I don’t live for my kids – and that is my biggest gift to them

overbearing single mom


I recently overheard a mother proudly declare: “I live for my daughter.”

Too bad for that little girl. And too bad for the mom.

Parents who make their children the center of their universes mess up their kids, mess up themselves, and in the case of single parents — make serious relationships impossible.

Don’t get me wrong: My kids are the most important people in my life. Every major decision — and pretty much all the little ones, too — I make are with an eye towards what is good for my kids: Where we live, what to cook for dinner, whether to drive or fly on our family vacation. As a single parent it can be easy to slip into unhealthy attachment to our kids. Some days, my focus on making a good life for my children is so overwhelming that it can feel all-consuming. But that doesn’t mean I live for them. That would be effed up!

Yes, you are a parent. Maybe that is the most important job you will ever have. (But maybe not — there are plenty of remarkable people who go down in history for contributions that have nothing to do with their offspring.)

The thing with kids is this: they leave. They leave your house when they go to college. They leave you a little when they learn to pump on the swing, and no longer need a push. They leave you when they go to school for the first time, and when they can cook their own breakfast and earn their own movie money. When they’re teenagers, they have secrets and experiences that you will never share. Parents are forever changed by that invisible yet palatable tether that ties mothers to their children. But they are not ours. They are but beams of life that pass through our existences.

But some parents do not let their children pass through. They hover and guilt and coddle until that child is afraid to leave — afraid about what will happen to the parent who lives for them. The children stunt themselves, forgo normal dating, professional and social opportunities en lieu of perceived obligation to the needy parent. Mental health experts call this co-dependece. I call it pathetic and borderline abusive. One recent study found that young adults with overbearing parents were more depressed, and suffered “decreased satisfaction with life and lower levels of perceived autonomy, competence, and ability to get along with people.”

The greatest gift I give my children is modeling a full life. I want them to absorb by osmosis rules of living in the world in a whole, independent way. Much of my motivation to succeed professionally is to show my son and daughter how to do that themselves, but also so they can observe the joy and pride that they, too, can experience. I want them to see me enjoy longterm friendships, in part because these loved ones also care for Helena and Lucas, and so that my kids understand why such bonds are critical to life. And I would like them to see me in a longterm romantic relationship, so that they will have a model for loves of their own, but also see their mother supported and adored by a partner. My goal is to fill my life up in a real way, so that a) they will know how to do that for themselves, and b) feel confident that I am cared for, and can therefor go out into the world as independent adults, unburdened by their mother.

Glomming onto your children also stunts your ability to have a romantic relationship. I believe that a couple must put one another before their children — the health of a successful family orbits around a happy couple. This is a tricky transition for many blended families, and I can imagine that it will be for me one day. While my kids are not the center of my universe, they do top my priority list. I am not sure how I will transition that priority to a husband, but I recognize that it must happen. Single parents who loudly insist that their children will always come first, cut off at the knees any potential relationship.

Single parents who declare that they live for their kids signal to potential mates that they are not truly available. 

22 thoughts on “I don’t live for my kids – and that is my biggest gift to them

  1. I agree 100% Emma. I always said my job was to make the chicks self reliant and independent. I always have been “Linda” and Mom. Now that they are young adults I’m so proud of the fantastic people they have become.

  2. Totally agree! And I believe I am doing this as well. I love my kids to death, they are my number one priority, but I don’t live for them. I think becoming a single parent actually helped me in this regard. Because I started getting those weekends where all I had was myself for company. It actually made me think more about ME. When I was married I didn’t think I lived for my kids, but when you barely get a break from them, you are essentially doing that in practice, if not in your heart/mind. It was only near the end of my marriage that I started reading and thinking about how we needed to put our marriage first. Too little too late, turned out. (but hey, my kids were 2 yrs old and 6 months old at that point, so I think I was still doing pretty good at recognizing it that early!)

