My mother-law-law shared this thought with me when I was a new mom. She did not pose it as a question, but rather a statement, as she was plagued with worry about one of her adult children.
Her statement has perplexed me ever since. I got it but didn’t get it. I didn’t want it to be true. I have done a lot of personal work and research on setting boundaries and continued to ask myself, “Aren’t we in charge of our own happiness? What does this statement say about our ability to maintain our emotional boundaries?”
I was pretty certain that I would be “stronger” than the moms to whom this statement applied, and that as my kids got older, I would learn to make my heart ache less than it did when my baby cried in the middle of the night, or when my daughter sobbed because a boy made fun of her freckles.
But after 21 years of parenting, I still feel the same heartache when any one of my kids feels pain.
A few years ago, I attended a lecture of one of my favorite authors, Wendy Mogel. As she signed my trusted copies of Blessings of a Skinned Knee and Blessings of a B-minus, I had about a 60-second window of her attention. With an unexpected hint of panic in my voice I asked her pointedly,
“Do you believe in the old saying ‘You are only as happy as your saddest child?’ ”
I searched her deep grey eyes hoping she would provide an answer that would show me a different way—a less painful option to deal with managing our children’s inevitable aches and pains.
Without a moment of hesitation, she looked back into my wanting eyes and responded with startling clarity,
The pain I felt in my heart when colic caused my son to cry almost incessantly for the first six months of his life and I couldn’t make it stop is not all that different than the hurt I feel as I witness the discomfort and sometimes agony my adult child (21) experiences as she works her way to adulthood.
And while my two youngest kids are away at camp, happy as can be, and my oldest son is home happily working, playing baseball, and hanging out with his friends…my heart is with my girl, who is in a far-away city, trying to prove herself as a capable grown-up, make ends meet, find her way around an unknown and a sometimes unfriendly city, manage a new job, a relationship, friendships, and little time for “self-care.” I feel her “growing pains” as if they were my own., and can still access the growing pains I experienced at her age as I teetered back and forth between independence and dependence, childhood and adulthood.
And yet, no matter how long I hold her hand and try to ease the pain of this inevitable and essential transition, the light at the end of this sometimes ominous-seeming tunnel for her (and every adult child) is this freeing and terrifying realization:
“Holy shit! I am on my own!”
And while I know and she knows that she will not be abandoned or left homeless or hungry, I cannot always run to her rescue when she screams discomfort. It’s like how my babies learned to sleep through the night—first I went in and comforted or fed them every time they cried, then I went in only a few times a night, and finally I remained in my bed and telepathically told them, “You got this. I will see you in the morning, baby.”
Did my heartache listening to my babies cry at night until they “got it.” Yes. Does my heart ache listening to my adult baby express the hardships of trying to make it on her own this summer?
Do I wonder every day if I am doing it “right”?
Yes. A lot.
Do I know for sure whether or not I should be helping her more or helping her less—emotionally, financially?
But I my heart and experience have taught me that even though I might ache for a child who is uncomfortably squirming, my job is more about healing that ache within myself, and encouraging my child to do the same for herself. Just because we feel their sadness does not mean that we need to fix it.
So, yes, I nod in agreement with my mother-in-law and Wendy Mogel’s assertion that a mom is only as happy as her saddest child. However, I also understand that sometimes children have to be sad and uncomfortable, and we have to be able to endure those times without running to their rescue. And we do this by being gentle with ourselves, gentle with them, stepping in and stepping out, and ultimately teaching and encouraging them (often through our own example) to find healthy ways to manage the sometimes uncomfortable and painful aspects of growing up and being human.
You got this, baby. You got this. And I am here.
“Letting go doesn’t mean we don’t care. Letting go doesn’t mean we shut down. Letting go means we stop trying to force outcomes and make people behave. It means we give up resistance to the way things are, for the moment. It means we stop trying to do the impossible—controlling that which we cannot—and instead, focus on what is possible—which usually means taking care of ourselves. And we do this in gentleness, kindness, and love, as much as possible.”—Melody Beattie, More Language of Letting Go
Read more about the importance and challenges of setting boundaries in The Self-Care Solution: A Modern Mother's Must-Have Guide for Health and Well-Being.