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

overbearing 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 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.

Emma Johnson

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.

38 thoughts on “I don’t live for my kids — 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.

    1. Wowwwee! What an eye opener for me. I thought I was doingthe right thing I thought I was loving my kids enough from me and my now ex husband. I’ve been a long term relationship and he has been telling me I was guilty of this alllll along. I promise I didn’t know. Thank you for sharing so I could reap the benefits of this epiphany.

  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.

      1. I have a question. I asked my use to be fiancé why he change is status on his Facebook page from engage to single. He said because of his daughter. What can I do about this. We have been seeing each other for five years now and not once I had not yet get the chance to meet his children. He always make up a excuse for me not to meet them.

        1. Sounds like you are not a priority. I imagine that is hurtful, but the sooner you accept it, the sooner you can move on to a relationship you deserve: in which you are the priority.

  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.”

  9. Hello, so I am that only daughter of a single mother. And I am in that situation when I’m the whole world for her. And I praise this article!!! Yes, yes, yes the best thing you can do is to let your kid live his own life and do the same with yours. And my story goes like this. My parents divorced when I was two. He lived in another town so didn’t see each other much. And my mother never had any other man, any romance, nothing. So I’ve always was the center of her universe, anything she did was for me. Can’t remember her having her own needs or whatever cos I was first, the one and only. And now I’m 29… and she constantly reminds that kids are absolute best thing in life cos if not me she literally wouldn’t have motivation to work or to live. Cos just there is nothing else to live for when you are 60.And she still supports me financially , I asked not to do so cos this doesn’t help me to be more independent, but in this case I understand that she feels needed. And it’s absolutely harmful when a single parent focuses only on their child and don’t take time to think about their needs, hobbies, activities…. I want to move to another country, to explore my possibilities, to see what I’m made of, at least to feel real adult life…. And I feel such an enormous psychological pressure, that she has given everything to me (doesn’t matter that there were things that I didn’t want but she had the best intentions and was only meaning well) and now I’m that ungrateful not following her plan for me…. ‘I have to live my own life’. Yes, if the vision of it is the same. No. All other possibilities. Hope that one or two mothers will get inspired:).

  10. Hello, I disagree with the post. Its great and sensible to put your children first. When they move on and out then place more emphasis on your personal relationship. The last thing you want is to create a broken child. Being that your not in a relationship your coming from an inexperienced angle. Your information is not proven nor evident based, its a concept of your reality is. To be a successful parent is to a foundation, and building block for your children with a healthy balance of friends, outings, and ambitious prospectives. Sorry you just cannot have it all. I have a daughter, she is my world, however, I am equally happy when she is away, either at school or with family, then that’s my time. I see no need to isolate your child. Why? Though, I wonder why its important to have a man and put him first. Unless you find that very unique person who totally understands that child rearing in a full time lifelong commitment and he too is willing to put his needs and wants aside for the sake of an innocent child then great. Most women that live life looking for this man to make it right are in my opinion a little needy. A woman is strong enough to raise a child on her own placing her children first at all times while maintaining a balance.

    1. YOU ARE NOT DISAGREEING WITH THE ARTICLE with anything you said. it just looks like you depend too much on your kid to be “your world” and you know it. and are getting defensive for that reason.

    2. I wholeheartedly disagree with this article. I stumbled upon that while googling “introducing a serious partner to my child after being a single mother for five years”.Especially as a single parent, my child does not have a father so I think of this little person that I chose to bring into the world and I compensate as a mother and a father and we have a very intense relationship. My son is special needs so where I live and where I work all depends on what the school district is and what the resources are there and if he’s comfortable being left with a babysitter or if he’s going to have a meltdown. My life is my son and I would be doing a disservice just to make him a especially as a single parent, my child does not have a father so I think of this little person that I chose to bring into the world and I compensate as a mother and a father and we have a very intense relationship. My son is special needs so where I live and where I work all depends on what the school district is and what the resources are there and if he’s comfortable being left with a babysitter or if he’s going to have a meltdown. My life is my son and I would be doing a disservice just to make him a priority priority. I have to say that writing an article like this to me is someone who is feeling undeniable guilt about how they overheard someone saying I left for my child because if your first thought after hearing someone say “I live for my child” from someone next to you is oh that’s the wrong way to live there is clearly some guilt if there was a need to write an article to justify why you don’t put Your child above your dating life or your work life. I work to give my child a better life I don’t go out that often because I chose to have a child and I knew the responsibility before I had one. I find this to be a very selfish article and a bit offensive. Just say that a person who lives for their child for their child Is borderline abusive is not only the overstatement of the century but I really twisted view I’m looking at parenting.
      This article for me, reeks of some parenting guilt.

  11. I agree 110%. My daughter is 4 years old has my whole heart but I also want her to live a full life, have close girl friends, and chase wildly after her God-given passions and dreams. I will be with her, supporting her and cheering her on every step of the way. I also, like you, hope to have a very healthy romantic relationship one day so she can see what a healthy relationship between a man a woman looks like. Thanks for sharing!

