After my post Dear Pope, having kids can be selfish too I got several comments about how parents need to put children first. I disagree. I believe that it’s crucial for a parent to take care of her own needs including stuff like eating when you’re hungry, sleeping when you’re tired, and taking a break from your kids when you need it. Obviously, this isn’t always possible, but the idea of taking care of yourself first is a useful notion to keep in your head, something to strive for. Meeting your own needs directly instead of meeting them through your kids (or food, alcohol, and various other addictions) is better for everybody. Rather than being something to feel guilty or ashamed about, taking care of yourself is healthy.
At first, it can be kind of scary, admitting you need to take care of yourself. When I was in my twenties, I smoked a pack of Marlboros a day, and one of the hardest things about quitting was that I valued that five minutes, the break I used to take to smoke. It was easier to say, “I need a cigarette” than “I need 5 minutes of solitude.”
Sometimes, taking care of me just has to do with the narrative I tell myself. For example, if my kids want to go the park and I don’t, I’ll try to think of a way to make it appealing to me. “I’ll sit in the sun,” or “I’ll chase them and get some exercise.” If they want to see a movie, I think “I can blog about it.”
The idea of taking care of myself also helps me try to keep my kids healthy, driving them to various activities or staying calm when they have tantrums. The narrative I tell myself is something like, “I need to help my kids experience their emotions, because in the long run, that’s better for me. They’re less likely to have problems as they grow which would be difficult, time-consuming, and expensive for me to deal with. It’s better for me to try my best to keep my kids healthy.” It’s kind of a mind trick, but it works for me. Taking care of my marriage, spending time with my husband, is good for my kids because it’s easier for happy parents to help create happy kids.
Another example: I get up at 5AM so I can drink coffee, meditate, and write before my kids get up. If we all rise at the same time, I feel angry and impatient. I need to take care of my needs first in the morning. I don’t drink alcohol because that affects my sleeping, and when I don’t sleep well, I tend to yell at my kids. When I do feel angry at my children, I often try to separate myself, take a break to let the feeling pass through me, rather than shout at them. I always think of that phrase they tell you on airplanes, to put on your oxygen mask first, and then help your child. I believe that humans need a huge amount of self care, and it’s better, at least for me, to admit that and deal with it, rather than use my kids to take care of me. I don’t know if that makes sense to you, but it’s been helpful so far.