S is for Self. Why being a selfish, not selfless, parent is good for you, for your children, and for your relationship. This post is part of our blog series, The A to Z of Being Babyproof, a celebration of the attitudes and behaviours it takes to balance career and family – because “babyproof” is not a destination, it’s a blueprint for having it all and making it work.
The biological imperative
There’s no doubting the existence of parental instinct – the urge to protect and care for our offspring at any cost is pervasive. We see it in the animal kingdom too and most new parents will recognise that massive primal shift in focus from themselves to their vulnerable infants. This biological imperative is there for a reason of course; it makes us hyper-attentive to our children’s needs and ensures that we feed and clothe them properly and keep them safe from harm.
The shift to selfless parenting
A socially-constructed extension of this natural instinct however is the idea of completely selfless parenting; that to be good parents we need to put our children’s needs above and beyond our own. What started as a protective mechanism to ensure the survival of the species, has, in modern society, become a way that many of us measure our value and success as parents. We associate being selfless with good parenting, little realising that this can actually have a negative effect on our parenting and on our children’s development. And this drive towards selflessness is ingrained. A recent qualitative study of postpartum mothers showed that even when new mums were intellectually aware of the importance of self-care in bringing up their babies, they were conflicted by the strong belief that they needed to be selfless to be good parents.
So how does selfless parenting manifest itself?
- Not taking proper care of our own health and well-being; neglecting our own sleep, hygiene or nutrition; over-working, not exercising or not managing our stress. (Have a look at my blog on the importance of self-care here.)
- Stopping doing things we enjoy; sacrificing time for our own hobbies and interests in favour of our children’s.
- Not delegating caring responsibilities to others (for example, not getting a babysitter) because we feel it is bad parenting. (My blog with tips on asking for help is here).
- Neglecting our relationships by focusing solely on our children.
Recognise any of these behaviours in yourself or someone you know? If you do, or if you would just like to put yourself first sometimes without feeling guilty, here are 6 compelling reasons to stop being selfless:
- You may live to regret it.
You only have your children at home with you for a finite period of time. If you have given up your own interests in favour of living your life vicariously through them, you risk ultimately losing your identity and your passion when the time comes for them to leave home.
- Your kids may regret it.
Denying yourself to the point where you are unhappy is bad news for your kids. Ask any child who grew up in a household where their parent gave up everything for them and they will speak about this with regret, wishing instead that their parent had done more to keep themselves fulfilled. They may feel burdened by guilt because of it.
- It can be emotionally stifling for your kids.
Subordinating your life for your kids can lead to you relying too much on them for your happiness. This can be emotionally oppressive.
- You are creating a negative role model.
Kids learn more from what we do than what we tell them to do. If they see you putting yourself last you are teaching them that this is normal and that this is what they should do to themselves.
- You could be risking your relationship by:
– Neglecting it. If you always put your kids over and above your partner you aren’t putting in the effort and energy that relationships need to survive.
– Destabilising it. Often in a relationship while one partner is busy being selfless, the other is busy being selfish – doing things they enjoy, putting themselves first. Your unwillingness to be selfish, or the expectation that your partner should be as selfless as you, can breed resentment and anger and create distance in your relationship.
- Your health may suffer.
And that’s bad news for everyone. Being so selfless that you don’t take the time to exercise or rest, or you don’t make the effort to have a healthy diet will have negative consequences for your mood, your performance and your energy levels in all spheres of your life.
It’s clear then that completely selfless parenting can have a negative impact – but how do you learn to focus more on your own needs?
Get to know yourself
If you don’t have kids yet but are planning to in the future, take the time to reflect on who you are, what matters most to you and the things and people in your life who thrill and excite you. Make a decision now to consider these things regularly, and especially when you become a parent.
If you already have kids, take the time to reflect on these things, but also on who you were before you had kids. Parenting changes us fundamentally but in many ways we’re still the same. We’re often too quick to talk about all the ways in which our life is different when kids come along, and our changed priorities. We often do this by default without actually taking the time to tune into our selves and the things that make us feel happy and fulfilled beyond our kids. Instead, take interest in yourself again, not just in who you are now but also in who you want to be.
Whether you are an existing or a future parent, here are some questions to help with this:
- What are my values, what matters most to me? (Have a look at my blog on this subject here.)
- How can I live my values today?
- What have I always wanted to do?
- Where have I always dreamed of going?
- What skill would I love to have (e.g. playing an instrument, learning a language)?
- Which 3 friends do I value most and why? What can I do to stay connected to those friends?
- What did my partner love about me when they first met me?
- What did my partner and I love doing together when we first met?
Set aside time to consider your answers to the above. Don’t qualify or edit your answers according to whether you think you they are possible or feasible. The whole point is to keep your dreams alive, to stay tuned into what excites you and makes you happy. Then make a promise to yourself to dedicate at least 5 minutes each day to pursuing your goals – to being ‘selfish’ if you like. If you make a small amount of selfishness a habit, it will pay dividends for your parenting. After all, it is only when you are happy, healthy and fulfilled that you can be the best parent you can possibly be.
‘Self-care is so important. When you take time to replenish your spirit, it allows you to serve others from the overflow. You cannot serve from an empty vessel.’ – Eleanor Brown, novelist and speaker.
What are you going to do for yourself today? Let us know in our closed Facebook group.
Caroline Flanagan is a Keynote Speaker, Babyproof Coach and Author of Babyproof Your Career, The Secret to Balancing Work and Family so you can Enjoy It All. Caroline believes passionately in the dream of having it all, and founded Babyproof Your Life to train and prepare ambitious career women for the marathon of working parenthood so they can find their own way to #enjoyitall and #makeitwork. You can reach Caroline at firstname.lastname@example.org