On Being a Rock, Not a Sponge

When my kids were babies, attachment parenting was all the rage. And I was totally on board. I scoured the website of Dr. William Sears, who encouraged practices like baby-wearing, co-sleeping, and generally being responsive to your child’s needs 24/7. The more I read, the more it made sense. I wanted to form a close attachment with my child, and this seemed to be the best way. What kind of parent would leave a fussing infant unattended, or worse, let the child cry it out at bedtime? The very idea was horrifying.

I remember my dad’s skeptical expression when I explained why this style of parenting was superior to the more no-nonsense, pragmatic approaches that he and my mother embraced. Our oldest daughter was eight weeks old, and already settling into her intense personality. She never did anything halfway, whether it was eating, sleeping, or wailing at the top of her lungs. My dad observed that my husband and I made parenting her look like a full-time job for two people. If that was a dig on my parenting style, I shook it off. So what? I thought, as we buzzed around our infant daughter like dutiful worker bees. It’s worth it!

Forming a close bond with your kids certainly has benefits. But that passionate infant is now a teenager (along with her younger sister), and it seems the parenting pendulum is swinging back. A search on Reddit yields threads like this one and this one. One poster wonders if responsive parenting has backfired, calling it “joyless, grueling work.”

I feel for those parents. When your kids are infants, being responsive to their needs is exhausting. You look forward to the day when they grow up a little and gain some independence. It sounds absolutely dreamy.

And yet, the teenage years have thrown me for a loop. True, they’re far less exhausting physically. But riding out the rollercoaster of the developing adolescent brain is giving me emotional whiplash. I’ve found myself looking back wistfully on the days when a problem could be solved with a hug, a tantrum vanquished with a favorite toy or snack. Now, there’s rarely a quick fix for my daughters’ bad moods; instead, every frustration or disappointment lingers over the house like a heavy storm cloud.

I was not prepared for how fully I would get pulled into my daughters’ emotional worlds, how my heart would suck up their emotions like a sponge.

I also believe this is a distinctly maternal experience. Admittedly, my sample size is small, but my husband is much better at letting things roll off him without any collateral damage. I’ve heard similar sentiments from other moms of teens.

Emily Edlynn, PhD, a clinical psychologist and author of the book Autonomy-Supportive Parenting: Reduce Parental Burnout and Raise Competent, Confident Children, blogged about this phenomenon in 2022. Her post, “The Empathy Problem for Parents,” feels like it was written specifically for me. Having empathy and being responsive to our children’s needs and feelings is a good thing — but there’s a caveat, Edlynn writes.

Here’s the problem: when we are so emotionally aligned with our child that we take on their emotions. Their emotions become indistinguishable from ours.

Sometimes, we’re so good at empathizing with our children’s feelings that the lines between their feelings and ours start to blur. The downside, of course, is that when our child is coping with something difficult, instead of being the sturdy parent they need us to be, we’re just as upset as they are. They might even wind up comforting us — or worse, maybe they stop turning to us for support, because we can’t seem to handle it.

And all of this helps no one.

If only I had the ability to turn my humanity on and off at will, like the characters in The Vampire Diaries. Alas, no such capability exists, so I’m finding other ways to cope. A few months back, I wrote an article about empathy burnout and got some great advice from therapists. One piece of wisdom that stuck with me is that when someone you love is struggling — a child, a friend, a co-worker — you can’t help but feel affected. That’s normal. The key is to let yourself feel whatever you’re feeling without responding behaviorally. We always want to jump in and fix things, but the best way to help is to let the person experience what they’re going through. We can be there and be supportive without diving headfirst into that swirling storm with them.

And cheesy though it may be, I’m turning to mantras, too. There’s a quote from House of Cards that’s been living rent-free in my brain for the past several months: “From this moment on you are a rock. You absorb nothing, you say nothing, and nothing breaks you.”

Realistically, I know this is mostly wishful thinking. Training myself not to feel the intensity of those emotions along with my daughters feels as impossible as teaching a duck not to waddle.

Still, I hold the words in my head, repeat them often, and channel them in difficult moments. When a meltdown feels imminent or I feel like I might snap after hearing yet another snarky comment, I envision myself remaining calm and unruffled. Like a rock. Or at least a sponge with some tough edges. It’s worth a try.

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