It is funny how important topics come up out of the blue with kids. On walks with the dog, for example.
Someone on the sidewalk laughed out loud, prompting my sassy, straight-shooting nearly 11-year-old to look at me with a narrowed gaze, sizing me up.
"You laugh really loud, Mom," he said.
My back stiffened as I braced against the criticism.
"Sorry," I said. "Do I embarrass you?"
He scrunched up his face, confused.
"No!" he corrected me. "It's a good thing. You're really happy!"
His positive perspective warmed me. Excellent, I thought. But then it occurred to me just as it must have occurred to him. His tone was matter-of-fact rather than judgmental when he amended.
"Except when you're not," he said.
It was true. Painting a picture of me, head back, guffawing with great joy, would not be completely accurate, much as I'd like it to be. No. There was a darker side, mood swings (menstruation related or not) that left me forgetting how to laugh or wondering when that laughter would come again.
My boys knew it. They'd probably known it for a long time, but more recently I'd been less apt to hide my sad days, to always feel like I absolutely had to put on a happy face for them. For better or worse, they were growing up and there were certain facts they had to face, like that every moment isn't blissful.
"It's true," I said. "But you always have to find your way back to happy, right?"
And that takes work -- difficult work that I feel I am constantly teaching myself as much as my kids. Different things work at different times for different people, so it is not always easy to know what's going to move the needle.
Here are a few things I try:
• Accessorize: Decking myself out in the morning with many dangling necklaces, big earrings, bangles and rings is a surprisingly effective way to bring a smile to my face and, seemingly, to others (who may be laughing at me rather than with me, but I don't really care). My constantly replenished stock of cheap jewelry provides a bit of upbeat armor to protect against the world's ills. My boys might not do too much of the jewelry thing, but they often find hats or shoes or other little things that put some pizazz in their step.
• Socialize: As a freelancer, I spend a lot of time alone and sometimes those thoughts that creep in can get dangerous. I try to call friends for coffee or even to get together to dance, and I often (when my mood gets particularly low) put together an invite for a big party. I encourage my kids to make plans with friends after school or on the weekends, to invite people instead of waiting to get invited. It is good to learn early in life how important it is to be proactive and get up the nerve to ask people and to face that potential rejection.
• Exercise: Exercise can help keep the load from getting too heavy. If I don't move my muscles at a brisk pace -- run or walk or stretch or lift -- at least a little bit each day, I start to get stiff and very, very crabby. Sometimes, when I watch the marathon, I imagine it as one big throng of people physically and mentally pushing themselves to stay positive. But it doesn't take going to extremes necessarily, just a little bit of exercise can lift my spirits, and I know that my good fitness habits get noticed by my kids.
• Creative expression: One of the big reasons that I started InspireCorps, an organization to bring inspirational artists into schools, is that artistic expression has always been a crucial way for me to feel better. Whether it's through writing, playing piano, dancing, or even trying my hand at drawing with pastels, creative outlets offer freeing avenues for otherwise bottled-up emotions and make things suddenly not seem quite so bad.
When I think about the many ways I try to find my way back to happy, back to that loud, loud laugh, the list goes on and on. Hugging, hiking, baking, reading, nuzzling with my dog, great movies, museums -- whatever it is, I have to find the things that work to bring me up when I'm down, and I coach my kids to do the same. The first step, of course, is to decide that happy is a place we want to be. As my own mother wisely advised me recently, "You have to look for solutions to find them."
Read Stephanie Thompson's Fearless Parenting every other Thursday on BrooklynPaper.com.