The Emotional Labor of Parenting

I have seen the term emotional labor applied to the plight of the modern mother, in the context of mental load. I haven’t seen the phrase emotional labor used specific to parenting. I present the idea that there is a largely unrecognized emotional labor of parenting. In my definition, this includes tuning into emotions underlying our children’s behaviors, restraining our own emotions in order to more effectively respond to theirs, and getting ahead of potential emotional landmines by taking action. It’s downright exhausting and may be impossible at times, but I also argue it’s worth whatever ounce of emotional labor you have to give.

WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?

The other night, my husband and I finally watched Won’t You Be My Neighbor, the documentary about Mr. Rogers. Fred Rogers’ mission really hit my mama heart nerve: to transmit the message via television to every child viewer that they are a special person.

I knew that as my children aged, the stakes would feel higher. I wouldn’t have to cover my outlets with those annoying plastic things anymore, but I wouldn’t be able to child-proof their outer worlds. This means they could metaphorically electrocute themselves with their own mistakes while I stand by, a nervous wreck.

As a child psychologist, I am highly in tune with the inner emotional workings of even very young children. As innocent and resilient as they can be, children are also constantly processing messages they are receiving from their worlds.

It has felt like a total revelation to now pay attention to how to structure their worlds for their emotional needs as these needs become more complex and mysterious.

As a culture, I think we have made tremendous progress with some of these messages. For example, our awareness around gendered messages (“girls can’t do this, boys can’t do that”) has shifted even in the last two decades. We have also come a long way in building self-esteem by focusing on praise and being careful with criticism, although some would argue we may have gone too far (myself included, but that’s a post for another day).

So as I am leaving early childhood with my youngest now closer to age 5 than age 4 (sniff, sniff), and my oldest rapidly matures in front of my eyes at age 9, it is sinking in. How I’m parenting is part of building their internal messages about themselves. And they are developing complex inner emotional lives that I want to support. This is going to be some HARD work that may even make me miss the days of worrying about having everything I need in the diaper bag.

Okay – I know these above revelations sound so incredibly obvious, but you know the difference of intellectually understanding an idea and FEELING that truth deep within? As I watched Mr. Rogers treat every child with the greatest dignity and respect, the weight of my own emotional labor as a mother hit hard.

Emotional Labor: deep thoughts

We make jokes about how my children with two child psychologists as parents are sure to have rich material for their own therapy later in life. But in all seriousness, it may be the fact that I witness emotional scars in even young children that makes me panic at times about how my humanity as a mother – mistakes and oversights – could hurt my children.

Intellectually, I’m not panicked. Through my lens as a child psychologist with years of experience in child abuse and neglect, I have a healthy perspective of what is unequivocally harmful at the extremes of unhealthy parenting practices. Within this framework of knowing I am forming healthy attachments with my children, as a majority of parents do, I also see room for the never-ending process of learning and improving as a mother. 

I have become much better at not sweating the small stuff, with the knowledge I am providing the foundation of what any child needs to grow. When my brain takes a break and my heart takes over, I am also realizing the enormity of this emotional labor aspect of parenting and then I have my Mom panic moments.

As my three children develop completely distinct personalities, this includes forming their own quite individualized relationships with each parent, and with each other. I have focused on all the benefits of these relationships, but now I can’t help but wonder how these relationships may inform future therapy sessions?

I look at how one of my children may feel left out from the other two. Is that building a lifetime of feeling excluded? One of my children has made comments that I love the others more (knife to the heart). How deep and long-lasting will this belief be? Another will literally suck in their emotions – but I can see the hurt feelings, attempting to stay safe inside. What will this tendency to internalize emotions mean for future well-being?

Emotional Labor: Taking Action

As my children are getting older and I’m becoming more aware of these possible emotional patterns and core beliefs (meaning automatic thoughts that develop about the self or the world, based on interpretations rather than reality), I am realizing the time is now for Mom and Dad to not just pay closer attention, but also take action.

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After a rough Sunday morning recently, with our children all seeming out of sync and on the emotional edge, I reflected on what I said in the morning’s stressful moments that could be imprinting a message I didn’t want my child to have from me. They were reactive moments, in frustration rather than thoughtfulness. During my reflection, I allowed myself to feel the strength of tough emotions (sadness and regret), and I could feel it physically, pain in my chest.

There I was, truly tuning into my children’s emotions of the morning, how their behaviors may be springing from some larger emotional themes we needed to address, and not allowing myself to escape my own tough emotions about all of it. My husband and I talked it through – understanding the different personalities of our children, why each child does what they do during stress, and what we need to do for some repair.

Later that night, my husband and I each had a one-on-one conversation with our kids that put words to what we were guessing were the real issues: “Do you think we love your siblings more than you?” “Do you feel like you have to make sure everyone else is happy? We want to know how YOU feel.”  

Through early childhood years, we have become so accustomed to structuring their worlds to best meet their basic physical needs (eg, when and what to eat, times to sleep, dressing them in warm winter wear). It has felt like a total revelation to now pay attention to how to structure their worlds for their emotional needs as these needs become more complex and mysterious.

Why Emotional Labor Feels Like Labor 

As I discussed in my analysis of the problem with positive parenting, the biggest challenge I see to doing this emotional labor of parenting well is that we as parents do not have the support we need.

I see multiple articles a week about why women are so stressed out, why teens’ mental health problems are rising significantly, and how Americans are performing pretty dismally in the worldwide happiness rankings (Norway – I see you, but you’re cold).

I cannot do justice to the abundance of theories and smart analyses of the reasons, but they are deep in many of our systems — parenting leave laws, workplace cultures, health care, education, elder care. I’m all about personal responsibility, but we are not islands and all of these aspects of our lives affect our capacity for parenting.

If we are to successfully value our children as a culture, we need to value parenting and all the many layers of society that affect the family unit.

As my husband and I collapsed onto our couch that Sunday night after a weekend of managing grumpy moods, bickering, meltdowns, and deep conversations, I felt the exhaustion in my bones. The weight of the parenting responsibility bore down in a different way. We were fortunate to have the time and space that particular weekend for such intensive emotional labor, but the reality is it is probably more the exception than the norm. This reinforces for me the importance of seizing the moment whenever we are able, and being gentle with ourselves when we are not.

It’s the simplest message: to love others, we have to love ourselves first. This is true for emotional labor in parenting: to truly see and effectively respond to our children’s deep emotional needs, our emotional needs require time and attention too.

The Reward of Emotional Labor 

As I wrap up this weighty reflection, I know I am not providing answers or fixes, because there aren’t any quick and concise ones. What I hope I’m giving you is putting words to this experience so it feels less ambiguous and lonely as a parent going through it.

In my optimist spirit, though, I will end with the reward for this invisible labor. In this moment of time, I feel a new emotional intimacy with my children as well. After I watched my oldest be completely independent from me with her friends on a recent Girl Scout camping trip, I cherished even more our coffee and hot chocolate at a Denny’s afterwards. She asked me why I wore so much make-up (for the record, I don’t think I do), and I realized we have a great journey ahead of us of getting to know each other in new and different ways.

As long as each of my children feels a Mr. Rogers-level of existing as special, important, and valued by us as their parents, the emotional labor is worth all future Sunday nights of bone-deep exhaustion.