Yep, I said it.
When I hear fellow mothers talk about putting their children’s needs before their own and before those of their partners, I cringe. I cringe because that statement is a symptom of a society that still makes women believe that to be a good wife, mother, daughter, and woman, they must abandon themselves. When women abandon themselves, their partners, children, and the world misses out on the greatness they have to share.
I know all about abandoning myself because I spent decades lying to myself. In addition to getting married when I knew I shouldn’t, I spent 13 years in a career I hated because I was afraid to say what I actually wanted (I even went back to school for master’s degrees I didn’t actually want). I spent years telling everyone, including myself, that I liked scrambled eggs when I actually like them over medium on avocado toast. I even used to say that I preferred neutral eye makeup when the reality is that I think rainbow-hued pigments are the bomb. I convinced myself that I was straight (and any evidence to the contrary was a phase) because being bisexual in a Midwestern Catholic family is way too difficult.
Some of these lies are about me taking the easy path instead of the one that requires a terrifying level of bushwhacking and cliff diving, but some of them are about me doing the things I thought I was supposed to. The women I saw growing up abandoned themselves when they became wives and mothers. They became beige - adopting the same haircut and pulling on the jeans and sweatshirt uniform adopted by their peers. These women weren’t dynamic, intelligent, creative, sexual beings who owned their lives; they were the support structure for other actual humans.
No wonder I thought I had to live without dreams and big fat desires for an exciting life. I thought that growing up meant becoming beige.
It’s so easy to get swept up in the everyday life of being a mom and a wife that you abandon yourself. Between us, Jim and I had four children when we got married, and through modern medical miracles, we added a fifth. When I still worked in that career I hated (self-acceptance is a process), the time I spent in the teacher’s lounge only served to reinforce the idea that mothers must become beige.
Coworkers talked about not having time to put on makeup in the mornings anymore because their children needed the crust cut off their sandwiches or their yogurt spoon-fed to them. I heard this and toned my makeup down, not wanting to appear as though I was less committed to giving my children the world of crustless bread. When I talked about exercising every day or going out with my friends every weekend while my husband, Jim, stayed with the kids, my coworkers were aghast. Mouths dropped open, and choruses of, “But, what do you do with the kids when you go out?” and “I can’t possibly exercise every day because my children need ___” echoed through the room.
The same messages existed when I’d return to Michigan to visit family. At my mother’s sixtieth birthday party, my aunts sat around a table and told me how proud they were of how well I take care of my family and all the wonderful ways I serve them (cooking, etc.). I did a shot of tequila with my mom and then said, “I also have two Master’s degrees and work as a literary specialist.” In response, my aunt asked me for the recipe for my gluten-free pierogis.
The thing about making your children your biggest priority is that we get rewarded. When people see women abandoning themselves to care for others, they say something like, “She’s so selfless,” as if it’s the highest honor. If you’re a “good” mother, the world is kind to you; your kids’ teachers praise you for running the bake sale, counting the box tops, and helping with the Christmas party. Your aunts praise you for being such a wonderful mother as if that is the pinnacle of womanhood.
Those secondary rewards are what keep you in the cycle of abandoning yourself and making your children your biggest priority. Meanwhile, you’re up until two am frosting cupcakes, you haven’t seen your best friend in five years, and the last time you read a book, Clinton was president. I know because I liked that sort of praise once upon a time too.
Our five children are not my biggest priority. (I’m excited to see all the shaming comments rain down on me for that statement.)
I am my biggest priority. I spend time checking in with myself every day, so I make sure that I’m living in a way that is true to who I am. I take care of my body with nourishing food and exercise as much as my chronic illness allows. I read, and take baths, and visit friends and attend writing meetup groups on Saturday mornings. I dance to live music on Saturday nights and a couple of times a year I go away by myself to do something just for me. Guess what happens when I make myself a priority? I feel fucking amazing, that’s what.
Since humans need connection and belonging to survive, my relationship with my partner is my second priority. We are a team united in keeping tiny humans alive and creating a life full of beautiful challenges and incredible amounts of enjoyment. We can’t do that unless we’re standing on a solid foundation.
Besides, eventually, the kids will move out, and we’ll be stuck together. I don’t want to look around in twenty years and not know the person sleeping next to me. Date nights are more important to me than family game nights and making sure my kids do their homework. God invented television and video games so that parents could prioritize their relationship once in a while.
The number of parents I know who haven’t been on a date or engaged in their hobbies (I didn’t write for the first nine years I was a mother) since their children were born is staggering. People become parents and think that everything else suddenly comes second (or third or fourth) to keeping little Belinda happy and entertained. Then, we’re all surprised when someone cheats or starts numbing their feelings with a substance of their choice. If you abandon yourself and stop prioritizing your wellbeing, you will either be depressed or start numbing, I guarantee it.
I’m not saying that your children shouldn’t be a priority for you, don’t get it twisted. Our children are priorities. This weekend I took my son on a one on one trip to a hotel so he could swim in a pool, and last night my husband left with our 18-year-old for a ski trip. We play board games with our ten-year-old most nights, and our four-year-old often gets cuddled until she falls asleep. Unless we’re caring for ourselves, doing those things with our kids feels like a chore or an obligation instead of something we are doing mindfully and graciously.
Your children are not the most important thing in your life. You are the most important thing in your life. You get one soul and one meat suit, and if you don’t take care of them both, what exactly are you going to have once your kids move out?
Close your eyes for a second and imagine a world where you say no to the bake sale, let your kids watch an extra thirty minutes of television, and you read a book, go for a run, or bedazzle a pair of sneakers (I’m not here to judge your hobbies). Now, imagine a world where you do those things every day. Sure, you’re going to disappoint people. (Maybe a lot of people.) But won’t that feel better than disappointing yourself?
Maria Chapman is a writer, coach, educator, and disability advocate living in Connecticut with her husband, five children, and aging rescue dog. She blew up a 13-year career in education to chase a dream. You can subscribe to her publication Lies We Tell Ourselves here where she examines the stories women believe that hold them back (and how they can move forward). You can follow her on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter more of her writing can be found here.