The Dark Side of Gratitude

Originally published in Moms Magazine

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The week before my third child was born, I posted a Facebook status that was more thank you note than update:

Viola invited both of my kids over this afternoon; I am nodding off while getting a pedicure. Jeannette managed three kids at the playground while I went to the chiropractor and got a therapeutic massage. ‪#‎blessed‬ ‪#‎thankyouvillage‬

Posting it, I swelled with gratitude (and fetus), feeling utterly supported by my mama network (and compression hose).

Then the comments rolled in. “Blessed you are!” remarked one friend. “Wow,” wrote another. Just like that, my mood darkened. I barely resisted the urge to reply: “Every other moment of the last six weeks, I’ve managed two kids and a household while barely able to walk, on feet that have been pedicured and massaged three times in the last five years. Plus, I’ve bent over backwards—when I still could bend—to help these folks in the past.” That my hackles rose at even the slightest insinuation of fortuitousness revealed a deep-seated fear.

The phenomenon recently resurfaced when a friend mentioned how encouraging her partner has been of her work editing a local magazine. I thought about my own husband’s unfailing support of my writing and wanted to respond, “We’re so lucky,” but I couldn’t bring myself to say it. I’ve made it one of my life’s missions to promote his interests and pursuits, both professional and personal. His reciprocal commitment to my fulfillment is wonderful, and it’s rare, but it’s only fair. Calling it “lucky” seems like a diminution.

I realized that I’m able simultaneously to feel both thankful and deserving; but somehow by saying I’m grateful, I worry that I make the support seem gratuitous.

I’ve since talked to many a mommy friend and learned that my reaction is “a thing.” What’s going on? Are we suffering from a mass crisis of faith? A sneaking suspicion that we don’t deserve the good around us? That the charmed lives we lead are a boon and not worlds of our own careful creation? Putting socioeconomic and racial privilege aside for the time being, the answer is “no.” Neighbors, friends, and family should pitch in to help one another out in a pinch. Men should support women in their professional endeavors. And parents should be able to engage in leisure activities and hobbies.

Perhaps as a stay-at-home parent, I’m all too familiar with my work being devalued unless I stick up for its difficulty. I’m often afraid to broadcast how much I love it lest others perceive my gratification as a vacation. Although, come to think of it, my professional experience tracked the same course. Those at the law firm who worked tirelessly, never turning away a project or appearing to accomplish the gnarliest of tasks with joy and ease, worked thanklessly. Sure, top performers had to put in long hours, but the junior attorneys whom partners valued most were those who didn’t conceal the fact that work was hard work.

Viewed through this lens, hesitance to express thanks isn’t a defense mechanism, borne of insecurity or irrational fear. It’s an informed reaction to our tendency to give others only the credit they give themselves.

Yet we need to say thanks. In fact, our happiness depends upon it. As William Arthur Ward once quipped, “feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it.” Two decades after Oprah first encouraged us to keep a gratitude journal, positivity research has so definitively established a link between the expression of thanks and happiness that a cottage industry of gratitude-specific books thrives.

Gretchen Rubin, author of New York Times bestseller The Happiness Project, pithily summarizes, “Studies show that gratitude is a major happiness booster.” The concept is simple: it’s difficult to feel negative while acknowledging much that’s positive; or, put another way, gratitude acts like rain on your pity party.

So how do we thank others without the fear of trivializing our own efforts? Particularly for moms, we express gratitude without papering over our labor. We air all that is fortunate as well as all we do to direct our own fortunes. We thank God and everyone else for our fabulous families and amazing jobs, while allowing—even inviting—the world to see us sweat.

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