    Anyway, while becoming a single parent actually helped me to think more about myself as an individual, I can see why for others it might drive them more toward solely living as a caretaker. I think they are essentially hiding behind their kids. And you’re right, that isn’t fair to anybody. But they don’t want to have another relationship, they don’t want to date, etc. The kids are safe, it’s what they know. New stuff is what is scary. I’m not doing that myself, I believe it is the wrong choice for everybody, but I can also see how it can happen.

    1. Erica, I had a similar experience in being pushed to define myself once I became a single mom. Like you, filling those free weekends required I dig into who I am and what is important to me. Having limited time, energy and financial resources also forced me to dig into myself in a way I may not have had I stayed a married mother.

  3. Well said!

    The thing that I want to add is in relation to being an only child in this situation.

    It is tough. The child might have managed to overcome the situation, they might not be ‘co-dependent’ or ‘pathetic’ but as an only child of a single-parent it is likely that once old age or sickness kicks-in they are going to find themselves having to ‘go back’ – daily. They’re going to be faced with a really heavy psychological. And a scarily demanding situation both financially and physically.

    I can see how it can happen too. But the bottom line is that the parent has a responsibility to themselves and to the kid. The parent, single or otherwise, needs to seek a well-rounded life, and to ensure that there is a broad support network. If the focus is the child, or even work, then they are they are letting themselves and their child down in a really fundamental way.

    1. Very well said, Belle. I am also a child of a single parent, and appreciate very much my two brothers now that we are adult — both for their companionship, but also facing the challenges of an aging parent.

  4. I am missing my 13-year-old son, who’s away at camp this week, so reading your post really struck a chord. It is dangerous to give all your time and energy to your child. Great topic, Emma.

  5. Your thoughts are exactly like mine. Thank you for articulating them so well. I know some look down on me and my boyfriend for the way we think, but I don’t care. We are great parents and love our children.

    1. @Nicole, so happy you found a partner who not only is worthy of your priority, but also shares your commitment to your relationship and family. Keep us posted!

  6. Wow! So glad not to be the only one who thinks like that! Court seems to think I’m a bad mother, but deep down I know I’m doing a better job than her dad who’s making her the center of his universe. Thanks!

  7. I appreciated the article above and all of the comments. I am a single mom to an only child 5 year old boy. He is the love and center of my life. I am new to this blog and look forward to learning from everyone and sharing. It appears that I have a lot to learn. :-)

  8. I do not agree with you Ms. Johnson. A good parent places his or her child’s needs above their own. Yes you have a partner to go through your life with, but you only have your children for a short period of time; it seems like in the blink of an eye, they are grown. When they see a healthy relationship that involves them, rather than isolating them, they thrive. You only get one chance to be a parent, and if you mess that up because your partner’s needs come first, in the end you will see that child become a broken adult. You have the rest of your lives as partners, once you have provided healthy role models for your children.

    This is especially important in blended families. When your child is going through a difficult time and says ” I really need you now Mom,” do you say “Sorry, not tonight, I promised my husband that tonight was his.” Is that what you are advocating? In blended families, older children can choose which parent they need or want to spend more time with. Should that child be told “No, my partner needs time alone with me so you are not allowed to come home”? Do you think that this is acceptable? If a child elects to live with a parent whose partner refuses to accept that child, then you believe that the child should be rejected because the partner comes first?

    1. I realize this is late, but I feel the need to comment:
      I don’t think the author is advocating putting anything above his or her child’s needs. Caring for your child’s needs, emotional and physical, is a parent’s responsibility. That being said, what I gathered from the post is that your child *needs* to understand, for the sake of their own ability to function in the real world, that not everything revolves around them and that everyone, including mom, is an individual with needs and wants. Coddling them and tending to their *wants* at the expense of your relationships and your identity as a person and not just a mom can be detrimental to them, to yourself, and to your relationships.
      We live in an increasingly child-centric culture and the definition of children’s *needs* are ever expanding. We forget that we are NOT neglecting our kids if we don’t entertain and shower them with affection, privilege, and utmost priority all the time. On the contrary, we are harming them by doing so. My mom always told me, “I love you, but remember that my job is to raise you, not to serve you.”

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