, and I longed to come home…sooooo badly. I am here now, so very happy to be here, but I am not truly living and appreciating all I have…because of worry. I am going to read more, follow your example and hope I can grow as you have.

    • Josephine, Thank you so much for this. Wow – you and I really have some similarities. I am so thrilled if this blog can provide you any comfort. Please come back and I hope to hear from you again.

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