It all depends on how I wake up.
Is it to an alarm beeping (mild annoyance), a child whining before the sun comes up (slight exasperation), or my husband snoring (BLIND RAGE)? The way my brain is nudged from sleep seems to set the tone for the day — or, it used to before I got my shit together.
I’m a pretty typical mom with pretty typical frustrations. And I’m tired, just like every other mom I know. I do all the things I’m supposed to: I practice self-care, I take deep breaths, I try. But even still, life swallows me up sometimes. Sometimes, it’s just too much, and my kids can tell.
I recently had a humbling realization: I set the emotional tone for my household.
Not my husband. Not the two of us as a unit. Not my oldest, challenging son. Not my vocal toddler or finicky middle child.
And you know what? I was doing a terrible job of it. Sure, I was keeping my kids fed and supplying clean clothes for them to wear, but my attitude? Sucked.
I’ve read this before, in various books and articles, about the role the mother plays in her children’s emotional well-being. I always kind of ignored it, because up until motherhood, I was a stable, emotionally healthy person and I really didn’t think any of that applied to me.
I always thought to myself — my god, it’s 2016 — surely the responsibility of the entire household’s emotional health does not fall on my shoulders. I can’t operate under that kind of pressure. It’s not 1950 anymore; I have an education and goals outside of motherhood. My husband and I are partners, so shouldn’t half of this responsibility fall on him?
Ideally, yes. But in our house, no. It took me a long time to grasp this, but as the mother, I shoulder most of it. As far as we’ve come in gender equality, the fact remains that my children can sense when something is off with me, and it sets the tone for their behavior, for better or for worse. There’s an emotional connection there that can’t be explained or put into words; it’s a knowing, and it’s reciprocal. Just as I can sense when something is wrong with one of my kids, they can also sense when something isn’t right with their mom.
When I’m grumpy, they are grumpy. When I’m happy, they are happy. When I am stressed out, they act like total lunatics. When I try to pretend that everything is fine when it isn’t, they can somehow sense it. No pressure or anything.
For several years, I pushed this knowledge to the back of my head and focused only on survival. As we slogged through our days, I noticed a pattern. When I was running low on sleep from being up with a cranky baby half the night, my toddler always seemed to push me to the limit. However, when I was well-rested and chipper, my kids were visibly more relaxed. It’s a domino effect, and I couldn’t deny that it can all be traced back to me.
My emotional well-being is intricately tied into my children’s; my emotions affect my parenting, my interactions with my family, and ultimately, my kids. They are watching me closely, mimicking my behaviors. The moment I realized that was the moment I decided that it was time for me to get myself together.
It took some time, but I found a formula for my sanity. I began working part-time, giving myself a break from motherhood and a chance to use parts of my brain that were lying dormant. I joined a gym with childcare. I began checking in with myself daily, to stay in tune with my needs, like, as a person. Sometimes moms, and their families, tend forget that they are people.
Taking responsibility for yourself is a hard thing. It’s very easy to point out your spouse’s crappy traits (there are so many!) and pin all the blame on them, make up excuses for why you’re being an asshole, or find reasons not to make yourself a priority. But part of being an adult is being able to look at yourself in the mirror and face what is staring back at you. If I wanted a happy, healthy household, I needed to start with myself. Looking to my husband or my kids to make it happen wasn’t working. They have a part to play, but it all starts with me.
When I got myself centered, they followed my lead. It created a cascade of cheerfulness that trickled down the line. It’s humbling to see how big of an impact, good or bad, I have on my entire family. It’s funny that I can set a million physical examples for behavior (how to put underwear in the hamper, for example) and everyone ignores them, but when it comes to attitudes…THAT SHIT IS CONTAGIOUS.