Happy Feat

After decades of earnest parenting comes a reminder to savor the moment

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Illustration by Gracia Lam

I have a card on my desk. It’s one of those stiff notes that arrive in an envelope attached to a flower arrangement. Printed on it is the following: “May today be the beginning of nothing but sunny days. My love always, Momoo.”

This note would have come with a bouquet my mother sent for some occasion—a birthday, a book published, or perhaps a sad time. Her answer to the blues was to throw something pretty at it like roses, a bright T-shirt, a picture frame. She wasn’t trivial. She wasn’t merely pacifying me with stuff. The gifts were talismans of joy that my mother had in abundance. The day I found out I had to have a root canal—I was ten, my teeth were soft, and a big abscess had developed under a cavity—she took me to Lanz in Westwood and bought me an orange sundress with white polka dots. One Easter when all the neighborhood kids were in their yards hunting for eggs, my sister and I were digging in flowerpots and looking in the limbs of trees for tiny miniatures my mother had hidden: toy furniture for our dollhouse, little china dogs hanging from a thread. Who could have dreamed up this magic? We were the recipients of a diminutive canopy bed, while everyone else was stuck with a hard-boiled egg.

Such were my mother’s ways. I think about her reflexive instinct for the small pleasures, about how she would periodically pick us up at school—often she couldn’t because she was working—and whisk us off to the beach or to the café owned by Mickey Cohen’s sister (or so legend had it; Mother told us who he was), where we’d have chocolate sodas and ham sandwiches on rye. On summer nights we would stay up late, eating cantaloupe halves full of vanilla ice cream in our pajamas. I can taste that cantaloupe, even the somewhat green ones, which I preferred. Quite simply, my mother made things fun. Other parents didn’t seem to do that as much, and if they did, there was often a hovering darkness or sadness. Maybe there was with us, too; maybe that was the point. Sorrow would come. We knew that. Our parents had already divorced. But, oh my, at any given hour on any given day, you could be in your bathing suit next to your mom, your toes seeking the residual warmth in the sand as the sun dropped into the ocean, and nobody was talking about the homework yet to be done. That was for later. Now was now. On those stolen afternoons I consciously admonished myself to stop thinking about my French test or my history paper and instead to smell the sea and watch evening fall. Under my mother’s sensory tutelage I learned to box the obligations, put them on the shelf until I was ready to take them down—which was the most life-enhancing lesson she gave me.  

*****

In recent years parenting has seemed such dreadfully serious business. Now there is a slender manual encouraging parents to lighten up, written (or I should say cowritten) by none other than Goldie Hawn, she of the irrepressible giggle. She has been reincarnated as our pied piper of happy parenting. How I remember her in those Laugh-In days. It was the late ’60s, and the world was coming unglued. There were the devastating assassinations—of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy—and the Vietnam War was raging. Yet every week, like a breath of emphatically silly air, there was Hawn cracking herself up with harmless riffs and making everyone tee-hee along with her, even the young feminist I was then. She was beguiling—a self-parody, not of the dumb blond but of the canny, wide-eyed blond, though she wasn’t Marilyn Monroe. She was the anti-Marilyn. There was no apparent angst. One could hardly imagine her torn up by the kind of self-doubt that destroyed Monroe. Goldie Hawn seemed to be genuinely balanced and giddy, if that is not an oxymoron.

In her new book, 10 Mindful Minutes, Hawn radiates real glee, precisely the quality she wishes to help the rest of us find. “Remember the joy you felt inside when you were small, because we need to be ever mindful of the child within us when we’re using the practices of the book,” she writes. “We can all still share that joy with our children so that we never break their spirit.”

There is a golly-gee-whiz-this-is-the-next-best-thing-to-yoga message. If you can find a way to savor the moment, to stay grounded in the present—well then, you’ve achieved what she and other practitioners these days callmindfulness,” a sort of cheery, some might say simple-minded version of the Buddhist concept. We must pay attention to our breathing, our seeing, our listening, our sensing. We must show our kids by example the pleasures to be had. “Sit down with your children and get some crayons or colored pencils and draw pictures of their happy memories,” she says. “Whenever the radio is on, ask your children if the song that is playing is a happy or sad song…. If it is a sad song, ask them how it makes them feel. When there’s a happy song, dance with your children…. Always end the practice playing a happy song to finish on an upbeat note.”

Hawn’s advice might seem obvious or goofy, but I am a sucker for it because it reminds me of the way I was raised. Everyone has been frantic, so crazed with chasing success—not just for themselves but for their babies. On many a morning you can see students trudging along the sidewalks, weighted down with backpacks full of books and their parents’ expectations. Add to it the fearmongering in the culture. I was amused by a recent New York Times piece about a doctor who makes it a habit to crawl around the playground equipment at fast-food joints and swab for bacteria. If you have young children, this story can only make your terror alert jump up another notch. 

Now comes our self-appointed mindfulness guru to remind us to take a deep breath, just hang with our kids, and listen to them. It’s the slow-parenting analogue to the slow-food movement: the counter-Tiger Mom mantra. Nobody is talking about letting the young run wild; quite the contrary. The idea is to engage with the people you put on this earth so that they can achieve contentment. Hawn is in the middle of a trend here, the happiness chase. There is a lot of chatter about how we can make ourselves more positive and thus nurture optimism in our sons and daughters. There are exercises to do, she says, just like Pilates. Eat a piece of chocolate with your kids; get them to savor it, the texture, the melting sweetness. Yes, the experience might sound gooey, but why not?

She discusses gratitude and encouraging your children to express it and how being kind and nice actually makes people feel better. As I said, all pretty basic, even retro, principles. Granted, Hawn does bring in some trendy neuroscience discourse. Scratch an issue today and you will find a neuroscientist quoted or his or her work cited. Hawn brings her own brain analysis to the table. Talk to your kids about their mental capacity; tell them what the hippocampus and the amygdala do. They will then understand that their right hemispheres aren’t as developed as their more freewheeling left ones, so they are not as self-regulating as they will learn to be. OK, this is a tad much. I am not sure that regaling little Madison or Ethan about their poor impulse control will help them rein in their behavior. I also think we overinstruct our kids. I often witness parents in intense discussions with their toddlers, as if they were in negotiations over raising the debt ceiling. I want to say, “Enough. Relax.”

In fairness, this is a tough time for many adults—everyone is scared about the economy, about holding on to jobs and houses and keeping the family ship upright. Who has the energy to teach Brain Science 101 or to relish those chocolates? On the other hand, perhaps it’s the best of times for a slow-it-down message, since many no longer have the discretionary income for the distractions—the shopping expeditions, the weekend trips, the accumulation of goodies. The binge is over; the bubble has burst. Go ahead: Dance with your kids or take them to the beach to watch the sun set (it’s all free). Implant joy. That, according to Hawn, is the highest good a parent can do. Luckily for me, my mother knew that.            

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