My mother used to say this phrase. All the time. ALL the time.
I hated it. I used to tell her she was co-dependent on her children; she would laugh, but she didn't take it back.
You are only as happy as your unhappiest child? Nonsense, I would say. How about, you are as happy, if not happier, as your happy child? Surely this is the essence of co-dependency, this shared misery? This cannot be good mental health, I said.
I didn't just hate the idea behind the words, I hated the words themselves. Things were the way they were; homey catchphrases didn't express, define or change my reality. I thought my mother oversimplified things, I thought she didn't have her own emotional life. I thought a lot of things back then.
Now? Now I am the mother of two teen girls. People, I will tell you, this world is HARD on teen girls. Teen girls are, frequently, very, very sad. Oh my god, are they sad.
Lately, I am sad, too. My teenage self would writhe in disgust, would spout heated words like "co-dependent" and "their life isn't your life." I am a slow learner in everything, even so, I am surprised by just how sad I am, when my daughters are sad.
Sad is like happy: simple words for un-simple emotions. To say I hurt because my children are hurting is like saying the ocean is big. Words fail me. Words have failed me all year.
I had actually forgotten about the stupid phrase. I had blocked that thought for decades. And then this year happened. Both of my children are on antidepressants. Both of my children currently struggle with anxiety, body image, self-esteem, self-loathing, millennial pathos. Both of them have come to me, in the middle of the night, a few months apart, and told me they didn't think they could handle things anymore. Both are struggling with sorrows beyond bearing, both say they won't ever be happy again.
I have lived long enough that I know it isn't true. But right now? It feels true.
I have spent sleepless nights weeping quietly into pillows, while an almost grown body curls into mine with the sweet, trusting sleep of a child. I have tucked bed covers burrito style around my daughters, tight, to keep them safe, unconsciously sighing along with my child from the relief of old habits. I have gone to bed alone and awoken to the forgotten sensation of pins and needles in my arm while a child burrows into my side, head pressed into the softness of my bosom, searching for animal comfort, a safe, warm body.
I remember that I would rather let my arm literally catch on fire than disturb a sleeping child.
The dumb, ridiculous phrase came into my head in the middle of the night. I was gazing at her sleeping face and thought, "I am only as happy as my unhappiest child."
In my mind, I rose from bed, walked to the kitchen, and slammed my head repeatedly against the wall. In my mind, I am stronger than this. You can't even needlepoint it on a pillow; that's how stupid the words are. In my mind, I got back into bed and used my aching head to form intelligent, well reasoned arguments against cliche' ridden vapidity; I sorted out all the reasons why a semi-intelligent adult could still live a happy, fulfilled life while sympathizing with her upset daughters. Happy adult to the right, sad teens to the left.
I almost wish it worked, the way it worked in my mind. I almost talked myself into it. I know the difference between sympathy and empathy. I embrace the idea that the cornerstone of good parenting is stability. The idea that my child's successes and failures are MY successes and failures is repugnant to me. These concepts have always worked out for the better, in my little family.
This year is different. This year the children are sad. This year I am sad, too.