Sunday, 21 December 2014

What it takes to be happy

By Emily Prucha | Prague Daily Monitor |
8 June 2012

It wasn't a place I would have normally chosen for a girl's night on the town. Still, the smoky cellar restaurant, with its dim lighting and a faint smell of stale grease, was, in fact, perfect. My friend's husband had bought a voucher for the place on slevomat and on this particular night, we were the only ones in the place. The waitress watched an evening sitcom with her feet propped up and occasionally chatted with the cook, who was chain-smoking in the corner. At intervals she would come to check in on us, bringing us a carafe of white wine or more water. Our set dinner of pork medallions and potato wedges was surprisingly tasty. In fact, the ordinariness of the setting made it easier to relax and focus on why we were really getting together – to chat, commiserate, and bond. A night like this doesn't happen often. After dinner, we ordered dessert, medovník and Sacher tort, buying ourselves more time, soaking in the atmosphere and appreciating the valuable free time.

I hadn't seen this friend in months, and we were long overdue for a talk. We exchanged stories about our families; we talked about how we were simultaneously losing our minds and our senses of humor keeping up with our young children and household demands. We laughed over the ridiculousness of our desperation, knowing that we were lucky to have healthy children and partners that cared. Then the tone turned serious. "I have no time for hobbies because I'm always focusing on what has to be done immediately," my friend admitted sadly. With three young children and a husband who was a professional musician on the road much of the time, she had a full plate. She confessed she was thinking of getting a babysitter for her one-year old daughter, just so she could have some time to do something for herself when her two boys were in school. As she talked, I sensed her exhaustion; I was all too familiar with that feeling.

I confessed that I was also looking for a babysitter for Samuel or maybe even a reasonably-priced preschool for the fall. I wanted to return to teaching English a few hours a week. Not so much for the money, which might end up just covering the daycare, but because I felt I needed something to give my life more purpose and structure. I do have hobbies and most weeks I do manage to squeeze in a little time for myself. At the same time, however, I've become increasingly aware that I no longer feel the same sense of pleasure from my daily tasks that I'd felt when the children were younger and my role as the primary caretaker pleasantly consumed me. I sense Samuel needs more interaction with the outside world as much as I do.

As we sipped our wine, we turned from complaining to making resolutions, offering suggestions and countering them with reality. We agreed if we lived closer, we might be able to help each other out, mentally and physically. I encouraged her to take steps to find a babysitter and to keep up the exercise class she'd started recently. She offered to talk to a friend who ran a mother's center to see if they needed a native speaker for English classes and to find out if Samuel could be there at the same time. At 11:30 the bar was suddenly infiltrated by a rambunctious group of friends of the waitress and cook. We also realized we'd have to run to catch the tram and then to hopefully make the last metro home.

Once home, I checked to make sure Anna's snack for the morning was packed, her homework completed and in her backpack and then headed for bed. As I walked past the playroom I noticed train tracks and Legos were strewn haphazardly across the carpet, I considered straightening up, but it could wait until the morning. I headed down the hall, past a sleeping daughter and two sleeping sons. I slipped into bed beside Radek and felt pleasantly exhausted from the night. I wondered when my friend and I would find time to meet again.

At Anna's ballet class the following day, the boys fought over a water bottle. Samuel held the bottle tightly in his tiny hands managing to steal a few drinks even while Oliver tried to jerk it away. As they screamed and squealed, I tried to referee the argument. The room of waiting mothers stared at us and I wanted to disappear. Finally, I remembered Anna's empty water bottle in the bottom of the stroller. Producing it with a flourish, I convinced Oliver to run to the bathroom and fill it with tap water. He returned grinning and held the bottle toward Samuel, who beamed in appreciation. As the boys both sipped happily on their waters, one mother turned to me and said in English, "Two water bottles, no more screaming." As I explained that one was always wanting what the other one had, Oliver stopped drinking and stared at me, "Why do you have to chat with everyone?" he asked and blushed as he turned away from me. I don't know if my speaking back to the mother in English had embarrassed him or if he just didn't want me to talk about his behavior in front of him. Regardless, I appreciated the mother's attempt to connect and I gave her a grateful smile.

All too often, I get wrapped up in thinking that "responsibilities" to my household and children are the primary forces in my life. I make lists of things I "have to" do, rather than shifting my perspective to realizing how fortunate I am that I'm able spend so much of my time mothering my family. From the mothers and fathers that I know, it seems to be a common sentiment. Life is complicated, time is scarce and obligations are many, so it seems wise to take a moment to remind ourselves to relax. For me, often a short run or a walk alone in the evenings can clear my mind, other times it takes a night in a smoky restaurant with a good friend. A kind word from a stranger can also do wonders to smooth fraying nerves and help keep the peace.

As my friend and I said our goodbyes on the metro platform, we both knew it'd be another few months before we had a chance to see each other again. It didn't matter. When we do meet again, it won't matter where we met, the important thing is to relax a bit and speak our minds.

Emily Prucha is a Life Section columnist for the Monitor. She likes writing about bilingual and multicultural families.
You can reach her at emily@praguemonitor.com. You can read more of her stories here.