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 is 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.
One Saturday night date of mine shared with me a great example of a healthy family relationship.
Over cajun food he described what sounds like a remarkably happy suburban childhood headed by parents who enjoyed a 40-year marriage, five kids and two successful careers. My date has only the fondest memories of watching his dad court his mom on their weekly date nights and annual parent-only vacations — in addition to the family roadtrip. Staying home with the babysitter was tons of fun. “My dad made it clear that his relationship with my mom was the center of everything, while he was also the best dad ever,” he said.
What could be a better example of the benefits of putting your romantic partner first?
But what if you don't have a romantic interest to start with?
A recent Modern Love column in the New York Times (which I read religiously and am only slightly bitter about the fact the editor Daniel Jones has rejected more than a dozen of my submissions over the years BUT NEVERMIND!) highlighted a 2005 essay by Aylete Waldman about the fact that she puts her husband and their fantastic sex life above their four kids. The most interesting thing about the essay was the resulting shitstorm of controversy which landed Waldman on a much-viewed Oprah episode during which a hostile audience nearly attacked her. Yes, that essay is a decade old, but it warrants a revisit because parents — mothers most especially — are still expected to make our children the center of our worlds. Waldman wrote:
I do love [my daughter]. But I'm not in love with her. Nor with her two brothers or sister. Yes, I have four children. Four children with whom I spend a good part of every day: bathing them, combing their hair, sitting with them while they do their homework, holding them while they weep their tragic tears. But I'm not in love with any of them. I am in love with my husband.
It is his face that inspires in me paroxysms of infatuated devotion. If a good mother is one who loves her child more than anyone else in the world, I am not a good mother. I am in fact a bad mother. I love my husband more than I love my children.
I love that Waldman challenges the institution that admonishes women for anything other than fulltime adoration of their kids. Waldman's work includes many of the points I've made here on this blog:
- Putting kids before all else makes them neurotic and robs me of my potential to live the biggest, fullest life that I can — and model for my children that such a life is possible.
- I've urged parents — single moms in particular — to prioritize their health above all else, including family time. After all, you can't be an energetic mom now if you are overweight, and you are even more likely than single moms overall to burden your children in your old age if you don't care for your wellbeing now.
- That despite my attempts to live said full life, I've found myself hugging my kids too much because I'm lonely — and that is entirely unfair to my son and daughter. Alas, I am only human.
- You are free to introduce your kids to a romantic interest at any time of your choosing. Dating is healthy and normal, and does not hurt kids.
I plan to read Waldman's essay collection, Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace, which promises to dig into the the societal pressure moms face to put their children into the laser-sharp focus of their universes. Liberating music to my ears!
But Waldman has a husband she is crazy about. I don't.
So how does a single mom consistently put her kids second if you don't have a man to focus on instead? In other words, how do you create space for for a potential relationship when kids can be so all-consuming? In the event you don't seek a romantic partner, where do you focus that energy if not on your children?
Cliche as it may sound: You gotta put yourself first. That means taking care of your health. You must make it a top priority to hang out with other adults — girlfriends, dates, relatives and friends. It is not normal to spend all your time with children, nor make your offspring your primary emotional support. And while you're at it, indulge in your instincts to have a fulfilling and profitable career — without any guilt whatsoever! — even though our culture tells you that stay-at-home mothers are better mothers.
In fact, that is the big takeaway:
Stop feeling guilty.
Want to date? Go for it — AND DON’T FEEL GUILTY!
Need a sex life? NO GUILT FOR YOU – ONLY BOOTY! Need to hit the gym? HIRE A SITTER AND DON’T LOOK BACK!
Looking forward to that business trip even though you have to leave the kids at home? KILL IT!
I’m not worried you'll neglect the kids. If you are like the professional moms I know, the pendulum swings way in the other direction — and you’re far more likely to neglect yourself.
Stop being ‘just a mom' and start being a cool woman
I am writing from a charming apartment in Copenhagen (complete with wood floors, white walls, and minimalist, teak furniture — biked parked outside on the cobblestone walk), where I will spend the next three weeks living, working, traveling, hanging out with friends I met last year when I accomplished more or less the same trip. My kids are with their dad in Greece, visiting family there, and last year I decided that I deserved to go somewhere fabulous, too.
My return was as cliche' as my Danish apartment: I felt energized, grateful for my regular life, thrilled to reconnect with my kids, routine and work. The feeling was familiar. Since I was a teenager I've been in love with travel — the more remote, the better. Before kids, I'd lived in France, Ecuador, Bulgaria. Traveled to Laos, around Europe, Brazil, Cuba. I love that scariness of knowing it is not safe to go where you do not have a hotel booked, but you go anyway. Of the magical way the universe swells up around you to create lifelong friendships and memories that make you who you are. That travel, perhaps rivaling only parenthood, keenly reminds you of your humanity, and possibilities.
I've gotten on planes with my kids. Driven across the country with them a few times. I don't need to tell you it was great, but different. Those trips were cliches about family travel. This one was cliche about travel-travel.
Ladies, cliches are a cliche for a reason: They are true.
These trips to Europe remind me of who I am. My greatest joys, things that have resonated with me since I can remember. Manon DeFelice, the founder of the recruiting agency for women, tells clients searching for what will make them professionally happy: “What did you write your high school senior thesis on? That is what you are most passionate about.” That is true for me: I wrote that paper arguing why prostitution should be legal, and now here I am advocating for sexual and financial freedom for women every day in a career I love. Ta-da!
By prioritizing my most ancient joys means being a fulfilled person, and being that person for myself, for the world, and my children. I have crazy and wonderful travel stories from my younger years I often share with the kids (smuggling cigars out of Havana, getting stuck in mud when biking Costa Rican rain forests, falling in love with an older, English school teacher). But I don't want my kids to ask for stories from when I was person, before I was a mom. No one ever thinks their parents were better as ‘just a mom,' when compared to before you were a mom. Before you-were-a-mom stories are in full technicolor, narrated with raunchy music and laughter and flirting. Those stories are of when you were a woman.
I was recently visiting with an old friend who had been staying home with her three kids fulltime, and is about to return to school to study art. “I know I'm supposed to find my fulfillment in them,” she said, nodding to her kids, who are, I admit, really, really delightful. “But it's not enough,” she whispered, ashamed.
No shit, it's not enough! Motherhood is pretty awesome, but it is just one part of you. There are other, wonderful parts. Parts just as — if not more — important.
You are still a woman. A mom, too. But a woman. Get in touch with that chick. What did you love before you pushed a baby out your vagina? What made you squeal with laughter? Feel ALIVE? Keep you up at night, commiserating, dreaming, hoping, planning?
Maybe it was a career. Or your art, a sport. Maybe it was love affairs, or time laughing with bestest girlfriends you no longer see.
So, see them. Fire up an affair. Jump on the bike, or join a tennis league or drag out the easel and brushes. Do that thing that made you really, really joyful. Be that joyful woman. Show that person to yourself, your kids, the world.
Do you feel pressure to sacrifice yourself for motherhood? Did you rediscover yourself? Share your struggles, and journey, in the comments!
Emma Johnson is a veteran money journalist, noted blogger, bestselling author and an host of the award-winning podcast, Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour, Oprah.com, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post's ‘Must Read” list.
Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer.
A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Read more about Emma here.