When I first returned to work after having two children, I did this funny thing when I came home at night: I bursted into tears.
I spent the days stressed about being back in the working world while balancing my family obligations, but I held it all in. It was hard enough to be a mom returning to work without also being that woman sobbing at her desk.
But when I arrived home to my children's eager faces, all my resolve crumbled. The tears came fast and hard. "Let me go change my clothes," I said, rushing up the stairs. I didn't want them to think something was wrong. If I was going to work, the least I could do was show up for family time with a smile on my face. Didn't they deserve that?
I hid in the bathroom, dabbing my tear-stained cheeks with toilet paper. My kids clamored outside the door, wanting to show me their drawings, tell me a story or tattletale on each other. I swallowed my cry really quickly and opened the door with a fake smile on my face. I was a master at pretending everything was fine. But on some level they knew. They narrowed their eyes and searched my face. I was acting weird, but they couldn't pinpoint what it was.
I hid an important part of myself from the people I love.
Of course this routine was complete rubbish. The idea that I had to come home with a smile on my face and a happy song in my heart was putting more pressure on me. Worse, I was being fake in front of my kids, which was ironic given how many times a day I told them it was "perfectly OK to feel ALL of their feelings."
But what about mine? Was I allowed to feel anything other than untarnished joy in their presence?
I didn't think so.
Luckily, I was wrong.
Recently a study in Society for Personality and Social Psychology confirms that my impulses to plaster a smile on my face when I really wanted to sob were not good for my children. In fact, the study shows that facades like the one I put on actually damage kids' sense of well-being. Those moments when we hide our true feelings disrupt the "high quality parent-child bond" because we are being inauthentic, which is confusing for kids.
The study also confirms that we don't have to suppress negative emotions and amplify the positive ones around our kids. In fact, that kind of emotional manipulation hurts everyone.
On those nights I stuffed my feelings, I felt more drained from the charade than I did from the stress of work. I hid an important part of myself from the people I love. I missed a chance to be authentic with my children. While my kids didn't need to know all the particulars—like how inferior I felt to my younger, male coworkers who had not taken four months off for maternity leave—I could have said something simple and honest, for example, "I feel sad about the challenges I'm facing at work."
What my kids deserve more than a mom with an inauthentic smile pasted on her face is a mom who can express all of her emotions, including sadness and anger. How else are they ever going to learn that I am a person, too, just like them?