What Happens When Mama’s Unhappy

Dear Kate, 

I am a single lady in my mid-thirties, no children but lots of experience working with kids in different capacities. My older sister, whom I’m pretty close with, has a 3 year old that’s giving her a real run for it and I can see that her patience is completely taxed. I love my nephew, I love my sister, but there’s a  complete lack of discipline and its now creating some major behaviour issues for my nephew.  

Enter my role in all this. My sister is constantly complaining about her son and the issues she’s having with him acting out and I am supposed to be the ear on the other end of the line to hear her speak in a negative way about her child. It started out as a little bit of venting here and there as we all do, then filtered into every conversation, all the time. Over and over I have given advice from my background in education and holistic health. I’m the first to state that I’m no expert, nor do I claim to be, and no, I don’t have children of my own, but I can still speak from a place of experience, common sense and compassion on these issues, desperate to help them find a solution so the relationship mends. Over and over this advice is ignored, taken for granted and even criticized (because of course, I don’t have kids of my own, so despite by work background, I can’t POSSIBLY relate) while my sister continues on without making a single change and yet, somehow expecting things to get better.

pouting-childIt’s so disheartening to see resentment forming in my sister toward her son…it’s so sad to see a three year old being written off for poor behaviour and being labelled “bad” solely because his older, and supposedly wiser, mother is not willing to change anything and take action. I worry for him and know that these are formative years for self-esteem and value, and can have huge implications later in life. I love them both but feel like my hands are tied…am I supposed to do anything else? Am I supposed to sit back and watch…? I’m frustrated and honestly don’t know my place, if any… 


Frustrated and helpless 

Dearest Frustrated and helpless,

A few years ago I watched a video on Youtube of Jada Pinkett Smith sitting around a red table with her daughter and mother. This was a filmed conversation between the three generations where the youngest, Willow, pulled questions from a bowl and directed them at the older two. I only watched one little snippet of the entire interview, but it was powerful and stuck with me.

In it, Jada spoke about how necessary it is for mothers to live balanced lives; about the importance of mothers taking care of themselves first and foremost, before splitting themselves off into the many pieces of wife/mother/carer-of-all. She emphasized emphatically that when a mother does not put her own needs first, she becomes drained and unhappy and begins to blame others for her unhappiness. She points to her children and blames them for her lack of energy and positivity. She points to her partner and blames him for his contribution in what has become of her life. She looks to the outside world, holds it responsible for her unhappiness, and expects the outside world to change things.

Jada emphasized emphatically (I say it this way because it requires emphasis), that it is only when a mother puts her needs first and finds her happy place, that the rest of the family also finds peace. As Jada’s mother bluntly puts it in the interview,

“When mama’s unhappy, everybody’s unhappy.” Or, inversely, when mama’s happy, everybody is happy.

Powerful as I found these words, I was not in a place where I could properly comprehend them. I watched this video while breastfeeding my youngest child. My oldest was entering the terrible twos at full throttle. My body was in shock. I had never known this level of exhaustion could even exist. The physical exhaustion of nighttime wakings, the mental exhaustion of trying to always be two steps ahead of a toddler who was actually matching me each step of the way. My kids were my everything, I felt I needed to give them my everything, but there were days when I simply had nothing left to give.

As kind and loving and supportive and caring as you are, my dear Frustrated, I fear I must tell you the one thing I don’t think you want to hear: Unless you are a parent, you cannot fully understand. You can’t understand what it is like to have a baby rock your world, feed you with so much hope and anticipation and then have a toddler tear it away, fast and fierce as a band-aid. You haven’t experienced middle-of-the-night screaming and slaps in the face. You don’t know what it’s like to lock yourself in the bathroom as a last resort measure against a toddler whose only mission that day is to push every single one of your buttons, or even just having the awareness that a little, thirty pound, three foot tall being knows where all your buttons exist. You don’t know what it’s like to hear yourself yell and will yourself to stop, all the while feeling so insanely out-of-body that you just don’t know how to stop.

Before becoming a parent I sounded a lot like you. Experienced, savvy, educated. I knew about kids, I had been around them in various ways my entire life. After becoming a parent, I realized that I didn’t know squat. And this is the one single most important offering I can make to you, specifically: It is only by becoming a parent that you will understand how little you know about being a parent. It is truly humbling.

cup1That being said, I am fully with you in your feelings toward your nephew, he does not deserve the labels and negativity that he is being subjected to. I believe, however, that it is time to shift your focus away from your sister’s parenting and toward her person. She doesn’t need another critic. Trust me, she is already criticizing herself. Before she goes to bed each night she enters her son’s room, covers him with the blanket he’s undoubtedly cast aside, worries about whether he’ll be too cold or too hot. Before she leaves she tells him she loves him, apologizes for her words and actions that day, and vows that the next day will be better. Unfortunately, there’s a good chance it won’t be. Not because of your nephew’s behaviour– although it has been scientifically proven that kids are eight hundred thousand times worse behaved around their mothers than any other person– but because, I believe, your sister is experiencing unhappiness. I shy away from saying she is flat out unhappy, I don’t know the first thing about her, but her satisfaction with life is borderline, or, to put it another way, her cup is less than full.

This is where you, her sister, can find ways to help. You cannot make her happy, she is her own maker and thus responsible for herself. But perhaps on your next conversation, rather than offering parental advice, tell her that she sounds unhappy and how it would do her wonders to spend some time on herself. Encourage her to get away, even if just for an evening or for a weekend. Go with her, help her to remember the person she is without a three year old tugging at her leg. If she used to have a hobby, remind her of it. If she hasn’t had a haircut in months, take her for one. The best thing you can do for your sister, as her sister, is to remind her of what happy feels like. Once she gets a taste she may then, with any luck, come to the realization on her own that “when mama’s unhappy, everybody’s unhappy.”

Your nephew is bearing the brunt of your sister’s unhappiness. It is sad and unfortunate, yet very realistic. We always, always lash out worse with the ones we’re closest to, and that does include our children. Every parent has been guilty of this. Every parent feels guilty about it. That doesn’t mean it should continue. The longer your sister goes without taking responsibility for her happiness, the more she will point a finger at your nephew. Luckily kids are very forgiving, and toddlerhood does not last forever. Your nephew knows full well he is misbehaving, and he is challenging your sister with intention, provoking her for her attention however positive or negative it is. Around the 4-5 age mark he will grow out of this, he will mature, and he will begin to exemplify the behaviour that he already knows is expected of him. The situation will turn itself around. It will just happen a lot sooner if your sister helps it by helping herself.

Toddlers can be jerks. They are also beautiful, perplexing, awe-inspiring, and delicious. They are elastic, yet strong. Wondrous and comical. The number of times my children have heard me say “mama’s feeling frustrated” runs parallel to the number of times they’ve heard me say “I love you.” Not more so, but it’s up there. Between the day I sat in that chair breastfeeding my son and watching Jada on Youtube, and the time when I truly learned and understood the words she spoke, a few years had passed. A few years of yelling and rants on the phone of my own. My cup had not been full.

Once I began filling my cup I was amazed at how naturally my family fell into the flow. They sensed the change and moved with it. When mama’s happy, everybody is happy.


The best way to help your nephew is to help your sister fill her cup. Ultimately, she needs to do this on her own. As her sister, you may need to give her a gentle push.


All my best,



Dear Kate


Have a question for Kate? Email her at LettersForDearKate@gmail.com.


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