'Mommy Is Not Happy': Teaching My Toddler About Feelings And Empathy

by Alicia Williams
Originally Published: 
motherhood emotions feelings teaching kids empathy
Fertnig / iStock

“Is Mommy happy?”

My 2-year-old recently started asking me this each time I became stressed out or frustrated or when she did something that she knew would make me “not happy.”

At first, the question caught me by surprise. I felt so sad that my little baby could sense my frustration and that she was concerned and aware that her actions could be what makes me “not happy.” So, when this little phase was new, I would quickly smile and hide whatever unhappy emotion was so obviously plastered across my face, and say, “Yes, Mommy is happy! Mommy is always happy!” This would, of course, make her happy, and she’d carry on in her little carefree way.

But then, she refused to acknowledge her sister’s hurt feelings after she accidentally hit her with a toy. She refused to help me clean up the mess she had made on the floor. She stomped her feet and threw herself down on the floor in a tantrum after not getting her way.

And each time, as I started to talk to her about these things in a disciplinary manner, she’d look up at me with wide eyes and ask, “Is Mommy happy?”

Finally, after a particularly big tantrum (from her, not me), I answered her question with a firm “No, Mommy is not happy right now!”

Her little face crumpled. And I felt horrible. How do I explain to a 2-year-old that in the big scheme of things, yes, Mommy is happy, but right now in this moment, I’m not exactly happy with what’s going on?

The truth is, sometimes mommies are sad, or mad, or frustrated, or hurting, or disappointed, or maybe just exhausted. But that doesn’t mean that while feeling these temporary emotions, we aren’t still happy. Feelings and emotions are part of real life, and in the trenches of motherhood they may vary widely and change frequently, and while my daughter is only 2, I want her to be aware of her actions and how others are feeling. I want her to know that her decisions affect others, but that at the same time, we are all responsible for our own happiness. I want her to have compassion for others. I want her to be honest about her feelings, so I need to do the same.

Now, when she asks, “Is Mommy happy?” after doing something naughty, or after the dog has peed on the floor once again, or after she catches me clenching my jaw after walking past her sister’s messy room, I say something like, “Yes, Mommy is happy. But I’m also a little sad that you yelled at your sister,” or “Yes, Mommy is happy. But I’m also a little frustrated that Lilah peed on the floor again, because I just cleaned it! That silly dog!”

She typically responds with, “Oh! Mommy (will) be fine,” and carries on in her little carefree way.

As I reassure her of my foundational feeling of happiness, while also explaining my current emotion, I’m also helping myself calm down and see the big picture: This current stress isn’t the end of the world. It’s not ruining my happiness. It’s not that bad. Happiness is stronger than frustration—even though it doesn’t always feel that way.

“Yes, Mommy is happy. But she could also really go for a nice glass of wine and some peace and quiet right now.”

Mommy’s stressed, but still smiling.

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