What Would Marsha Do?

I’ve had a stressful and unhappy year.

My oldest daughter barely survived seventh grade. There were enough tears to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool, and there were many nights spent worrying over her. There were also many evenings of stressing over homework and grades and friends and boys and teachers and clothes and gym class.

We sold our house and have been living in a basement apartment. All of our things are in storage, and it feels like we are living in a hotel, with just the bare necessities.

I worked a visiting assistant professor position at a university with colleagues who had rejected me for a full-time position and that required an hour-long commute. I have dealt with difficult students. I have spent many days in my office without anyone acknowledging that I exist. I have been lonely.

I’ve gained 20 pounds.

I still haven’t figured out how to keep my house sparklingly clean all the time.

I lost my patience with my seven-year old countless times. I felt guilty about not volunteering in her elementary school classroom and about not joining the PTA.

I missed my husband while he worked 80 plus hours during tax season.

I hurt my neck and shoulder and have been going to physical therapy. I had to get a colonoscopy (yuck!), and I’ve probably spent more than I should have this year on this and that.

Yet, I’m happy.

It occurred to me just the other day that I’m happy, and that happiness isn’t a place to be reached that is always elusive, but that instead it is a journey.

For most of my 37 years, I’ve been striving for happiness. I often tell myself, “I just want to be happy.” And then it hit me: just be happy. Stop hoping that you’ll be happy at some future date, or wondering when the happiness fairies will appear and declare that you can be happy. Just enjoy the journey. Happiness comes in moments, and I’ve had plenty of those this year as well.

My oldest daughter played her violin beautifully at her orchestra concerts this year. She also had a great party where she invited many of the new friends she has made at junior high this year. They giggled and played and it warmed my heart. She has also decided to start piano lessons again (something I’ve wanted her to do) and she asked to do this all on her own.

My youngest daughter has excelled at school, despite her struggles with ADHD. She was given a citizenship award for being such a great student and she has perfect grades. She’s funny and spunky and makes me laugh as often as she makes me cry. She has made many new friends, and as a result, so have I.

My husband’s work is doing well, which is why he has worked so many hours, and whenever he is home, he does dishes, cooks dinner with me, vacuums, or does whatever I ask him to do without blinking or complaining. He is a gentle, patient man whom I love very much.

I’ve made some good money this year at my temporary position, and as a consequence, we are building a new house. That’s why we are living in cramped quarters right now. And in just two short weeks, we should be moving in. We have already met people in our new neighborhood and they are lovely and supportive.

I’ve made friends and connections at my temporary university position. I’ve also landed a new tenure-track position at a university that is a mere 20-minute commute. I will start in the fall, and this will allow me to be closer to my children during the day in case of emergencies or doctor’s appointments.

Those cramped quarters we’ve been living in? Well, it is a basement apartment in my in-laws’ house. And what a delight it has been to live with them. The girls have gotten to know their grandparents better, and in some of my oldest daughter’s most trying junior high moments, Grandma was there to wipe the tears and listen to her woes.

I’ve found a new role model in my mother-in-law Marsha. I’ve struggled for most of my adult life with being motherless, and now I have a mother I feel close to. She’s right up the stairs, and if I need something, she jumps up to help. She loves to help, and I’ve never had that in my life. I’ve never had a mother figure who is so eager to help and so loving in doing so. I always felt guilty about asking for help. I have always felt that I was burdening others to ask for help. But she has taught me that it is okay to ask. That we should be asking. Right now, she’s sanding and repainting our dining chairs for when we move into our new house. She loves to be busy. She has sewn ripped clothing, helped me to organize our junk, shuttled the kids to and from school on days when I had to leave early for teaching, helped with laundry, fed us on occasion, cleaned my stove, talked over problems, and hugged me when I needed it. She also helped us adopt a lovely orange cat from the shelter, and he is the sweetest cat. We love him.

Here she is, surrounded by family at our recent family camp reunion. She’s the one with white hair who is winning at Poker.


And here she is surrounded by her large family. A few of us are missing, but we are all together because of her. She’s the glue. 

