A couple of years ago I began my own Happiness Project. I would do what makes me happy. I would still have to work, but keep my bills low and drive a car I’ve been told looks like I bought it from a drug dealer. I didn’t care. I was doing an exegesis on the art of being happy and staying there.
“I would just take drugs, have sex all the time and eat a lot”, a lawyer friend told me.
“Okay. But would that really make you happy?” I asked, meaningfully.
“Yes. That would really make me happy,” he said.
My Happiness Project was more craft-based. I would paint for the first time since high school. Learn to cook Indonesian. Buy summer dresses. Lift weights. Talk about happiness like a stock investment I was watching.
“That’s sounds pretty indulgent to me,” one mother snapped.
“Unbearable to listen to, actually,” another mother said.
“You just have to do what excites you!” I said, again.
“I’d like to put my children into state care. Then go travel for two years and pick them up afterwards,” one mum joked. “That would make me really happy.”
“Okay. Is there any way you can be happy without doing that?” I asked.
“I suppose I could give them to my mother.”
Another mother said, “I would quit my job and stay home with my children. That would make me happy.” I would think about those mothers who stayed home and were going bat shit crazy…“You might not want to do that.”
I don’t think women want it all – they just want to be happy with what they’re doing. Most parents put their child in front of the television from time to time and when they see them zonked out in front of it, feel guilty and turn it off. They pull out the building blocks, their faces set in a grim mask. “Let’s play building blocks,” the parents mutter. “No, no, no. I don’t want to play building blocks!” the child says, because that’s what children say and also, their play partner looks like they want to kill themselves. “Fine!” the parent says and knocks over the blocks with their hand.
I’ve babysat dozens of children and so I’m not allowed to kick the building blocks through the air, but I feel the same way sometimes. Mothers of our generation have been told to sit down and engage with their children. I can’t remember a single instance of my mother doing that or any mother I knew growing up, but we want to be better than they were. Building blocks. Fantasising, as you lay one block on another, about spending two years in Bali. Of course it would be a scandal if you just took off, but you could invent a story about a nervous breakdown or a job promotion. In Bali. Do people still have nervous breakdowns, you wonder? Did they ever exist or was that a brilliant excuse for a holiday? Might have to be more specific to really pull it off these days. “I’m having a bi-polar break, with episodic depression and suicidal ideation…In Bali.”
Our mothers solved the problem of ‘productive play’ by having more children. We weren’t really playing so much as throwing blocks at each other and crying, but our mothers got a break. It takes one pediatrician to announce the damage to a child’s synapses if they don’t get productive play and parents are back on the living room floor, death mask on. Everybody wants to do what is best for their child, but I think the form is wrong and by form I mean the structure of families in single-unit housing and community safety fears and its attendant isolation. Either one or both parents are working and they come home to be with their children, alone. It’s the aloneness of the experience that wears on mothers.
When I grew up, I was in and out of other people’s houses along the street and playing with their kids. We ran along alleyways and fought with each other and danced on each others beds and went home when it got dark. We knew who lived in the creepy house and we never went in there. We had our own lives. Recently, a parent told me they let their very mature seven year old play outside on the footpath, as long as he doesn’t leave the block. He is regularly brought home by a startled neighbour, like a dog who got out of the yard again.
Living in L.A., I’ve observed that picking children up at a Californian primary school involves sitting in a line of cars, colour-coded placard on the windshield with the child’s name and ten teachers in headsets feeding information about who has arrived. Teachers are running between cars, “Sam Smith! Sam Smith!” they bark into the walkie talkie. Sam Smith gets led by another teacher into the holding pen. Another adult walks him over to the car. I look at the banks of vehicles and think about the loss of productivity in the hour it takes to pick a child up from school. And the tedium of it. Is the alternative too horrifying…letting them walk home alone? What will be the effect of this loss of autonomy? No one wants to be the parent who takes the risk to find out. We are the first generation of parents who grew up knowing the high rates of sexual abuse. One in three women. One in five men. How do we find a way to keep our children safe without cloistering them with our fear?
When you’re a kid walking with a gang and you’ve all got time to burn, it’s terrifying and exhilarating. You are learning how other kids live and which Dad is strict and whose brother’s a dick and which Mum is crazy. We were learning to trust our instincts. Standing outside the creepy house, one kid will knock on the door and everyone does a runner. It was our neighbourhood and we were known. We didn’t have to think about being happy, we were living.
Vivienne Walshe is an Australian playwright and screenwriter. Her plays have been highly awarded and published by Currency Press. As an actress she appeared on The Secret Life of Us and many other television shows and performed in plays at the Melbourne Theatre company, Sydney Theatre company and Queensland Theatre company.