Parenting and emotions

Parenting has drawn out some of my emotions, and particularly my best emotions, in a powerful and somewhat unexpected way. It has snuck up on me. I feel pride and delight in a measure that I have rarely ever experienced.

That is not to say that my emotional life was entirely arid before children. Especially as a teenager I remember being buffeted by and attracted to powerful emotions. In young adulthood I was drawn to things that evoked awe in me, and in hindsight I can see how much of my thinking was undergirded with anger and bitterness of one sort or another. Fear, of course, is ever-present to one degree or another for us as finite humans. But perhaps it was all somehow more artificial, formulaic, and limited, before.

My emotional response to being a parent has grown with my children. When they were first born, I was glad to be a dad but my emotional response was overall fairly moderate. But as they grew, and their own emotional life developed, and their rudimentary moral psychology began to appear, my emotional engagement with them has similarly grown.

I feel pride when they do the right thing, especially when it is hard for them to do. I feel delight in their joys. I feel anguish for their inner conflicts.

I have also been more sensitized to the primal emotional life of my children, and have tried to shape those currents in ways that are gentle and encouraging. (I must admit that my suspicion is that we parents have less influence on our children than we like to think, and so a large part of what I have to say on the subject may tell more about the good fortune I’ve had to be a father to such good children, than about any special competence I have as a parent.)

I find myself sympathizing with their emotional responses, and trying not to change their emotions, not to make them feel or stop feeling particular feelings, but more to shape the way they interpret and experience those emotions. I don’t want them to deny the way they are feeling, but to be able to recognize it and deal with it in an intelligent, authentic, honest, virtuous way.

That’s something a bit new for me as well. Often, perhaps typically, I aim to keep some distance from the emotional lives of others. I know myself well enough to recognize that I can get caught up in the violent emotions of others, and so I have developed an instinctive emotional separation, a calmness that resists the turbulence around me. Even as I might speak and act sympathetically in the course of a conversation, I am internally resisting having too much actual sympathy and the resultant complications. It’s been a prudent and strong way to respond to a great many situations. But I have without effort found myself relating differently to my own children, and that’s been a real joy as well, somehow.

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