  12. I am in a almost 3 year relationship with a man that has continued to stay legally separated and not fully divorced because he can’t afford a lawyer and is afraid to do it himself. He has kept me separate from his kids, his home, his life except that he has spent almost every night with me in my bed and our relationship was very good until one day when I cried and told him how much it hurt and made me doubt his truthfulness and made me feel that he was living a double life to keep me separate. He claimed he had talked to a priest who told him he had to put his Xwife first still and not date me at all. This was done after years of promises that it would all stop when his divorce was final. He claims he will never return to his Xwife and showed me the legal separation. Now he is saying he has to put his kids first due to what the priest said and put me last. I am so hurt by him. Every weekend now he will break plans we have had if his son asks him to change all plans for him. He even let me get all dressed up for New Years and then came to my place to tell me our date was cancelled because his son wanted to be with him. He says he cares for me very much but is being pressured by his friends to not date. The problem is that we have been dating and heavily connected for almost 3 years. Now he is telling me his kids will always come first and I can’t depend on anything he tells me. I am broken and wounded and everytime he tells me he changed his plans due to his son, I feel like a knife is stabbed in my heart. I asked him a year ago to include me in the kids lives instead of cutting me out. I told him how much what he is doing hurts. His response was to threaten to end our relationship every time I am hurt. He tells me he isn’t interested in any other woman and that his marriage is over. He tells me that he doesn’t spend time with his Xwife at all and that he cares for me and loves me. But it doesn’t feel like love anymore. Every time he cuts me off either in time, presence, voice, decision making, communication or any plans he has, I feel more and more crushed and am beginning to feel like it is affecting my self esteem. I feel unloved, unwanted, excluded and he spends very little quality time with me. Every holiday he spends with his kids and any time off he has. He even seems to resent any time I ask for. I asked him if he still loves me because it doesn’t feel like it and he says yes. He says it is all about the kids. Please help me. I am more and more crushed each time and angry.

  13. When I was growing up, I remember my father (too often for my liking) saying, “God first, spouse second, children last.” And, “The relationship with the spouse comes before the relationship with the child.” Why he felt the need to remind us kids of his belief, I don’t know. I do know that hearing that growing up, as a child, made me question a few things. Why was I not as important as Mommy?, was one question in the back of my mind. I remember not liking hearing that, not liking how he delivered that news to us kids. I don’t remember in what context this would be said, I just remember it felt similar to how I would feel when I was last to be picked for dodge ball at recess. Yeah, it happens to kids, yeah, that’s life, get used to it, but yeah, it hurt when my dad would announce, in effect, Mom will always be the one I choose before you. I didn’t know to resent my Mom, I just loved her. From my father, the only take-away I had was, “I love you, but you’ll always be second choice.” When I was older, I vowed never to make my child feel ‘second best’. My husband and I had our Date Nights often on a blanket on the living room floor after our little one went to bed. Sometimes candles, sometimes food; conversation in whispers, and it didn’t cost anything! We never used the term Date Night exclusively for the two of us. Many times the three of us had a Date Night and all go to dinner or all sit up and watch a fun movie together! My goodness, my daughter is 20 years old now. She is bright and happy, socially well- adjusted and loving. And what lovely memories we all share. My advice to mothers is to follow your gut. Do what works for you and your family. We’re all so unique. There is no one-size-fits-all way to raise a family. No indeed, you don’t want to riddle your children with guilt and neediness, oh but they crave to know how special they are to you, to hear how very much you love them, to be taken on a ‘Date Night’ or two themselves, with AND without the equally-significant other! Model perseverance, courage, joy, getting back up with determination and optimism after life’s knocked you down a time or two. Let your child see these qualities. Above all let them know they are equally important to you as anyone will ever be in your life. Start there and let your ‘gut’ (and heart) be your ultimate guide.

  14. My God I’m Inspired, this article makes so much sense. Its ME,,and My Mom,,. Explains so much of a Generational curse.
    I’m 51 , wish I knew this when I became a Mom at 19yrs. I did NOT make the right choice by putting myself last.
    Knowing this now, I can keep any of my 3 kids plus others of making the same mistake I did.
    I will be sharing this Article.

  15. I agree it is important for parents to have a rich life in addition to their role as parents, that this is great modeling for children and frees the children emotionally to live their own lives as they individuate.

    I think the situation of putting a new romantic partner as a higher priority than one’s children is a very different idea. Since the new partner is not your child’s parent they typically would not have the same bond and investment in your child. In my own experience of my mother prioritizing her new husband’s needs, I felt very isolated and our relationship was really never the same again. The new husband was interested in being married to my mother, but not interested in developing a relationship or positive connection with her children.

    The most successful situations I have heard about are when the new couple strengthens their relationship while the child is spending the day or the weekend with their other parent. I have also seen parents wait on bringing a romantic relationship into their life until the children are grown and they can comfortably make that a strong focus.

    I think that children can learn a lot about relationships by all the friendship relationships that parents cultivate. I don’t think that single parents cultivating a romantic relationship to model that for their child is not necessary in order for their children to develop well.

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