Over the past year, I have broken down thrice in front of my daughter. The combination of depression, physical pain related to a bad spine, volatile tendencies – happy to angry, inspired to useless – have been enough to make me lose control. Instead of doing the responsible adult thing of holding back and falling apart anywhere else, I leaned on her – the person I love most in the world.
Imagine the tragedy: a 30-something adult woman weeping in the arms of an eight-year-old child.
There’s a word for my behaviour: emotional parentification. This is when a child is forced to counsel or meet the emotional needs of a parent. Boundaries go askew and children are thrust into a realm beyond their years to adapt to situations where they must play the adult. When repeated frequently enough, emotional parentification can have severe ramifications on a child’s mental health, future relationships, and overall perception of the world.
Childhood is meant to be swathed in innocence and joy, savoured as a phase where one is protected from the truth and bitterness of reality. It is not a time to be crushed by absorbing a parent’s pain. Every time my daughter comforts me, I am unintentionally giving her a raw glimpse into adulthood and causing trauma that she may not even realise until later.
As I grapple with my own inadequacies and anxieties, this battle to maintain a steady stance as a parent feels like one that I cannot win. I think back to how well my parents did it, imperfect as they were. My childhood, although littered with its own share of scarring memories, held a solid view of my mother and father. Stable. Dependable. Their chinks were exposed to me only when I became an adult. They were better at pretending – whether they were doing it for themselves or for the sake of their children.
The Parent Code advocates displaying a normal level of emotion in front of our kids so we normalise the act of expressing feelings, i.e. it’s okay to cry in front of your child when you’re watching a movie or grieving someone, it’s okay to get mad if someone cuts you off on the road etc. It’s the stuff beyond that gets tricky, when you’re battling anxiety, angst, depression and ennui and struggle to compartmentalise functionality from feeling. How do you time the waves of panic and sadness so your children don’t witness them?
Tugging children into a space where we expect them to fulfil our needs is selfish and unfair. Melting down in front of my daughter forces her to be the more reasonable, decisive person and she shouldn’t be put in that position at her age. I also fear that she will lose respect for my capacity to help her with her own problems as she grows up. This line between parent and child could get blurred and re-drawn if I am not careful enough. Seems impossible yet imperative.
I’m part of a generation of parents that embraces flawed parenting, where mothers are increasingly honest about their frustrations and are challenging expectations. ‘Do your best, preserve your sanity’ is the motto with emphasis on self-care and seeking purpose beyond raising children. But the pressure to protect and nurture remains. The notion that our words and actions will have shape their perspectives and lives remains. The weight of who we are in their eyes remains.
Feeling vulnerable and learning from moments of absolute despair is a gift in growth – I feel this in my core. But when I think of my daughter witnessing this painful process, I wonder how much of honesty will help and harm her. When she sees me grimacing after I feel a spark of pain climbing up my neck, she tells me not to make dinner. On the days when I am in bed all morning because I feel heavy inside out, she heats up milk for herself and comes to me only when she is really hungry. When we are at the beach, in the water, blissed out by the sun and fresh, salty air, she says, “We are having so much fun no? We should do this every day!”
My little girl feels and knows more than she ought to. I take pride in her compassion but feel shame at needing her when I’m at my worst. Her maturity is my failure. Childhood is precious and deserves to be protected from the looming bitterness of reality. I have little right to erode it with my dysfunctionality and emotional upheavals.
I must work more desperately to salvage my spirit before her, to show less of my pain, to reassure that I don’t need her help when I’m drowning.
At least, for now.
Sangeetha Bhaskaran’s work has been published at Himal South Asian, Arre, Women’s Web, and as part of the anthology – Khushk Zubaan Bebaak Jigar (Of dry tongues and brave hearts).