I recently heard a mother declare: “I live for my daughter.”
Too bad for that little girl. And too bad for the mom.
“My kids are my world.”
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 codependency. 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.”
“My kids are my life. My kids are my everything.”
Like I said, I love being a mom, but that is obsessive, lacking boundaries, and puts enormous pressure on your child to make you happy. One study asked 181 mothers to rate how strongly they agreed with these five beliefs involved in intensive parenting:
- That moms are the most important people in their kids’ lives
- That kids are entirely fulfilling
- That children need lots of stimulation
- That parenting is very challenging
- That parents' lives should revolve around their children.
Turns out that mothers who agree with these statements are more stressed and depressed. “It makes sense that nominating yourself Commander-in-Chief of your child's life would add some stress to your existence, and if that's all you're ever thinking about it's easy to understand how you'd feel less satisfied too—since kids aren't known for pulling you aside to offer heartfelt thanks for doing such a stellar job of caring for them.”
What does it mean to “live through your child?”
“Living through your child” means that you get your own self-worth, self-esteem and identity through your kids, opposed to your own experiences and accomplishments. Parents who live through their children tend to see their kids as their experience and accomplishment, a form of over-parenting and enmeshment that blurs the lines between parent and child and places the parent’s dreams and goals onto the child, essentially making the child responsible for their parent’s happiness and wellbeing.
Can I love my child too much? Can a child be too attached to a parent?
It is possible to be too attached to a child, though there is no limit on how much you can love them.
Enmeshment is when a parent and child do not have boundaries in their relationship, and the child is raised to believe that they are to serve the parent — make them happy, fulfilled, loved, and validated. Narcissistic parents nurture enmeshed relationships with their children, who are not given the opportunity to grow into individuals who care for their own needs.
In separated and divorced families, enmeshment can often become a case of parental alienation, in which one parent turns the child against the other.
What does Enmeshment (or an enmeshed relationship with family) look like? What causes enmeshment?
“Enmeshment, from the outside, will appear as closeness within the family, but on the inside means the child does not get independence, and their parent is involved in every aspect of their lives,” says Amanda Levison, M.S., LMHC, LPC, CCBT, a professional counselor from Neurofeedback & Counseling Center in Harrisburg, Penn. “An enmeshed parent will be friends with their child, using them as a confidant and being involved in all decisions they make. This parent will not support their child’s independence unless it is in something they can use to live through their child,” Levison says.
To stop enmeshment is first to recognize the issue. Next would be to set boundaries and to take a step back from one another.
Is enmeshment unhealthy?
“Causes of enmeshment begin with a parent with their psychological
issues, and it falls on the child to make them feel better,” Levison says. “This behavior can be unhealthy because the child will need to consult with their parent for all of their decisions and will feel the need to make decisions based on the parent’s desires.”
Enmeshment in separated and divorced families can become part of parental alienation, in which the enmeshed parent turns the child against the other parent. Research recognizes this as an act of abuse and can cause trauma for the enmeshed child.
How do you stop enmeshment?
Often, enmeshed children must grow up and leave home before they can recognize the unhealthy relationships and heal. “To stop enmeshment is first to recognize the issue,” Levison says.” Next would be to set boundaries and to take a step back from one another.”
How can I get a life outside of my child?
Since birth, women are conditioned to believe that our greatest calling is to be a mother. However, this is codependency, and actually can harm your kids — as well as your own sense of self. Here are some ways to prioritize your own needs:
1. 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 long-term 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 long-term 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.
2. 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 road trip. 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?
3. Stop putting your child’s needs ahead of your own
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 single-mom 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.
Every single mom needs a life insurance policy, even moms with no income of their own.
Your kids should be named as beneficiaries.
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4. 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 single mom road 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.
5. Loving your child too much? Get therapy.
Whether you prefer in-person therapy near you, or an online counselor, a good professional can help you understand whether your relationship with your kid is healthy — and how to make it better.
Bottom line: You can love being a mom, but understand why you cannot live through your kids
I wrote this post about eight years ago. Today my children are ages 14 and 12, and I feel even more strongly about the importance of having my own identity, my own experiences and self-worth outside of parenting — and especially strongly that my teenagers have their own experiences away from their parents. I see now that they are older (as well as observing even more families with teens and young adults) how children benefit when their parents are active, people who model productive lives contributing to the world — and not hovering over their over-doted-in offspring, who are ever-more anxious in a world where they have achieved little without their parents’ constant attention.
Do you feel pressure to sacrifice yourself for motherhood? Did you rediscover yourself? Share your struggles, and journey, in the comments!
Disclaimer: The opinions and ideas expressed in the article are those of the author(s) and are not promoted or endorsed by Bestow or North American Company for Life and Health Insurance®.