My mother-in-law’s energy and love is infectious, and as a result, I have a new motto: What Would Marsha Do? When I’m feeling down and unmotivated, I remember how caring and competent she is. I think, “Well, Marsha would just jump up and do this.” So I do, too. She has helped me to deal with some of my depression, and when I feel like doing that one task is too much, I remember how easy she makes it seem and how much vigor she brings to accomplishing even the mundane things in life, and I know that I can do it too. I will miss living with her and being around her each day.

(And these two paragraphs about her only scratch the surface. She does so much for so many. I have seen her take in extended family who are struggling emotionally or financially. I’ve seen her knit hats for humanitarian efforts. I see her volunteer in her church and community constantly. There isn’t a blog post long enough to extoll her virtues.)

In my search for “happiness,” I’ve also given myself a break. I used to think that I had to do everything perfectly, and if I didn’t, I failed and that would lead to a spiral of doing nothing or giving up on certain tasks. Now, I take things one day at a time.

Each day can be happy, even when it isn’t, because happiness isn’t a goal for the future. It is in the fleeting moments of my life, and I can enjoy those moments as they come and forgive myself when things go wrong.

I’m happy. I hope you are too.



44 thoughts on “What Would Marsha Do?

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  1. Thank you for this post. You write with honesty, compassion and wisdom. You’re absolutely right that we find happiness in the journey, not the destination.

  2. Emily, the Marsha’s of the world are our “rainy day people.” They know how to listen and make suggestions that are well thought out. I sometimes think we view happiness as some state of euphoria, when often it can be a quiet contentment or peaceful feeling when a loved one does something or we accomplish something (someone on this blog may have earned her PhD, I believe). As a result, if we are not euphoric, we must not be happy. Best wishes with your home, your family and yourself. Keith

  3. Thank you for speaking to balance and to assets and connections. Most blog posts try to show best-case scenarios, or elicit pity – and while both are possible and normal some of the time, I’m with you – life is a mishmash!

  4. You have discovered the secret to happiness! It’s hard to remember in moments when tears are easier, but happiness is definitely an attitude. Back when I wasn’t carting kids around in the car, I would pretend to laugh like a crazy person until I felt better. It really worked, but I haven’t done it sine the kids.

  5. Just the other day I was wondering why I hadn’t seen you post recently. I’m sorry to hear you’ve had a difficult time of it lately. It seems to be a common feeling, at least among my friends, all in our late 30’s, from around the world, that the last year or so has been very challenging. It is a difficult age, balancing young children, marriage and career, with issues spanning the personal to the political, regional to international, feeling for people who are close to us to those we hear of on the news or whose blogs we follow. I hope I will continue to hear more from you but can understand a blog can’t have a high priority in your life right now.

    1. Yes, blogging has taken a back seat because of the stress and changes and responsibilities. I’ve wanted to post, but just haven’t felt like it was possible. I am hoping to be “back” but probably with posts when I want to, rather than a regular schedule. It is nice hearing from you!

  6. I’m sorry to hear that it’s been a tough year for you, Emily. But I’m glad you’re finding happiness amid the challenges, and also that you have Marsha in your life. She sounds like a wonderful person.

    I read the line “Stop hoping you’ll be happy at some future date” and nodded in recognition. That’s what I do too, or I put conditions on my happiness, e.g. “I’ll be happy when…I’ve dealt with my anxiety/…when I get promoted at work/…when I have a perfectly fulfilling life…”

    It’s really hard to live in the ‘now’, but the moment is all we have. And as a poet said (I can’t remember who, and I’m paraphrasing): “the sum of our moments make up our days, which make up our lives”. So I guess we should try to be happy in the moment, as much as we can.

    Your post is beautiful, inspiring and optimistic. 🙂

    1. Thanks, Grace! I do that too. I can’t believe I’ve spent so many years thinking this way, even though I have heard before that we should live in the moment. I’m glad it has finally made an impact on me and that I can give up the nonsense of thinking that happiness will always be in the future. I hope you are doing well!

