I knew it was smart to put on waterproof mascara today. With a long road trip (sans husband, just me and the girls) looming, the potential for disaster was higher than usual. And yep, I cried all the way out of town, allowing myself to be manipulated by my ballad-heavy “Epic Roadtrip Playlist.” As I drove, I flashed back to the hour that preceded our departure.
My mind flooded with unsavory snapshots:standing at the stove, hastily grilling sandwiches and blinking back tears as my three-year-old peppered me with the same aggravating question over and over before I finally broke down and barked at her. My kids aren’t usually shocked by my outbursts, and they weren’t particularly fazed this time either, aside from my preschooler’s predictable response of bursting into tears every time someone’s tone crosses into “reprimand” territory. But I was furious with myself.
I had envisioned us blasting fun music in the minivan after snapping the requisite “jubilant road trip takeoff selfie.” We were supposed to leave the house in a fantastic mood filled with the spirit of adventure and camaraderie. But no. I had ruined it all with my black mood, unrealistic expectations, and self-sabotaging penchant for perfectionism. I had planned to have a festive mini-celebration for my husband’s birthday before we left. Things didn’t go according to plan. Items were misplaced. I was leaving the house in an irritating state of disarray. My tension began to escalate.
As we sped away from our sunny suburb, the mishaps continued to fall like dominoes: my navigation system wanted to take me to New Jersey, not Nebraska. I missed a turn. I discovered that my preschooler’s dome light had been on for an indeterminate length of time. The mental angst reel began: This day has been a failure. I’m a failure. Why can’t I keep it together in front of my kids? Other moms don’t yell and cry like I do. I suck at this.
As I allowed myself to be emotionally pelted by Radiohead, the self-torture stream continued. I am ruining them. Life is too much for people like me. I’m too much for my kids. I’m too much for myself. I can’t handle this.
Here’s the thing: I am ridiculously emotional. I get angry. I cry. I freak out when things don’t go perfectly. I have hypocritical expectations of my children. “Just take a deep breath if you feel frustrated,” I placidly instruct when my kids start to escalate. As if it’s that simple. As if I am leading by example in that arena. My husband’s emotional evenness is a family joke, but in many ways, I envy him.
Worse yet, when my kids display signs of my emotional irrationality, it pushes my buttons like nothing else. I feel disgusted by their overreactions, inability to cope with disappointment, and fiery bursts of hysteria. One needn’t have a background in psychology to grasp the underlying message there: I can barely tolerate such qualities in myself, and seeing them played out in my children is an excellent opportunity to punish myself for my ugly side.
Losing my cool in front of my kids is the worst taste of my own medicine—they are both so much like me and I find I get all tangled up in where I end and they begin. It’s like having witnesses for the worst, darkest parts of yourself, but those witnesses are new, fresh incarnations of those same parts. As soon as my angry words escape my lips, I want to drag them back, fearing I’m ruining my children for life by showing them that side of me. I’m so ashamed.
The inspiring, self-helpish part of me chimes in with friendly reminders that all these feelings are part of life (Inside Out, anyone?) and that I’m simply their guide for navigating all the underrated feelings. Right? Right??? But I can’t get around the fact that it feels like crap to show my kids the impatient, whiny, dramatic, angry, weepy me. Because I sort of don’t like that person.
The thing is, I feel all the feelings. And I feel them intensely. Each of our personalities has a flip side, and mine does too. I am joyful and excitable and romantic and affectionate and nostalgic and sweet. The highly emotional mother gets the full spectrum. I am not an even person—I never will be. Luckily, my kids also get the mom who gets insanely excited over vacations, desserts, outings, favorite movies, and snuggle-fests. They get the mom who squeals with delight, claps her hands, and practically gobbles them up with hugs and kisses every day.
After I finished my “High and Dry”-induced purge, I calmed. By Amy Winehouse my breathing had leveled out and I realized that I actually wouldn’t feel like crap forever and there was still hope that the road trip wouldn’t suck ass. We could rally. When “Don’t Stop Believin’” pumped through the speakers, I had convinced myself that I wasn’t the shittiest mother alive and that I had positive things to offer my children. And by “Tubthumping,” my favorite bar-closing anthem of 1999, I was positively gleeful. No, I don’t think I have an actual illness (to coin a Seinfeld phrase, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that . . .”). But I am a highly emotional mom.
For better or for worse, my children are along for the ride of my highs and lows. I practice mindfulness, I meditate, and I prioritize self-care as a core value, which usually keeps me on track and prevents crazy-explosive lows. I try to keep things out in the open and maintain extremely clear boundaries with my kids about who is responsible for whose emotions. Meaning, I do not want my kids to feel responsible for my emotions. This one is tricky. Sometimes my kids’ uncool behavior does play a role in my mood, and I want them to know that their actions impact others. Telling them that I’m grumpy because they haven’t been great listeners is fair game. Unconsciously implying that they’re responsible for my sob-induced “anti-hyperventilating paper bag breathing” session? Not so much. I want to teach my kids that I own my feelings and they own theirs.
And I also refuse to lie and tell them I’m fine when I’m not actually fine. I’m still working on finding some grace with this one. My kids don’t need to know every single feeling I’m experiencing and its direct cause. I do hide bad news from them sometimes. While I believe in emotional transparency to a certain healthy degree, my kids are young, they’re not my girlfriends or husband, and they don’t need a front-row seat to every personal drama.
But having lived with the highs and lows of my confounding, mercurial, beautiful self for thirty-seven years, I can say to them with confidence, even believing it myself, “Mommy is sad right now. But I promise you I’m going to be happy again soon.” And if it turns out they follow in my highly emotional footsteps, maybe someday I can help them believe it for themselves, too.
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