When you have small children, their needs can seem endless, and they always want more of your time and attention. As parents, and especially as moms, we are wired to respond to our children by meeting their every need. The baby cries, the toddler wants someone to play with, and the school-age child needs help with homework. Before you know it, it is time to make supper, give baths, read more stories, answer a million wonderfully imaginative questions, and finally put the children down to bed. But that’s not the end—they often need water, have to go to the bathroom, get hungry, get scared of the dark—and they still need you! By the time they finally drift off, you probably feel like going to bed yourself. But you still have to clean the house, get ready for an upcoming social event, pack lunches for tomorrow, take care of a work project—and your partner needs your attention, too! After 6 years of being a mom, I am just figuring out how to find time to squeeze in a shower!
What a precious thing it is to spend time nurturing children! But having your whole life wrapped up in your kids is not good for you or them. When parents make themselves so indispensable to their children that they cannot tell them to play alone sometimes or leave them with another caregiver, they breed an unhealthy dependency and fail to provide models of the kind of healthy, balanced adults they want their children to become. Parents who don’t take time for themselves are in danger of burnout, depression, and a temptation to live vicariously through their kids, which puts children under enormous pressure. In contrast, parents who have lives of their own send this message to their kids: “I am a whole person with talents, interests, friends, and a role in the community. I take responsibility to do what is necessary for my own health and happiness and will not blame you for my problems or depend on you to make me happy (what a relief!). I want you to be a whole and healthy person who takes care of yourself.”
Your children take cues from your emotions. There’s an old saying that goes like this: “When Momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy!” The best thing you can do for your family is to keep your emotional outlook stable and positive. It is better for the children (and partner!) to have their demands unmet at times than to have you do everything they ask and be miserable. Some big ways you can do this are to get sleep and exercise, nurture your spiritual and emotional well-being (get a counselor if necessary), spend time with your partner and other friends (real-time, not Facebook), develop your interests, and contribute to your community (whether by getting a job, volunteering, supporting friends in need, or civic activism). Involve your family in these activities sometimes, but not always.
Children need social networks, too. “Child trauma expert, Bruce D. Perry, has further concluded that kids need a minimum of five caring adults in their lives in order to thrive.” (Source: Firestone, Lisa. Helping Parents Distinguish Love from Emotional Hunger. Psychology Today, June 22, 2012, retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/compassion-matters/201206/helping-parents-distinguish-love-emotional-hunger) By allowing others to care for them, you help them build a wide support system and learn to be part of a community. It was painful for me at first to admit that my child could grow in important ways through the influences of people other than myself, but his life is richer because I have allowed him to interact independently with other adults.
At this point, many of you are probably saying, “That sounds great, but I just can’t. I’m too busy and/or don’t have enough money.” There are always options if we are willing to be creative. Teach your children to entertain themselves safely and leave you alone for certain periods of time. Swap childcare with other parents. Tell your partner what you need. Join the YMCA (it provides free childcare while you exercise/shower and offers reduced membership rates for low-income families). If you qualify for free preschool, take advantage of it. Take ownership of your choices. Don’t say, “I have to _____.” Say, “I want to _____ because.” This will help you become aware of your priorities and your power to choose. Be intentional about your parenting, too. Take the time to think about what you want to do for your children over their lives and how you are going to do that. You can’t be the parent you want to be until you become the kind of person you want to be. Your kids may grumble now, but they will thank you later.