I believed I was the quintessential mother. Generous until it hurt. Selfless until it hurt me. A martyr, as my husband would often chide. I spent every waking moment focusing on making my kids’ childhoods fulfilling and memorable. I had one singular goal in life -- to ensure my children’s happiness and foster their success in every way possible. I became “supermom” and, as time passed, a less than super wife, daughter, sister, and friend. I allowed my kids to come first –- always -- before their dad, our extended families, friends and, most notably, myself.
Looking back, indulging my children’s every whim, desire, and demand was not the optimal parenting style I had once thought. No longer married and with full physical custody of my three children, I have been forced by time and monetary constraints to curtail many of my previous material and emotional indulgences. What I found is not only do I enjoy parenting more, my kids are far better behaved, goal-oriented, and appreciative than they ever were when I was married. Here’s what I changed.
1. My priorities. During my marriage’s early years, pretty much all I thought about was my children’s futures. Did they attend the best schools? Was the curriculum challenging enough? Were they building healthy and lasting friendships? In my haste to get them from point A to point B, I gradually lost sight of me. Then, before I knew it, the future I had planned for them was at my doorstep. My kids were suddenly more self-sufficient and I had more time on my hands than ever before. Watching my children realize their goals, although satisfying in a way only a parent can understand, also made me realize how I completely neglected my needs and aspirations all of those years. Motherhood should never be an all or nothing prospect. Yet I had made it one. My happiness and well-being matter, too. Though I am still incredibly busy as mom to one elementary school-age child, a middle schooler, and a high school student, I now devote time to fostering my future, both professional and personal, as well. Soon enough my kids will be on their own and so will I. Making myself a priority in my own life is the one way I know will adequately prepare me for that day.
2. My boundaries. In keeping with prioritizing my needs alongside my children’s, I began setting and enforcing boundaries between them and myself. Because I have full physical custody the majority of the time, it’s tempting to lose my identity among theirs if I don’t draw a line somewhere. The demarcation line I chose lies between my family life and my social life. When I began dating after my separation I initially heard complaints from my kids about going out without them. They weren’t used to sharing me, especially with a stranger. I felt guilty, too, not only for leaving them behind but also for wanting to. The truth is, I look forward to those few hours away from them with another adult. I need that time off to clear my head and be someone other than my children’s mom. So I force them and myself to deal with the separation because, frankly, it's better for all of us. I am more centered when I return home from an evening out, and better able to cope with all of the rigors single parenting involves.
The benefits haven't stopped there. Because I'm fortunate to have a mother and stepfather who babysit often and take my children on outings when I’m not home, during my few hours away each week my children grew closer to their grandparents. Now they look forward to spending that special time together. If I hadn’t shared my kids, the familial bond they enjoy today would likely not be as strong.
3. My image. Moms can look good, too! Gone are the days when I spent every last dime on my kids and nothing on myself. Today I own an extensive wardrobe (I do love a sale!) and sport manicured nails and professionally styled hair. Gone are the days when I didn’t exercise because I had no time. Today I make the time. Gone are the days when I didn’t read, a pastime I’ve always loved. These days my nose is always buried in a book or article whenever I have a spare moment. I want my children to see me as a person other than their mom. I take pride in my appearance. I have interests apart from parenting –- writing, art, music, and travel, to name only a few. The best part is these are interests we can share and explore together. I’m not only the woman who cares for their needs. I’m a mentor, role model, and inspiration.
4. My attitude. My best is good enough -- for all of us. I stopped beating myself up for not functioning at one hundred percent one hundred percent of the time. I have my bad days. Everyone does. But I work through my sadness, pessimism, and insecurity and fight for the next day -- a better one. A couple of years ago, my eldest daughter switched sleepaway camps and felt extremely homesick, likely a function of the turmoil back at home as my marriage unraveled. She felt out of sorts, a feeling I related to when I first became single. She pleaded to come home, though I was confident camp was the best place for her, away from our then troubled family life. I insisted she tough it out, reminding her she is a "smart, strong, beautiful, independent woman" (Freaky Friday, 2003). I made her repeat this mantra over and over each time we communicated. As I convinced my daughter of her strength, I convinced myself of my own. My daughter stuck it out through a difficult time, and so did I. Although at first I didn’t necessarily believe the words as I described myself, and likely neither did my daughter as she uttered the same, not succumbing to our fears and emerging stronger is evidence we are the success we strive to be.
5. My answer. "No" is no longer a dirty word in our house. Lately I say it even more than I say "yes". No, we do not have the money this month. No, we do not have time today. No, you cannot wake me at all hours of the night for non-emergencies. No, I will not cancel my evening plans after we spent an entire day together. At first saying "no" was a shock to the system for both my children and myself. I certainly endured more than my share of backlash from my kids each time I said it. But soon enough they adapted.
And here’s what I got in return.
My reward came just days ago from my eldest child. My girls spent part of their summer attending an academic program at a college located a little over an hour from home. Less than a week after they arrived, I took them to visit their younger brother at his sleepaway camp. After hours of driving and a long day in the sun, I brought them back to school. My daughter’s birthday followed two days later, and I promised to again return so we could celebrate together. On that evening we went to dinner with her grandparents and my daughter’s close friend. At night when I finally returned home, exhausted, I heard the chime of an incoming text message and braced myself for the usual barrage of requests and complaints that come so frequently. Instead, I received the most pleasant of surprises.
“I really enjoyed my birthday. I know you're busy, and I appreciate that you drove up to spend it with me. Thank you for making tonight a nice evening and making my day great! I love you.”
And there it was. The proof I needed but never once asked for or expected. As a single parent I live with so much guilt. I know I'm not alone feeling this way. Single parents are stretched in ways we never before imagined. Under unrelenting stress I live in constant fear I’m not doing enough or well enough for my kids. But in that moment I knew I was doing something right. My daughter doesn’t take her blessings for granted. And I'm so grateful for mine.
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