Me, the Emotional Metronome
I stared at my work calendar on the computer as a sinking feeling washed over me. I had opened the calendar to place an important appointment for a child only to realize I was already scheduled for an all-day training. I quickly dialed the doctor’s office. No open appointments for weeks. I quickly called older brothers to see if they could accompany him. Working. In class. The panic rose in me. Then the pride raged. I will find a way. I will figure this out, I always do.
And I did. The situation resolved itself and turned out just fine. But at that moment, I was tempted by a familiar resentment.
You see, being a single mom to a gaggle of young adults and teenagers is no easy feat. Most days all the juggling and configuring and endless mental and emotional energy show up, and I can make everything happen that needs to happen. But there are moments where I can’t easily see a way through, and I am stung by a sharp bitterness. My brain begins to play its soundtrack: “This is wrong. This is unfair to them. I shouldn’t be doing this alone.”
And the truth is, no, I shouldn’t. But I am. That is our reality.
My kids were not young when I got divorced. They are old enough to understand when I have to make a certain sacrifice, can’t be in two places at once, or am not able to give them what they want at the exact moment they ask for it. But still we have to face our feelings about all the challenges on a regular basis. We have to walk through the bitterness, sadness, and anger that can come when things aren’t as they should be.
In those moments, I have learned to remind myself of the one thing that flips that soundtrack in my head, the truth that keeps me steady: the fact that I am the only tone-setter in my household.
When we are facing a challenge, collectively or individually, and emotions run high, I am the only one my kids can look to to signal them that everything is going to be okay. If dysregulation is on the horizon, it is I who have to step up and model regulation. It is a weighty responsibility. There is very little time when I don’t have to be “on” for my kids. But it is also a privilege.
I get to teach these growing children of mine what it looks like to navigate the world in adult shoes. In emotionally healthy adult shoes. They are like young piano students sitting at a bench, fingering the keys to their emotions. They are learning, and there are starts and stalls, and sometimes things can be a bit clunky. I am their metronome. Steadily holding the beat for them to follow, keeping things in tune, modeling for them until their fingers take up the steady rhythm on their own.
My kids now have jobs. They are in intimate relationships. They have friends and teammates and classmates. There is homework and sports and show choir. Some days they feel great. Others, not so much. There are highs and there are lows. Some days we have long conversations about all they have going on. Some days they only speak a few words to me. There are days they draw physically close for loving support, and there are stretches where I may not touch them at all.
Through it all, I make my very best effort to stay steady for them. I may not be able to provide physically for every single want or even need of theirs, but I can be their emotional provider. I can give them a stable presence when they need it. And I am honored to do so.
The greatest part of this blessing is seeing my children learn to thrive emotionally—watching them handle hard situations, navigate important conversations, and work through conflicts with emotional maturity. But the unexpected blessing of single motherhood is the call this responsibility places on me to live intentionally and to protect my own emotional health at all costs.
If I am to be able to maintain the steady emotional rhythm I want for my children, like that metronome ticking ever so steadily on, I need to constantly be working through my own emotions in healthy ways and refilling my own tank in order to maintain the emotional energy needed to provide for them. For me this looks like regular therapy appointments, being dedicated to taking my medications faithfully, building margins of down time into my days, being very careful of the commitments I make that drain my energy, being intentional about daily routines and practices that steady me, and seeking regular support from friends to lift me up and keep me going. This kind of self-care is not an indulgence, but a necessary aspect of my parenting journey. My mental and emotional health are paramount to my children’s well-being. With no one else to step in and take over, it’s on me to keep the emotional pace for our family.
I have learned to let the bitterness that sometimes swirls around such a hefty reality swirl and roll like thunder when it needs to. But I have also learned to remind myself of the gift it is to be the tone-setter for these people I call mine. It has made me a fervent seeker of grace and mercy. It has taught me to prioritize care for myself. And it has given me the privilege of an emotional intimacy with my children that I may not otherwise have had.
I never imagined raising my kids as a single mother when I was in the trenches of babies and toddlers. I never imagined what it would be like to grow them into adulthood on my own. But here we all are, getting through this life together. And it is good. So very good.
Colleen Connell Mitchell is the author of Who Does He Say You Are? and When We Were Eve. In addition to her work as a writer and speaker, she is a mom to five grown and nearly grown children and works as a social worker in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Colleen is a champion of the hearts of women and relentlessly seeks the divine spark in everyone she meets and everything she does.
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Your writing is brave. Thank you. I am the emotional tone setter in my family, too. (and I’m in the mental health field, like you). Your piece is an excellent reminder–that we are often called to be the emotional metronomes, that caring for ourselves–through medication, therapy, and other care–is indeed necessary. Thank you for your candor and authenticity!