I’m The 'Family Therapist' And It’s Emotionally Draining

by Wendy Wisner
Originally Published: 
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Last week was my younger son’s school concert. For weeks leading up to it, he’d been confessing to me as I lay in bed getting him settled into sleep that he was absolutely terrified to perform.

His reasons kept changing. He loves to sing and dance but he told me he only wanted to perform for me. Then he told me he was concerned it would be too hot in the auditorium just like it was last year (it was a freaking oven and absolutely miserable). Then he said he thought the other kids didn’t know their singing parts well enough and were going to mess it up for everyone.

You get the picture. The kid had a major case of stage fright, which is totally normal for his age. But it was actually getting to the point where I wasn’t sure he was going to be able to get on stage at all. The day of the show, my son kept going back and forth, telling me he was happy and excited one second, and telling me he wouldn’t leave the house to go perform the next.

When my husband got home from work that day, he ran up to my son, saying, “I can’t wait for the show tonight, buddy!”

I shot him a look saying, “Ummmmm, WTF?” and promptly took him aside to explain why mentioning the show probably wasn’t the best idea.

And then I said, “Don’t you know that he’s been freaking out about this damn show for the past month?”

But my husband had no clue. My son hadn’t breathed a word of it to him. And it’s not because they aren’t close. In theory, he would share his most difficult feelings with his dad. My husband is as loving and accepting and open as can be. But he’s just not the person either of my sons go to when they need to talk about the deep stuff – the vulnerable, hard stuff.

Nope. It’s me. Pretty much 100% of the time.

Now, I mostly have no complaints about this. My kids trust me, and ever since they were little, they tell me everything. Literally everything. I know that not all kids tell their parents every fear and hope and dream they have. Especially as they get older and life becomes more complicated, scary, and confusing, I want them to have a safe place to land and to share. I am lucky I can give them that.

The problem is that as much as it’s a gift, it’s a burden too. I can’t tell you how many sleepless nights I’ve spent worrying about the emotional world of my children. I know my husband has his own worries about life and about our kids, but they aren’t exactly that. He isn’t going over in his head the latest late-night confession one of his kids tearfully spilled out to him.

I know I’m not the only one with this gift/curse either. Stuff like this – what many call the “emotional labor” or “invisible labor” in a family – often falls squarely on a mother’s shoulders. As if we don’t have enough shit to contend with, and toss over in our minds at 4 a.m.

Yep, it’s not enough that moms are usually the family scheduler, the family chore enforcer, the family chef, the family nurse, and the family long-term planner – we are the family therapist as well. And it’s a huge burden to carry. HUGE.

We don’t just have to listen and absorb our kids’ emotions. Because we are entrusted with them, we have to help our kids make all kinds of life decisions – and those get a whole lot more complicated and high-stakes the older our kids get. And although our kids are their own agents of their lives, we have to bear the burden and potential fall-out of many of their choices too.

Again, I get that this is basically what being a parent is, and I honestly would not want it any other way. I just wish that the burden was shared more. Like I said, my husband is more than willing to take on some of the emotional labor within our family – and especially since I pointed out the uneven dynamic to him recently.

But – and I’m not even quite sure how it happened – the role seems to have fallen squarely in my lap. And since it’s always been this way, and my kids are used to confessing all kinds of things to me, I can’t see it changing anytime soon.

Maybe rather than taking on less of a “family therapist” role, I need to be unburdened in terms of all other “invisible labor” I do. But those other responsibilities are pretty freaking well established too. Sigh.

I don’t have many real answers here. I love my kids. I love that they want to open their hearts and share their deepest thoughts and feelings with me, and I honestly don’t want that ever to change. But I just need to say that it’s hard. It adds to my overall workload in our family, and sometimes I feel like I might explode with all the emotions, feelings, fears, and other “stuff” I have to keep in check in my mind and heart on behalf of my kids (and my husband too, but that’s a whole other story).

If you are the family therapist too, and you feel me on this, I want you to know you are not alone. We are allowed to love our kids and the roles we play in their lives while also saying, “Hey, this shit is hard, and I need a damn break.”

Hey, maybe what we need is a family therapist of our own. You know, someone who sits with us in the dark as we spill out our worries about everyone in our family, who brushes our hair out of our eyes, tells us everything will be fine, and helps us drift to sleep like a baby.

Now that would be lovely. Maybe that’s really what we all need.

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