Can you only ever be as happy as your unhappiest child?

At the moment for book group we are reading A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler. It centres around a family of four children and the generations either side, and how we live as part of a family and how that shapes us.

At one point in the book the mother, Abby, makes a comment about parenting. She says ‘you can only ever be as happy as you unhappiest child.’ I don’t think this is a new statement, but I hadn’t heard it before and it made me stop, put down the book, and think about it for a little while.

Is it true? Can you only ever be as happy as your least happy child?

as happy as your least happy child

Initially it stopped me because I thought perhaps it was one of those simple, throw away lines that perfectly captures something very true. We all want our children to be happy after all, and it’s not nice when they aren’t, but the more I thought about it, the more I disagreed with it. I mean, no offence to my children, because I think they are amazing and beautiful and strong and everything, but they aren’t always the HAPPIEST of people.

I decided I have two problems with it:


For me, part of my role as a parent is to do everything I can to be positive and encouraging and generally jolly.

I’d take this further in fact and say that this has been my role within my family for my whole life. I don’t have a problem with this – it has happened naturally because I’m good at it. I tend to be the most easy going of us all, and have missed out on the family worry gene, so I’m never worrying about having cancer or a nuclear war or anything like that. I also know, from experience, that if I ever DON’T want to be that person, and need my family to cheer ME up, that they are there for me.

Making people happy though is important to me, and a big part of what makes me feel fulfilled and purposeful. If someone I love is unhappy, my instinct is to become even happier, (often to a highly irritating level – ‘at least you’re not homeless!’), in order to try and make them feel better. Imagine if every time someone you cared about was sad, that you became just as sad as them? The world would be a pretty miserable place wouldn’t it?


Although I always want my children to be happy, I never want my own happiness to be totally defined by them or by any other person. I have worked hard over the years to maintain a positive, proactive attitude to life, and a big part of that is being able to find happiness from within yourself rather than having to seek it externally.

This means that you could be surrounded by miserable people or difficult circumstances, but you have the internal resources to keep your own emotions steady, and maintain a positive outlook on life. It sounds a bit cheesy but it’s important to me.

I asked Belle what she thought.

‘I don’t know,’ she said, helpfully, ‘how happy are you?’

‘Pretty happy most of the time,’ I said.

‘Well there you go then,’ she said, ‘it’s not true.’

Photo by Simon Rae on Unsplash



  1. Laura
    31 January, 2018 / 10:38 am

    All I can say is be thankful that your children have never been truly unhappy. In this context I don’t think it means ‘unhappy because there are no Cocopops left’ or ‘unhappy because they can’t find that green top they want to wear’ it means a much deeper unhappiness. Trust me, I’m the biggest cheerleader ever and like you that has always been my role in life it is just who I am. But sometimes true unhappiness is something a parent can’t fix and it’s heart breaking.

    • Jo Middleton
      31 January, 2018 / 10:58 am

      I know what you mean Laura – mine have had their fair share of proper unhappiness and you’re right, it is awful because you CAN’T fix it. But also, you CAN’T fix it, so as cold as it might sound I do feel like it is possible sometimes to step back from it and try to keep positive.

  2. Zoe
    4 January, 2019 / 5:08 pm

    I believe there is a difference between the sad feelings a parent might have when their kids are children compared to when they are adults. Parents realize their kids are going to experience hard things growing up…from friendship issues to illnesses. But we muddle through with them…we are supposed to do that. But when our kids become adults and we see them experiencing real world problems….divorce, loss of employment, loneliness …..we can only support them from a distance, as we cannot control their lives. This is VERY hard…we wonder if we did something wrong in their upbringing …. we worry about how much to help or not to help….we can feel genuine heartache. And if there is the illness of depression running through the family genes…things can be worse. I am about to get back into therapy to see if I can help myself get through a situation similar to what I have described above. It’s hard….

    • Jo Middleton
      4 January, 2019 / 5:51 pm

      That’s a really interesting point Zoe. It’s complicated as they get older isn’t it? You can’t do as much to comfort them as when they were small, plus you know that often there is much more depth to their unhappiness, and that can be difficult to deal with as a parent. Good luck with your therapy – that sounds like it’s going to be really important in helping you deal with your current situation.

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