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.