It is not our job to make our kids happy. It is our job to be there for them no matter how they feel.
A few days ago, a friend posted this question on Facebook: If you could go back in time and tell your younger self just one thing, where would you go, and what would you say?
The question stuck in my mind, and I found myself fantasizing about how much better I could have been at mothering and how much better my relationship with my daughter would be if I could go back and give my 22-year-old self with a three-week-old baby this gem of parenting knowledge: It is not your job to make your children happy.
I’d go back to when she was three weeks old because that’s when I was first confronted with a problem that would eventually drive me to the brink of insanity: colic. No matter what I did, Kassie screamed for what seemed like 20 hours of a day.
And every hour that she screamed, I held her. I had read early missives on attachment parenting, but more than anything, I couldn’t bring myself to do anything else.
Here is what I needed someone to tell me: The purpose for holding a crying baby is not to stop her from crying. The purpose of holding a crying baby is to be present with your child while she is suffering. It is to tell that little person that she is not alone, and it is a reaffirmation of the commitment that you have made to her that you will not be driven away by her expressing how she feels.
I can’t help but think that my life, my parenting, and my children’s lives would have been different if I could have made my younger self understand the principle that it is not a parent’s job to do the emotional work for your child. I would tell my younger self: When your child is mad, sad, or scared, you will think it is your job to move her, with or without her cooperation, from that negative emotional place to being blissfully content. You will, in fact, have the overwhelming urge to do so. It is not your job and you must not give in to the urge to fix your kids’ emotions.
My daughter is 24 now, and I am afraid that I may have damaged our relationship because it took me this long to recognize and start trying to correct the pattern that started when she was a colicky baby. I bounced her, sang to her, and rocked her while I nursed her endlessly. But no matter what I did, she kept crying. And my inability to make her a happy baby made me feel like a failure.
To this day, I respond to my daughter’s tears with a panicked sense of inadequacy. I know that crying is a perfectly reasonable response to negative stimuli. But it hasn’t stopped me from responding with anxiety, trying desperately to fix her or the situation.
My first line of defense is always humor. I turned into a stand-up comedian when my kids became verbal. By the time they were in their teens I had become a one-woman vaudeville show. I have employed everything from costumes and goofy songs to fake accents all in an attempt to keep my kids from getting upset.
It worked well in the short term. But in the long run, making a kid laugh does not make her feel heard, and it certainly does not teach her how to deal with negative emotions.
Humor is actually a form of minimizing, and now I can see that I minimized a lot. I used to think that if I could just cut her problem down to something manageable, then we could strategize how to fix it. It took me a while to realize that trying to get people to strategize while they are still sobbing is counterproductive and a huge pain in their butt.
Of course, fixing the problem was always my main goal. I mistakenly thought that if I could get the bully to leave her alone, it would erase the pain of what had already been said. The truth is that my fixes rarely worked at solving the problem, and it never worked at fixing her. She wasn’t broken after all.
Sometimes, when I couldn’t fix a problem, I got angry. When my kids were emotionally distressed, I often responded like a mama bear would when her cubs are threatened. I had a reputation of being both a cool mom and a scary one.
When that didn’t work, I’d intellectualize the problem that was upsetting my child. My thinking was: I will do so much to make you happy that it would be completely unreasonable of you not to be. But that only made my daughter feel like her emotions were unreasonable, and it made me feel resentful because nothing I did could snap her out of it.
After my daughter reached her teens, these kinds of interactions always ended the same way: My frustration at being unable to keep her happy and her frustration with me trying to fix her would lead to a nuclear meltdown.
She became wise to my tricks, one by one. “Don’t try to fix this,” she would say. “Don’t try to make me laugh.” In retrospect, I can see how trying to make her happy in times of stress made her think of me as another stressor, not an ally.
My daughter says that what she dreads the most is hearing me say that I am disappointed in her. And because of my frustration when she is anything but happy, she often feels like a disappointment. This, of course, breaks my heart.
It may be too late, but I have completely given up on trying to make my children happy, especially my daughter. My pathological empathy will make this really hard, but that’s my problem, not hers.
But this more than just having a case of bleeding heart syndrome. My desire to make her happy was also driven by social beliefs about childhood and happiness that makes the problem of an unhappy child infinitely fraught.
We live in a society that sees happiness as the outward signal of virtue. Our belief that happy people are good people is enmeshed with our beliefs about the rewards of hard work.
But beyond that, we have been taught that the key ingredient for making a healthy and well-balanced adult is a happy childhood.
This is one of the final frontiers of parenting, acknowledging that we have very little control over our kids’ happiness. Sure, we can make them act happy, and it is our moral responsibility to create an environment in which happiness can happen. But trying to give them a happy childhood is too much of a burden for any parent to bear.
Happiness is ephemeral, and most of us don’t even know how to make ourselves happy. Why do we think we know how to make a happy child?
The other problem with trying to make your child happy is that eventually they realize that it isn’t safe to have strong negative emotions around you. You become a person who multiplies the stress in a bad situation.
After a quarter century of parenting, here’s what I know: At every stage of parenting, success is not getting your child to stop crying. Success is staying with them while they cry. It is not our job to make our kids happy. It is our job to be there for them no matter how they feel.
Lynn Beisner writes about family, social justice issues, and the craziness of daily life. Her work can be found on Role Reboot, Alternet, and on her blog: Two Parts Smart-Ass; One Part Wisdom. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter.