Parents Are Lying To Their Kids, And Here’s How

by Karen Johnson
Originally Published: 
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I’m a sucker for Hollywood gossip—there, I said it. I may not watch E! or read People like I used to (because of life and parenting and shit), but I’ll still catch myself perusing a gossip story on my phone while in the waiting room at the dentist. Or quickly flipping to page 27 of a magazine in the checkout line to find out who Taylor Swift is supposedly dating.

But now that I’m a mom, the Hollywood stories I relate to the most are those of the moms—Pink, Reese Witherspoon, Kristen Bell, Jennifer Garner… When they’ve got drama, it makes me feel better knowing that not even Hollywood royalty status can save you from a blow-out diaper and toddler meltdowns over a muffin.

But one story—a Vanity Fair cover story about Angelina Jolie—really got to me. Like the rest of the world, I was shocked when she and Brad Pitt split up (especially considering I’d just finally forgiven her for the Brad/Jennifer heartbreak of 2005). But yeah, I was rooting for the philanthropic, save-the-world couple. I really was.

As a mom, I cannot imagine how hard it is to have your entire world fall apart in the public eye—every move, every word you utter, recorded, scrutinized, and blasted all over the internet. But when she sat down with Vanity Fair’s Evgenia Peretz and really talked, the humanitarian/actress/director/mom said something surprising.

“I do not want my children to be worried about me. I think it’s very important to cry in the shower and not in front of them. They need to know that everything’s going to be all right even when you’re not sure it is,” she said in the interview.

I can empathize with this mindset of saying “Everything is fine, kids!” even when it’s not. I mean, that’s our job, right? To comfort our kids? Tell them not to be scared? That “Mommy is here, and it’s all going to be okay”?

I can remember one night, a few years ago, hiding behind a mattress in the basement with my children, who were probably ages 6, 4, and 2 at the time. We were under a tornado warning. My husband wasn’t home. They were scared. I was scared. But I sat huddled around them, whispering soothing words of comfort while the winds raged outside, and said, “It’s all going be okay.” Which was a lie. Because I had no idea. But sometimes that’s what they need—in moments of terror or fear, especially when you don’t know if it’s your last moment together. Sometimes we need to lie to our kids in order to do our jobs as mothers.

So I get it—that need to protect our babies from the ugly truth. I get why Angelina Jolie said what she did in that interview. I operated under that same principle for a long time and didn’t cry or let on if I was struggling for the first few years of parenting either. I swallowed the lump in my throat. Cried in the shower on the hardest days, then cleaned up my face, slapped on a smile, and went back to mothering.

Until one day I didn’t. One day they saw me. One day I didn’t say, “I’m fine. Everything is okay.”

Maybe it was just being outnumbered, worn down, exhausted from so many years of 5 a.m. wake-ups and poop accidents and long days of isolation that the early SAHM years bring.

Or maybe it was because God tricked me with two calm human children and then sent a Tazmanian Devil.

Or maybe it was because my world shifted unexpectedly and handed me challenges I didn’t see coming. And I didn’t know how to stand when the ground wasn’t steady.

Whatever it was, my kids saw me cry. They saw me at my worst. They saw me break, and they saw me scared.

And you know what I’ve come to realize over the past few years of motherhood and marriage? It’s okay—necessary even—that my kids have seen me have feelings other than happiness, joy, and patience. And that I haven’t always said, “I’m fine. Everything is going to be okay.” Because how can I teach them that it’s acceptable to feel things—to be frustrated, angry, scared, sad, and overwhelmed—if I hide from them when I’m feeling these emotions myself?

I imagine that having your marriage end is devastating, especially watching your children’s world—the foundation on which their lives were built—crumble. But here’s the harsh reality. Someday, they will face a heartbreak. A divorce, even. Someday, they might be moms and dads who are feeling the world shift under their feet. And as much as it’s our job to comfort them, it’s also our job to prepare them for the realities they will face.

As moms, we need to be strong for our kids. We need to be supportive, reliable, and comforting. But it’s equally important that our kids know we are human. Humans who feel, who break, who fall down, but who also get back up.

So yes, my kids have seen me cry. And they’ll probably see it again. They’ve seen me cry hard. They’ve sat with me, patted my back, said “I love you, Mommy” and drew me pictures to cheer me up. I know that in those moments, they were probably worried and wanted me to get better so their world would get better.

And I did. Because once I got it all out, those same kids saw me wash my face, put my hair in a ponytail, and face the world.

THAT is the kind of mom I want to be. One who sometimes lets her kids see the actual truth of motherhood, life, and adulting. I want them to know that even on their very worst days that the clouds will part and the sun will break through. That they will be alright. That they are strong enough to handle the shit-storms life is going to through at them. And that even the strongest people cry.

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