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Mama, are you happy?

Talking about emotion is supposed to be a good thing. In adults, it helps us use the more highly evolved parts of our brain to regulate the lizard parts of our brain–the parts that are all about being afraid and biting things. Words have power, and it’s not just figurative, it’s physiological. (For example.) In developmental psychology, research shows a relationship between caregivers who use a lot of words about emotions and kids who are better at understanding other people as having minds and feelings of their own, have fewer conduct problems, etc. Me–I talk about feelings A LOT. Even if I didn’t think it was good for the babies, it’s critical for me. Labeling emotions helps me to lose my temper less often. (Which, uh, I guess is good for the babies too.) Often heard in my household:

I’m getting really mad.
I get irritated when you take Bunlet’s toys.
I’m frustrated because you won’t put your shoes on.
That’s funny to you but it makes me mad.
I’m angry so I have to be by myself for five minutes.
I’m sad because I’m tired.

Lately, Bun Bun has been asking me: Mama, are you happy? I feel like I need to be honest, so I generally respond NO.

To be fair, she usually asks because she can tell I’m getting pissed… But I’d been feeling worried about saying no, I’m not happy so often. What kind of thing is that to say to a three year old? As the child of a mother who went through depression, I’m extra of creating the impression that I am miserable. And I’m not, it’s just that she often gets the me who has no energy for anything anyone wants from her.

And then she started asking, Are you happy that I’m here?

That really scared me. Does she think I’m not happy because of her? Talking about feelings does allow for the possibility of emotional manipulation. If I say I’m sad because of X thing you are doing, or X thing that you are doing makes me mad, am I talking about my feelings to help her understand the relationship between her actions and my responses or am I essentially telling her that my bad mood is her fault and it’s her job to fix me?

I mean, to live in Society, we do have to do things purely to make others happy, so it’s not that I object to that notion entirely. But again, I’ve got a lot of anxiety surrounding the idea of children needing to make mothers happy. Because mine wasn’t happy. And it wasn’t my fault she wasn’t happy. But I didn’t know that. I thought it was my fault.

I’m not sure where to draw the line between fostering communication and regulation and fucking my child up.



Where have I been for the past several months? Oh, you know, around. The semester should settle down a little soon…Perhaps I’ll be back before December.


14 Comments Post a comment
  1. Hm….interesting thoughts. Stella is great about talking about her emotions (thanks in small part to me and in large part to Daniel Tiger)… but I hadn’t considered this aspect yet. Food for thought. Since my SIL died last spring, she also routinely says things like “Auntie Jaime died, and that makes Mommy sad.” *sigh*

    September 19, 2014
  2. Amy #

    I feel this. I try to talk about feelings, but probably I don’t manage it quite as well as Daniel Tiger and his family ;). Ike recently started asking “Mommy/Daddy happy?” on the rare occasions he actually lets us brush his damn teeth (he gets to chew on the brush/eat the training toothpaste first), and I surely say YES, YOU DID SO WELL LET’S DO IT SOME MORE, but it made me wonder about the connection…I hope he can distinguish that behavior affects emotions and not ascribe the frustration to his very being or something inherent about him that he’d internalize when it’s an opposite of happy being discussed. Like most things re: ‘good’ parenting versus not-so-much, I tend to think that if you’re aware of the nuances and wondering about it, you’re probably doing a damn fine job and shouldn’t worry (not to say we won’t!) much – the big problems come I think to those who aren’t aware or concerned about such things. (You aren’t fucking them up, I’d bet money if I had any.)

    September 19, 2014
  3. Interesting points you raise.

    One of my sons (age 2 years, 8 months) has started saying “Mommy funny” when he notices me scowling or looking angry. What he means is that he wants me to smile or look pleasant, and when I do so, he visibly relaxes and smiles himself.

    I share this experience of mine simply to say that I think our children notice our emotions even if we don’t put a name to them. It’s not as though your daughter wouldn’t realize you were unhappy if you didn’t say it; in fact, she’s probably asking if you’re happy because she senses you are not.

    BUT. . . I think there is a difference between being unhappy in the moment, or because of a situation/event, and being unhappy overall. I think you do a job of explaining your emotions to her when you say things like “I get irritated when you take Bunlet’s toys” or “I’m frustrated because you won’t put your shoes on.”

    September 19, 2014
  4. Oh, man, do I have a lot to say about this. Can you have a conference or something and come here and we can just go get a drink and talk about it? Or, better, can you just SAY you have a conference? Because typing seems to hard sometimes.

    Angry and sad and crying and biting all sounds familiar to me, and I don’t mean the kids. Part of that is me nursing and part of it is Circumstances and part of it is life with a baby and a 3.5 yo. I use the word frustrated a lot. A lot a lot. And I try to give myself time outs and am not allowed to, so EVEN MORE TALKING ABOUT BEING FRUSTRATED.

    But I do worry when he asks me about being happy, which he is doing less of lately, because the not happy isn’t because of the frustrated. It’s because of the Circumstances. And I do tell him that, and then cry. So that’s great.

    But you know what I don’t do? What my dad did, not long after my mom died, when everyone in my kid’ slide was crying all the time: tell him that his (small-scale) misbehavior was making him “sad.” WHAT THE FUCK. WAY TO GIVE THE TWO YEAR OLD A COMPLEX.

    September 20, 2014
    • Stupid ipad. “Kid’s life.” Not slide. People on slides should not be sad; that’s just creepy.

      September 20, 2014
  5. Andie #

    It’s wonderful to see a post from you, Bunny. 🙂

    Unfortunately, I have no insight into what is clearly a complex situation. So I’ll just send you a big hug, some quiet alone time, and a nice large glass of wine.


