I have a picture on my dresser of me and my oldest daughter. She was maybe a month old and lying on a Boppy Pillow. I am curved around her and the pillow and looking at her while she looks up at the camera. On the surface, this picture shows a sweet moment in time—an attentive and present parent with their child. The picture is accurate in portraying how smitten I was with my baby. You can’t see my face, though, and the picture doesn’t portray how lonely I was too.
I had a support system and, while we are not together now, a partner who was also an attentive and present parent. I had wanted nothing more than to become a parent, but I struggled with the new role that my child created for me. I thought that to be a good parent, I had to give all of myself to her. I felt guilty and selfish if I ever put myself first, so I didn’t. The picture on my dresser reminds me how wrong I was.
I knew parenting involved sacrifice, and I was prepared to give up certain freedoms. But two more kids and nine years later, I understand that no one person can or should give all of themself to anyone, not even their children. In no way am I blaming my children for any of the self-defeating patterns and lies I repeated, but I used to think of them as reasons or justifications for not making choices that ultimately put me first.
Before I knew it was time to get sober, I knew I had a drinking problem. And before I knew I was going to get a divorce, I knew my relationship wasn’t what I needed and wanted it to be. Yet, I told myself I needed to drink because it was the only way I could survive the chaos of raising three little kids with my sanity intact. I told myself that breaking up a family would be too hard on my kids; I should stay to protect their hearts. But I was losing my sanity and breaking my own heart. Making choices that seemed to put my kids first were excuses for me not taking control of my life. After a year of sobriety, I began to see how important it was and still is to choose me before choosing my kids. Making time and space to be the best version of myself is not selfish.
I have been thoughtful in my process, but putting myself first means I am able to be a more present parent. I am a happier parent. When I take care of my needs first, I am in a better place to take care of others’ needs, especially my children’s.
One of my biggest needs is exercise. It keeps me physically, emotionally, and mentally well, and is a key component to staying sober. Working out is a box I need to check almost daily. My kids see me leave the house every Sunday morning to workout with other addicts. They have seen me head out for runs or go to the basement to take time in my small home gym. I don’t feel bad if taking time for me means they are on screens or left to their own creative devices. Sometimes they ask to exercise with me, and instead of changing my plan, I add them into it. I will give them alternative exercises to do so that I can still do what I need to do while spending time with them.
I’m becoming much better at determining what I need and what I can manage with each of their requests. In the past, I would have shoved down anxiety, depression, or agitation in order to say yes to their requests to play a game, do a science experiment, or do anything that they thought was the most important thing to do at that moment. Sometimes I was able to hide my true emotions and would be able to shut down in order to show up, or so I thought. But other times I would be short with them and impatient. I let my emotions get the better of me, and saying yes meant feeling guilty because I wasn’t the parent I wanted to be in those moments.
A couple of years ago, this was very present during dinner prep time. My kids have always loved to help me in the kitchen. Food prep used to be done with a drink nearby. The drink disappeared, but the urge to drink did not. I tried to listen to podcasts to get me though the anxiety and desire to drink, but my kids were there. They were too young to know I was struggling and to understand why, but they were loud and interfering with my attempts to get dinner on the table without the lubrication of alcohol. I didn’t want their “help.” I would eventually give up, take out my ear buds and snap directions at them while feeling like I couldn’t breathe. I wasn’t doing anyone any favors, so I found a way to give myself what I needed.
I learned to give them a task next to me that they could do on their own. They were with me, but I no longer felt like my head was going to explode. They are old enough now that the tasks usually are helpful, but they are still done within our own space. I need space, and I encourage them to take space too.
My kids’ ages (9 and 6) have allowed me to be more direct with them when they want my attention or participation. If I am not in the right headspace, I suggest a time when we can do the thing they want to do. Many times I have said, “I need to do XYZ to be able to enjoy doing that thing with you. Can we meet up in 20 or 30 minutes?” They don’t always love waiting, but ultimately we both get what we want and need. Look—I know parenting does not always allow for the right headspace, and of course there are plenty of times when I am not enjoying every second with my children. That’s just the nature of having kids, and not the point.
Being a parent doesn’t mean being a martyr. Self-care is setting boundaries, saying no, and letting people know when you can help instead of constantly sacrificing what you want or need. It is not selfish. I am modeling to my kids that we need to recharge, check stuff off of our lists, and make space for ourselves in creative and important ways before we can make space for and take care of others.