I just dropped my 13-year-old daughter off at the local fair with her friends. I watched her walk towards the animals and rides in cutoff denim shorts. It’s hot out, and as I watched her walk away, I wondered if she had enough water today and I considered running my water bottle over to her.
But I didn’t because I knew it would humiliate her and I did give her enough money to buy a bottle of water.
It’s fine, I told myself as I drove away. She’ll be fine.
A few hours later, I drove back and picked her up, despite the fact that I wanted nothing more than to be done for the day. I was exhausted, but she comes before my comfort and desire to fall asleep on the sofa while watching Friends reruns.
The thing is, even now, as I watch my teenagers go off with their friends and develop more of a life on their own that involves a bit less of me each year, they still come first — their feelings come first, their comfort comes first. Yes, I put their need before mine.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not about dropping my life to wait on them hand and foot; it’s about making sure they have what they need first in order to thrive. And there are times when that includes telling them no, staying home at night instead of running them around, or making them do chores they don’t want to do.
All of that takes time, energy and willpower too but it’s included in putting them first because it’s worth the effort to see them thrive, step out of their comfort zone, and do things they might not want to do.
When they were small, I fed them before I fed myself. If I was on the toilet and they needed to be soothed, I held them. If I felt they’d had a rough day at school, but I had plans to meet friends out or get a manicure, I’d cancel so I could be with them. This wasn’t always the case, but when it was, I’d cancel my plans without question.
This isn’t about putting the pressure on yourself to always show up and be completely exhausted in the process, but that does come with it of course — motherhood is the ultimate sacrifice and putting our offspring’s needs before our own is hardwired into our brains. Trying to balance self-care and our kids’ wants and needs is the hardest thing many of us will do. But we know for now, there are times when our life can wait.
Different ages and stages call for different things from parents. There are times when your kids need you more. Like when they are struggling with a friendship, teething, are sick, or when you and your family are going through a big change.
Not every parent can be there at the exact moment their child needs them, whether it’s because of their work schedule, or a family emergency.
You can’t always make sacrifices during those times, but your kids are always at the forefront of your mind. So when it comes to outings with friends, or taking on extra work, or that manicure you desperately need, or the windows that you really want to clean, you put those things on hold so you can tend to your kids and give them what they need.
Then, there are times they need less of you and you try with all your being not to be extra and hover because you know that’s not good for them either.
You do this because this is what your life has become — putting them first — and that looks different all the time.
I’m not saying you flush your own mental health and self-care down the drain and cater to their every command. I’m talking about the need we have to know our kids are in a good place. Who can relax when they know their children need them, and they just can’t be there?
Putting your kids first isn’t always easy. Fighting your way through the day so someone else can have a really good life and being sure that they are loved unconditionally can be soul-sucking. It doesn’t mean you want to do it each time or you always do it right or you don’t have regrets.
It means you are doing what feels natural to you as a parent because you are so aware that a time will come when they won’t be small any longer, or they will be with their friends more often and busy with their own life.
And that will open up more time for you so that you can put your life and needs first.
But for now, if my kids need me and I have other plans, their needs trump mine. If I want in on their lives and they’re asking me to step back a bit, that’s what I will do.
I’ve had a few decades for my life, before kids, to focus on me. It was fun, but now it’s about them. And once that time passes, I won’t be able to get it back.