    September 20, 2014
    • Ditto the wise words of Andie. Especially the quiet time which, if you are anything like me, is never enough.

      September 26, 2014
  6. Adele #

    This hit a nerve with me because O frequently asks me the same question, usually immediately after he’s done something that does not make me happy, thereby catching me off guard. I have also chosen to be honest with him (much of the time) and I also have the same misgivings about making him feel responsible for my moods. That’s a lot of burden – and a lot of power – for a nearly three year-old. I’d prefer to be more unflappable, but because I’m not I try to differentiate between the action/thing that’s not okay, and the little person performing that action.

    And sometimes I recognize that I’m in a mood, that perhaps it’s been compounded by toddler shenanigans but not explicitly caused by them. That the funk is mostly mine. This is where things get very complicated. I, too, had a parent who suffered with depression, and it was like you could test the temperature of the house by that person’s face/demeanor/posture. I used to hate that, the way one person could make it tough on everyone else. As a result, I often fake a better mood. And sometimes, weirdly, the funk passes when I do it. (Not always, though. Would that it were so easy.)

    September 20, 2014
  7. So sad and so relatable. Luckily, most of my mood issues happen during a run of insomnia, so my ongoing refrain is: “I didn’t get a good night’s sleep last night, so I’m grumpy today.” Do you talk about other things that put you in a bad mood? Though either way, it gets depressing in itself when you have to complain to your kids… Mine now ask if I’ve had a good night’s sleep with some apprehension, which makes me feel terrible. I know the vision of the serene and unruffled mother is an impossible ideal, but I feel I should be closer to it than I am.

    September 21, 2014
  8. Oh boy. Can you say “yes, I’m happy about how my day is going or some random thing, but I’m angry that you just pushed your bro over and stole his toys”? Not projecting that Bunbun steals Bunlets toys, it’s just an example from my house.

    Sometimes I scream and cry in front of them just like my Mom did to me and I feel like total shit about it .

    So, clearly I have no insight for you. HOWEVER I do know that you are an amazing, loving, not to mention cool Mom and person and your kids are in a great place in life to have a Mom like you.

    September 21, 2014
  9. Thanks for sharing, Bunny. This sounds so complicated.
    I was wondering if you can explain her that you’re not happy right now because of X (whether that’s her taking away Bunlet’s toys or the dishwasher being broken or who knows what), but that you’re happy to have her. But then, I have no idea when a little one starts to understand these discrepancies…. (I’m reading a book about child development that might tell me, but of course I have already forgotten any such details).
    Hang in there. I have a feeling Bun Bun will grow up being aware of her own feelings and those of others, and will turn out just fine. On some level I suspect that our society’s pretending that everything is GREAT all the time doesn’t help here… but again, three may be a bit young to understand this.

    September 21, 2014
  10. I hear you on the childhood spent feeling responsible for the emotions of the parent. I’m definitely a ‘pleaser’ because of that. But I always remember you saying that it’s good for kids to know that they can make you angry. I think I do remember how sad I felt when one of my parents was down – how off kilter the world felt – and I don’t want that for my kids. But I also don’t want to be pretending all of the time. I’m sure you are on the right side of the f-up line.

    September 22, 2014
  11. Ana #

    Bunny! You’re back! And with a punch in the gut thought-provoking post, no less. I also talk about emotions a lot because I want them to understand that parents have feelings & because I want them to learn how to talk through THEIR feelings. However, I am now worried about giving them a complex for making us angry through their behaviors. I try to temper it with “but I always love you” and “I know you are learning to behave and I am helping you” etc… but when one of my little darlings hits me on the face, or shoves his brother onto the floor, mama is NOT happy and there is no way to hide that…

    September 22, 2014
  12. Daniele #

    This topic hits a nerve with me as well. I wasn’t aware of the research regarding talking about feelings, so that hasn’t been my M. O. Instead, as a daughter who often feels I will do what my mother wants regardless of what I want, struggles to differentiate my own desires and ideas from my mother’s (even at 35), and will make decisions based on how much shit I will have to take from my mom, I have been very catious about a causal relationship between my daughters behavior and my feelings. I’m probably a bit extreme to the point of being less than helpful on the other side. Maybe she will grow up not fully understanding others as having their own emotions, impacted (in part) by her actions. But I could count on one hand the number of times I have said “you are doing x so I feel y” or some variation there of. Mostly because when I say it, my gut wrenches with the idea that she could percieve that she is anything less than completely and unconditionally loveable in my eyes (because I have felt that in many ways, my mother’s love is predicated on me doing what she wants and making her happy. I KNOW that’s not true, but I still feel an intense need to keep her happy.) I don’t think she knows the differnce between making me mad and losing my love. I think (perhaps wrongly) they are one and the same to her. HOWEVER, I spend a lot of our conversations about emotion discussing my daughters emotions. Is she mad? Do we need to sing the mad song ( a la Daniel Tiger)? In my own mind, developmentally, her job right now is to manage her emotions (she is almost 3), not mine. I believe we are beginning to enter an age where I want to start discussing how her behavior impacts others feelings, but I’m not sure how I will approach it or if I’ll even be able to stomach it. I also think there is a special relationship with mothers-one that is so profoundly reflective that differentiation is difficult anyway, so I think it’s easier to talk about how, say, a friend feels when toys are taken than to talk about how it makes me feel. I’ve never really shied away from those conversations, just the ones where the causal link could be percieved and impacting MY emotions.

    September 26, 2014

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