Your Least Happy Child and You

October 24, 2019

I’m going to stir the pot, break some eggs, bring some heat– and I’m not even in the kitchen. Right now, in fact, I’m lying with my feet up, typing on my new rose gold-colored MacBook Air, feeling pretty comfortable. Earlier today, I enjoyed a Starbucks caramel macchiato (with 2% milk, not even nonfat!), and I spent a couple of hours at the hair salon getting my hair dyed its newish deep red color. This evening, I had a glass of rosé before eating Chinese food with Cameron and watching and reminiscing over the original “Clash of the Titans” movie. Not a bad day at all. In fact, a happy one.

What was my “least happy child” doing? Well, one of them is stressed out over some really tough college exams, and the other is in a residential treatment center far away from home. Let’s go with the latter one. . . . chances are there are no lattes or laptops available there.

I imagine you are on to me by now. . . . I’d like to talk about the well-worn adage “You’re only as happy as your least happy child.” My guess is most of you have an immediate reaction to hearing this phrase, and you instinctively agree with it. So, taking a look at how I spent my day today, either I’m a terrible, insensitive mother, or there’s something wrong with this tired-out trope.

I’m sure most of you who know me would quickly offer me an exception, knowing the challenges our whole family has endured. But would you offer an exception for yourselves? If your family story hews a little more closely to the norm than ours does, would you grant yourself a pause to really examine the sentiment behind this commonly offered consolation?

Why is this phrase offered to those of us who have children struggling? Do people actually think this is comforting? I understand the impulse to validate our own sadness and stress– isn’t that what good friends do?– but what, really, are you saying to us? It’s okay to be sad when our kids are sad– but then is it not okay to be happy when our kid isn’t? If whatever is making our kid sad is something that isn’t easily fixed– or can’t be fixed or solved at all– what, then, should we as parents do? Trust me, we spend an awful lot of time as it is walking around in a daze, especially at the beginning of the journey, acting as close to fine on the outside as we can, all the while falling apart on the inside. But how is this Herculean effort sustainable? Do we really expect a parent to be permanently unhappy because their child struggles? And what exactly would this look like? Who gets to decide?

And what does this say to the child who is unhappy? Granted, many teenagers would think it’s pretty cool to have so much power over the adults in their lives– but not for long. This kind of control over the ones who are supposed to be in charge inevitably causes anxiety and fear– if I’m responsible for my parents’ happiness, what about my own? What if my parents are mad or disappointed or down? Is that my fault? What should I do?

Please don’t surrender the burden of responsibility for your emotional health to your children. That will leave an imprint on them that will stay with them for life, until and unless they finally realize that this is something beyond their control and seek help undoing the damage.

If I want my children to find their inner strength and be resilient in the face of challenges, I have to show them how to do that. How to develop healthy attachments to the ones we bring into our lives, where our happiness and our power come from within– we don’t give them away for others to control. It’s not just happiness we are talking about– that is a fleeting and unreliable source of strength. What we are really talking about is peace. Balance. Centeredness. A deep understanding of what we can control, and what we can’t.

Least happy or not, I am determined to teach both my children that my happiness doesn’t depend on their happiness– and vice-versa. My choices about my emotions are my responsibility. I still feel their pain more deeply than my own– watching your children suffer is the worst torment on Earth for parents– and yet my tears, my sadness, my laughter, are all my own.

If you’ve offered this phrase to parents whose children are struggling, please forgive yourselves. Life is hard, we make mistakes, and we learn. Self-compassion and the ability to forgive are also huge skills to model for our kids.

I am not the exception that proves the rule. This rule needs to be broken.

3 thoughts on “Your Least Happy Child and You

  1. I really relate to this! I feel relieved knowing that my happiness does NOT only exist if my children feel happy. We are all our own people. However, getting permission to independently feel good while your child is struggling does not seem to make it easier for me. When my child or children are having difficulties I become so focused on it that I can’t recognize that my their unhappiness is most likely temporary. Despair sets in and I get “stuck”. Thank you for your post. It helps to think from a different perspective other than your own.

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  2. Well said. That’s a terrible thing to say to a parent. I’m sure people who use it mean well, but I don’t think anyone has seen their child reach an unfathomable depth of despair truly expects that a parent should be there as well. And if someone did say that, and you subscribe to that way of thinking, where does that leave your other child who needs and deserves a parent? And if you don’t subscribe to that way of thinking, are you stuck feeling guilty about it because you think you should? It’s not time to jump on that bandwagon. It’s time for a new phrase. Personally, I like, “I’m here for you”. That one never gets old.

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  3. Dear Sarah – this really rings true to me. That you managed to say it so succinctly and clearly is pretty amazing. I struggled with this in my younger life and while I have often said it (poorly), this is the first time I have read it exactly as I feel it. Thank you! xo Katie

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