My 10-year-old tells me he’s having a hard time breathing as he climbs into bed. It’s a classic symptom of the anxiety he’s learning to manage, but it’s disconcerting to him nonetheless. He looks at me with wide, pleading eyes. “What if I stop breathing in the middle of the night?” he asks.
His fear is real. The danger is not.
“This is just anxiety,” I reassure him. “You’re not going to stop breathing.” I remind him of the breathing techniques we’ve practiced to slow his fight-or-flight response. Breathe in…2, 3, 4…Hold…2, 3, 4…Breathe out…2, 3, 4, and hold…2, 3, 4.
He starts to calm down, and I kiss him goodnight. I leave the room before he’s totally calm so that his brain learns that I am not the sole key to his sense of safety.
He calls out one last time, “Are you sure I’m going to be okay?”
I tell him that he’s fine.
As I close the door, I take my own deep breath and tell myself I’m fine, too.
This scene, which has played out in hundreds of ways with my anxiety-prone kids, squeezes at my mama heart. I don’t worry about the things my kids fear, but I worry for them because of their fear. In helping them work through their struggles, I can’t help but take some of it in.
I think that empathy helps make me a helpful, compassionate mother. But it’s also really freaking exhausting.
When people list the challenges of parenting, I feel like empathy rarely makes the cut. Sleep deprivation, toddler tantrums, battles over homework, power struggles and behavior issues—these are standard woes parents bond over and seek advice for. But few people talk openly about the emotional toll of parental empathy.
Your children’s hard feelings affect you. Their broken hearts become yours. When they hurt, you hurt, and unfortunately childhood is full of painful-but-necessary experiences. When they’re afraid, you want to physically pull the fear from their body, even if it means taking it on yourself. When they’re in a hole, you lower your heart down to them, hoping they’ll grab onto it so you can pull them back up.
Such efforts are often in vain, of course. Kids have to go through things in order to grow and learn. Friction helps to smooth out some rough spots. Fire can mold and strengthen them. You know this intellectually. But as they walk through those trials, you feel the heat beneath your own skin. Sometimes it burns as if you’re walking through them yourself.
And all of this on top of your own life with its own challenges. You have your own gauntlets to run, so you can’t afford to let empathy for your family members drain you of your energy. But how do you do that? How do you distance yourself enough from their emotions without detaching completely?
Empathy makes us a better mothers—I truly believe that—but it comes at a cost. I sleep well these days now that my kids are older, and we’re long past the physically demanding little kid years. My teens are pretty awesome, and our youngest is becoming more independent by the day. But the balance between the physical and emotional labor of parenting shifts heavily toward the latter as kids get older. The emotional work is no less exhausting—and unlike the fierce-but-short-lived physical work, it builds up over time.
This is why self-care is not a luxury; it’s a life vest. When you’re the one taking on the bulk of your family’s emotional weight, you need to buoy yourself somehow or you’ll find yourself floundering. I don’t want to get rid of the empathy that helps me understand my kids, and I assume most moms don’t either. But we do need be diligent and unapologetic in giving ourselves what we need in order to keep it from pulling us under.
So hop in the bath. Go have the coffee date. Take the trip with your girlfriends. Make the appointment with the therapist. Tell your family you need some time to recharge, and do it regularly. Realize that you’re not just taking care of your children’s mother, but also modeling healthy emotional maintenance for them by doing so.
Empathy for your kids is good, but it will slowly wear you down if you don’t temper it with some much-celebrated but not-often-heeded self-care. If you want to keep on doing the important, eternal, heart-wrenching work of motherhood, you have to keep your strength up. No apology, no brushing it off, and no guilt.