There is the period of time after I drop off my kids to their dad each week where I find myself in a state of almost immobility. You might imagine that I’m overcome with sadness at having to say goodbye to my babies for the next few days – and that’s certainly mixed in there as well – but the feeling is more like a computer that’s been on the fritz finally starting to spark and then suddenly and dramatically shutting down.
Sometimes this looks like me driving in silence to my office, or like opening my phone over and over, scrolling through apps trying to remember what I was intending to do. Sometimes this looks like me staring at the computer screen, as I am now, struggling to formulate coherent ideas.
It took me a long time to understand this state I’d find myself in at the end of my parenting time. I knew that I’d just run a marathon solo parenting four wonderfully challenging kiddos for several days, and it made sense that I was tired. But this felt different. It wasn’t just fatigue; it was like all of my insides were scrambled and yet all I could do was sit motionless and overwhelmed.
And then, as one does these days, I saw a TikTok video that gave me the words for exactly what I was experiencing.
The creator said that what’s happening in parenting is that our children are borrowing our nervous systems to help themselves regulate.
Now, this might not sound so mind-blowing to you, but it rounded out an idea that I discuss often, but hadn’t yet had the full picture.
We talk a lot these days about how the role of parents is to help our kids learn to emotionally regulate when they are activated. Most modern parents don’t want to rely on things like blind authority or fear to gain compliance from their kiddos. We recognize the value of helping our kids notice, understand, and verbalize their feelings.
And we talk too about how to do the hard work of being with little people’s big feelings, we have to be emotionally regulated ourselves. We need to be able to show up as grounded and sturdy so that our kids can see us as a safe and stable foundation from which to explore their own internal chaos and regulate themselves. Sometimes we call this “co-regulation” – the idea that kids learn to soothe their own emotions not on their own, but through a collaborative process with us.
But this model – and it’s one I whole-heartedly support – doesn’t often include talking about how that co-regulation actually happens. When my son is having a five-alarm meltdown at the pizza place or my daughter is slamming her door in frustration again and I go to be a grounded presence, I’m offering my children use of my nervous system. I’m saying to them, through my intervention, that I realize their emotion regulation isn’t yet developed, and so here is mine to take for a bit. Let me share with you some of this safety and stability that I’ve cultivated while you work on building up your own.
And to be clear, this works so beautifully. Not necessarily in every moment, but through repeated practice where kids can trust our presence as co-regulators. It works beautifully… for children.
But we need to talk about the fact that it leaves us as parents with our stores of regulation depleted. We walk away from these interactions and we might feel proud of our parenting and grateful to have helped our kiddo work through big things. But we are also left with less in the tank. We’ve loaned out our nervous system and it’s going to take some time to replenish.
For those of us working on our own emotion regulation skills – and that should probably be pretty much all of us – that recovery time could be significant. For those of us who didn’t get this type of co-regulation ourselves growing up, it can feel like we are trying to loan out reserves that we haven’t yet built up. We give what we can, but then we’re at empty.
This is why we are patient and kind with our child and then five minutes later want to throw something at our partner for blocking us in the driveway. It’s why we feel like we have nothing left to give emotionally, physically, or intimately at the end of a hard parenting day. It’s even why we get harsh with ourselves and can’t find the compassion to recognize we’re doing our very best.
If we consider that our kids are borrowing our emotion regulation, what does that mean for how we ever get ourselves regulated? How do we fill or refill that resource so that we don’t blow up at our boss or spiral into depression? Here are a few important considerations:
- We need a source of emotion regulation too. Our needs tend to not be as significant as our children’s, because many of us do have some of our own, but when we just depleted our reserves, we too need to borrow from someone. This could be a partner if we have one, a parent of our own, a friend, or a therapist. It could be anyone that has the capacity to validate our experience and help us get grounded back into ourselves.
- We need practices to recover and restore on a regular basis. We could call this completing the stress cycle, as Emily Nagoski does, or finding our Unicorn Space, as Eve Rodsky does. The idea is that we build up stress hormones all day long, and we need a way to release them and welcome other hormones into our bodies. We can do this through connection, but we can also do it through writing, crying, movement, ridiculous cat videos, meditating, or a hundred other processing activities. The idea is to have tasks that move the feelings through our minds and bodies and out of us.
- We need to recognize the toll parenting takes. Social media memes tell the story of all of us wanting to skip the party and go to bed by 9pm. Sure, it could be our introversion, but it could also be that the season of life takes it all out of us. I don’t think we fully account for not just the time it takes to parent, but the emotional energy. That means that while we might technically be “free” to get dinner with that friend or to volunteer for that organization, we don’t actually have the capacity to do it right now. That’s okay.
The cool thing about co-parenting – and of course there are plentiful uncool things – is that it allows for a dedicated restoration period. In many ways, I’m a better mom today than I was when partnered. While I certainly go into my nervous system shut down mode after the parenting transition, I get a couple of days to reboot and be ready for the next wave of loaning out my regulation.
Many of us don’t have days off parenting, and so we have to find other ways to build in restoration. It’s not optional. We have to recognize the impact of giving not just of our time and bodies, but of our emotional reserves.