In the midst, mothers miss joy

There has been a whole spate of memoirs lately by young mothers searching for meaning. They go off looking for happiness in yoga and personal trainers and spiritual gurus. These are intelligent women, women with fancy educations who either don't work or make a living as writers, which is (if you ask me) pretty great when your kids are little.

So why are these women so unhappy? Why are they trying to find "happiness" in home-improvement projects and exercise and deep breaths? Not that there is anything wrong with any of those things. But from where I sit, these women are in the middle of the most wonderful years of their lives, and they are wasting them whining.

Believe me, I empathize with the trials of raising children. I remember being so tired I couldn't think straight, feeling like I had not a minute to myself, wondering what happened to the woman I used to be. I spent years worrying about money after getting divorced, worrying about how to provide a secure home for my children while I was trying to figure out how to pay the mortgage. I love my children more than life, which gives them the power to hurt me like no one else. Being a mother is not easy.

But there is a reason why women who have everything in the world want children even more. There is a reason why we keep giving up promising careers and pursuits we love to be mothers. We say we are doing it for our children, but let me tell you the secret, as one who was once there: We do it for ourselves. We do it because, for all its pain, being a mother with her children in her arms is the very best thing in the world, or at least the best thing I ever found.

The problem is that it doesn't last forever. A mother, my friend Annie says, is always only as happy as her least happy child. I want happiness and good health for my children far, far more than I want them for myself. You don't love your children any less as they grow older, but you do come to realize, painfully sometimes, that they don't belong to you. They have a right to their own lives, and a parent's job is not to hold on, but to let go.

Now that my children are grown, I'm ready to look for some other source of (lesser) happiness, and I'm happy to take inspiration from anywhere I can find it. My favorites are the books by older women, who have the perspective of life's joys and losses, something I have learned painfully over the years. But frankly, many of them are just too sad. So I pick up the memoirs of the young mothers, figuring there will be fewer deaths and tragedies in them. And they are not nearly as sad. But they make me want to shake their authors.

Why do you need a "happiness project" when you have a husband who loves you, plenty of money and two beautiful and healthy children? Why do you need to "escape" your family when, before you know it, they will be gone?

Did someone tell me this 10 or 15 years ago? Maybe you just can't hear. But in case you are one of those mothers and you're reading this, let me try: Wait until your children are my children's age. I promise that you will look back and realize that heaven was right there in your house, right there looking at you.

Estrich is a syndicated columnist.