  7. Welcome back, Emily! Only last week I was thinking: “I wonder what has happened to Emily? Perhaps her new academic position has her so busy that she does not have time to blog?” Something else was niggling though, like I knew there was more. Reading your post I begin to see that there was indeed much more. You, and your steadfast husband and family are brave. It has been a time for all you! How exciting to be moving to a new home. How life-giving it sounds for you to come to a new level of rapport with Marsha. How liberating it is when we realise that our happiness is so much about our decision to choose happiness. I found it to be so when that penny dropped for me one day. Pity that old habits and thought patterns die hard!
    May you all be happy. Oh, one last thought. I hope that in your basement accommodation you have room for a few favourite books? Just sayin’. 🙂

    1. Ha! Yes, there is room for a basket of books, and I’ve somehow managed to fill my entire nightstand, the coffee table, and a few other corners with books as well! You know me. And you’re right. The academic position has been taxing and time consuming, but I also just had no desire to blog. I felt I didn’t have anything to say. I needed some inspiration and some change, and I’m blessed that it took place inside of me over the last year. Thanks for your lovely comment. It feels good to reconnect with you!

  8. Sorry you’ve had a rough year and glad to read that despite it all, you are happy. It truly is a blessing to understand/learn how to be happy amidst hard things. What a wonderful mother-in-law you have, that too, a blessing!

  9. Beautiful post, Emily. It’s nice to hear from you. It sounds like you’ve got some great things going on in your life despite the hard times. And I’m glad you have someone like your mother-in-law in your life – she sounds amazing. 🙂
    I’m sorry to hear your daughter has been having a hard time. I find that issues with the kids are harder to handle than my own. It’s heartbreaking to watch them struggle.

    1. I am flabbergasted at how hard things are for teenagers, and how helpless I am to fix everything. Being a parent is tough! Thanks for your kind words.

  10. my mom was a single parent in my early years – at 5 and 6 years old – we struggled to make ends meet and my dad refused to pay child support – so I learned to get a (what my mom called) a “Sense-of-humor” – when I was 7, she pretty much told me, I had a decision to make. I could either say “Yeah, that sucks…” and be happy or be miserable and cry the rest of my life. Crying got tiring very quickly. So I made a decision at a tender age…I’d rather poke/make fun and laugh at the situation because that’s more fun. I never looked back…there were trials throughout life and a dark period in my early 20s that did have some tears…but it got better. It always does…if you have the right outlook. 🙂 It makes us who we are today, and part of that whole “Wisdom” thing my mom told me about. After making that decision at 7 years old, it never occurred to me to “have” to be happy – it just came naturally…because my mom always told about a guy named Murphy and his law – and that things “could always” be worse.

    1. Wow! You figured this out so young. Good for you. I had a bit of a rough childhood myself, and I think to cope I just didn’t feel anything until I left home, and then everything came crashing down. I wish I had figured out what you did!

      1. Well, there were a lot of “Why can’t we go and do this? Why are your credit cards so high? Why isn’t dad paying child support? Why do I always have to go to some other person’s house to be watched? Why do you work swing shift hours and I have to be woken each night at 2am to go home? Why can’t we afford milk or cereal in the house? (and yes, water in cereal is disgusting) And Kraft Mac N Cheese and Jolly Green Giant canned peas saved us! Pot Pies. TV Dinners. and Chow Mein Hard Noodles (don’t ask) How come my dad never has gas money to come get me for a weekend?

        Yes. I had an extreme first 6 years of life. So you just figure it out. I was very independent at a young age – my own alarm clock, getting myself ready and to school with no assistance. Taking loads of laundry down (by myself) to the on-site apartment laundry. Learning people will take out your wet clothes from dryer and steal your dry time. Yes, I liked my mom’s version better to find humor in everything. Because life then, sucked. Badly. Besides, I’d rather be happy – it feels better. And most people that lived near us, were in the same boat. 🙂

  11. Found myself relating to this post more than I expected. I’m a junior in college, so I haven’t had the stresses of family life and full-time work yet, but the past ten months or so have been disgusting in terms of health problems, relationship problems, issues with studies and so on. But you know what? Things are getting better now, and I came to the realization that struggle is honestly temporary. It may sound incredibly cliche, but there is so much truth to that statement. The best is yet to come!

    1. I’m glad to hear that things are getting better for you. I’m sorry you’ve had a rough time. And yes, so cliche but so true. I’m glad I finally internalized those cliches. 🙂 Hang in there!

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