“You’re only as happy as your least happy child.” I was probably a child myself the first time I heard this statement. Over the past several decades, I’ve continued to hear it. When a friend’s child is struggling through the tween years. When an aunt talks about her grown child. When I think of my own challenges and happinesses. 

But I can’t help but wonder: Is it really true that we as parents, as moms, are only as happy as our least happy child? Does our joy have a threshold that is set by our children’s situation? Is our happiness contingent on the happiness of others?

Related: Having kids can boost your happiness, help you find meaning in life

About a decade ago, a study out of the University of Austin, published in the Journals of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences, found that middle-age parents’ happiness was negatively impacted if they had an unhappy child. The study also found that the success of one child did not outweigh the unhappiness of another child. 

As a mom, I can relate to these findings. When our children are hurting, we are hurting. As they say, having a child is like walking around with a piece of your heart on the outside. But there is something about this belief that gives me pause. 

The reality is that all kids will struggle at one point or another. Because we all do. We all experience periods of happiness and, yes, of unhappiness. This is the essence of what it means to be human. Is our happiness as mothers contingent on the happiness of our children?

The oxygen mask theory to a happy child and happy mom

I have put a lot of time and effort into nurturing my mental and emotional well-being. It isn’t always easy. In fact, it’s a lot of hard work. I am a highly sensitive person who is prone to anxiety and has experienced mild depression over the years. I have made my mental health and wellness a priority. 

So how can we moms maintain our own mental and emotional well-being even when our child is struggling? The oxygen mask theory, says maternal wellness and parenting expert Marcella Kelson.

“I believe very much in the oxygen mask theory, which suggests that we can better help others when we first take care of ourselves,” she tells Motherly. “I do believe that a child who is struggling with significant emotional difficulties will be best supported by a parent who is concurrently focusing on their own wellbeing, especially because having a child who is struggling is taxing on any parent.”

Related: To the mama battling depression: You are not alone

Kelson reminds us that the oxygen mask theory doesn’t mean we focus on ourselves in lieu of our children; rather, that we take care of ourselves so that we can take care of our children.

“By taking care of ourselves, taking breaks, asking for help, spending time with friends, exercising—whatever it is that nurtures our happiness—we are better equipped to support our children in whatever struggles they are facing,” she says.

Both/and approach to parenting

Maintaining our own emotional wellness also means taking a both/and approach to emotions and parenting. We don’t surrender our own autonomy or emotional independence when we become mothers, and I choose to believe that it’s possible to care deeply about our children’s emotional state without losing ourselves in it.

“We are unique people and mothers,” Kelson reminds us. “However, there is pressure to perform, especially in the age of social media, where parental pressure is at an all-time high. This can cause us to feel that if something isn’t looking perfect or is not aligning perfectly with our expectations, we must be failing.” 

Related: The secret to a happy family is holding space for unhappiness 

"The reality is life is messy, and unhappiness is a reality of life. The quest to raise 'perfectly happy' children and our cultural emphasis on performative parenting can cause us more pain than necessary," Kelson says.

Accepting unhappiness is the key to true happiness

By maintaining our own joy even when our children are unhappy or struggling, we give them the freedom to feel their feelings. We give them a safe space to be fully themselves without fear of repercussions (i.e. negatively impacting our mood).

"The last thing that we would want is to deny or reject our child's right to feel a variety of emotions," Kelson says. "Resilience, which is borne out of challenges and diversity, is crucial for true happiness. As long as we are appropriate, actively listening, emotionally available, tolerant of their varied emotions and open-minded, our children will feel loved."