On a late-fall morning back in 2015, my son was born at home in my bedroom, surrounded by people who love him: His mother (me), his father, his grandmother, his midwives, his dog, and his uncle – who was just downstairs. I was 24, and deliriously happy, and also very exhausted. Holding him in my arms was the most natural thing in the world, and I couldn’t stop kissing his the top of his fuzzy baby head.
Fast forward 18 months, and I’m sitting with this same beautiful blonde boy in a doctor’s office while a woman in a white coat tells my husband and I that our son is severely autistic.
On the way home from that appointment, I was struggling with a strange mix of emotions: Sadness, fear, anger, confusion, overwhelm. My husband put his hand over mine and said, “He’s still the same kid he was before we walked into this appointment.”
And that has made all the difference.
While, as any parent of a child with a so-called disability knows, I still grapple with how the world will respond to my son (so far – with open arms) and what his future will hold, I have been given an incredible, astounding gift since my son’s birth: The truth of what it means to be happy.
Here are 15 of the most important things I’ve learned about happiness from my son:
- Stop doing things you hate. My son is very interested in two hobbies in particular, both of which I will let him share when he wishes. When he is not engaged in school, eating, or sleeping, he is likely doing one of those two things. He doesn’t spare much thought for anything else. Adults love doings things they hate because it gives them a sense of accomplishment, all while they complain about every minute of it.
- Sleep when you’re tired. 1 in 3 adults don’t get enough sleep (which is defined as 7 hours by the CDC… some of us need much more). We stay up on our phones, scrolling miles through Instagram, and Googling any question that pops into our mind at whatever hour of the night it might happen to show up. My son, and my daughter, too, have the beautiful gift of not having smart phones (being that they are, more or less, babies), and thus they go to bed when they’re tired, and sleep until they’re not anymore. They don’t fear missing out because they know when they rise, the world will still have the same opportunities as it had the night before.
- Happiness thrives on a schedule. Just as many fitness experts recommend a specific training schedule (to be done at the same time everyday), and many nutrition experts recommend consuming the same (healthy) thing for breakfast and lunch, my son follows more or less the same routine everyday, no matter where we happen to be in the world. He brushes his teeth, eats his breakfast, plays outside, and naps at more or less the same time everyday. His days are varied in terms of location and maybe even activity, but he has essential routines that stay the same. I, too, find myself at my happiest when I keep up with my daily routine (wake early, meditate, work out, work, go to bed early – these are just some of my practices).
- Get outside. I have always found solace in the outdoors, but when I found myself the mother of two children under the age of two, it was very hard for me to find the will to get out into nature. My son is an outdoor fanatics. His persistence of banging on our front and back doors gave me the motivation to get outside, too. And I am always the happier for it.
- Say “No” often. Similar to not doing things you hate, saying “No” is good for your overall happiness. Children have an innate ability to refuse to do things they don’t want to do. As parents, we usually coax them out of this because oftentimes they say “No” to things like vegetables and changing out of dirty clothes. My son is non-verbal, but will simply refuse to do anything he deems not worth his time. Obviously, some things must be done (taking shoes off before getting into bed, for example), but others can either wait or never be done. I find the more I say “No” in my life in regards to my time, the happier I am.
- There is no such thing as too many hugs. Or kisses.
- Building tents, even indoors, has no age limit. My son adores indoor tents/forts. I used to build them for him. Now, sometimes, I build them for both of us. On that note, go camping more often. Studies show camping is good for your health. But, really, we don’t need studies for that.
- Going to the library is incredibly fun. More than likely, you’ve got one in your neighborhood. The cool thing about libraries is that you can find almost any book you want, for free. Then you get to give it back to let someone else and let them experience the joy of reading it. Library use is on the rise among millennials (count me in there for bringing my son to exchange his Curious George books), but it’s good to be reminded.
- Listen to your body. My son doesn’t drink juice, rarely indulges in milk, and aside from an occasional protein smoothie, his liquid intake is solely water. I can tell you from his diapers that he is always well-hydrated, and he intuitively knows that if he’s been playing long and hard outside, he needs to drink more. Mayo Clinic recommends about 2.7 liters for women and 3.7 liters for men, but this can vary on a day-to-day basis. Simply listening to your body – for water, food, and sleep – can make all the difference in how you feel in your body.
- Put down your phone. We all spend way too much time on our phones. And if you’re a parent, this is really bad news. The University of Michigan and Illinois State University recently released a new study stating that children of parents who are glued to their smartphone are more likely to develop behavioral problems later on in life. Even without the label of a disorder, common sense can tell us that attempts of children to engage with their parents that are met by silence – because their parent happens to be Tweeting or liking a Facebook post at the time – are not a good thing. I make it a point to put my phone away when I’m with my children, as much as possible (it’s always possible), and the smiles on their faces tell me they appreciate my presence.
- Find time for silliness. As much as structure is important, it’s equally important to include goofing off in your day-to-day life. My son’s favourite way to goof off is to climb on top of me and laugh at the top of his lungs. You might not be able to do that, depending on the age and sturdiness of the people living in your home, but you can surely do something similar.
- Listen to music. Whatever you like, go with that, without shame. My son prefers Trevor Hall, and my daughter is a big Britney Spears fan.
- Love harder. There’s no possible way you can overdose on showing someone in your family or circle of friends that you love them (as long as it’s in a healthy way). Children instinctively know this.
- Cry when you’re sad. This may seem counter-intuitive to being happy, but expressing your emotions, whatever they may be, leaves more room for the joy to flow back in. My son has no qualms about crying when is hurt or sad, just as he has no problem with laughing and smiling and swaying back and forth when he is happy.
- Realize that what you have, where you’re at, and who you’re with, at this very moment, is enough. (Unless, of course, you happen to be at the dentist’s office, in which case… I’m sorry.)