When we embark on this parenting gig, most of us expect it to be exhausting. After all, there are sleepless nights, nappies to change, mouths to feed, toys to be picked up…again and again and again…
But I don’t think many of us counted on the level of emotional exhaustion parenting involves.
There is a popular quote attributed to Elizabeth Stone:
Making the decision to have a child is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.”
Truer words were never spoken.
When we have kids we share such a strong emotional connection with them. They truly are an extension of us.
Feeling so strongly about, and on behalf of, our kids is called parental empathy.
When they feel pain, we hurt for them. When they succeed, we feel jubilation.
We experience their highs, their lows and everything in between. If you have more than one child then it is nothing short of an emotional rollercoaster 24/7.
It starts when they are babies. Their cries break our hearts. Their gummy smiles make our hearts sing.
As they get bigger, their emotions get bigger and so does our parental empathy.
When they go off to school for the first time, we feel their anxiousness and excitement on top of our own nerves.
When they experience negative peer relationships, we feel angry, hurt and frustrated for them.
Whether they get awards or struggle academically, we are there both physically and emotionally each step of the way.
Parental empathy is a great thing for our kids – it’s a protective factor against maltreatment and a sign of parental attachment. Kids with empathetic parents are less likely to exhibit aggression or suffer depression. They are also more likely to be empathetic themselves and have greater self-esteem.
However, parental empathy takes its toll on us.
Many parents push aside their own feelings, and even their own physical well-being, for the sake of their children.
In fact, research shows that empathetic parents are more likely to suffer physiological symptoms such as low-grade chronic inflammation. Which is consistent with findings that care giving can have a huge toll on our immune systems.
Put this on top of the emotional exhaustion from feeling all the things on behalf of our kids, plus everyday worries such as finances, our own emotional struggles and daily challenges, it really is no wonder most of us are on the brink of burnout.
But when we look at the benefits for our kids – would we change anything? Probably not.
Just remember, taking care of ourselves emotionally and physically as parents is so important, not just for our sake, but for the continued wellbeing of our kids.