I reach the other other end of another decade next week, which has given me pause for reflection.
I spent years worrying about those things, to the point that the stress of getting everything right and not succeeding began to affect my health. I’m an anxious person with a generous side portion of OCD thrown in and I wanted to be that ‘perfect’ parent. But I now know that although I have good kids and love them dearly, neither of them will be grateful for the sacrifices I made until they themselves are parents and make their own self-sacrifices.
You see, I got completely sucked in by the motherhood sales pitch and the promise of parenting glory and so eagerly took up its optional extras of guilt and fear of failure. And before I knew it, I’d sidelined my own personal ambitions and happiness to put my children’s needs ahead of my own.
Until last year, when the realisation eventually dawned on me that not only had I lost sight of who I was (and that it was actually okay to let go of my son, if necessary), but my obsession with doing everything by the parenting book was making me ill and I needed to prioritise my own sanity.
I’m sure that sounds selfish to many of you. My daughter recognised my problem. She has always accused me of ‘not being able to compartmentalise’ my emotions – (a mature level of criticism from a twenty-year old who still believes life rolls like a Disney movie). She noticed that I allowed the fall-out of arguments between myself and her brother to impact everything that happened that day, or even that week.
Therapy has taught me that that when we ‘enable’ our children, rather than ’empower’ them, we are damaging both them and us.
Children and young adults need to be free to make mistakes while they remain in the safety zone of home – in doing so, they learn to take responsibility, value themselves, (and ultimately us) without risk. And the benefit for us parents, is that when we’re not wasting our lives fussing over over decision they make, we make more time for ourselves; to achieve our own personal goals. Which is really important when we’re one of their main role-models.
We western mothers, many of whom have no extended family close by to support us, have had to rely on parenting manuals to teach us how to raise our children. Sadly, the need to attain some sort of altruistic success for ourselves out of parenting – via our kids successes – has devalued our own worth, in some cases. We are guilty of over-protecting our progeny, which is where the ‘helicoptering analogy stemmed from, and this mode of parenting will ultimately damage their confidence in their own abilities too.
I can’t pinpoint exactly when my kids’ needs began to overtake the relevance of my own and I transformed into the type of female doormat I despised when I was a younger woman. I only became fully aware of the implications of that change when we reached crisis point last year, when our son tried to assume full control of the power I had innocently provided him with in our household and made it obvious that he believed our happiness was secondary to his. I’d missed the signs, of course; so busy was I trying to be his perfect mum.
What sort of mother would I have been if I’d allowed him to fail?
It turns out a ‘good’ one. And that shift in focus from the importance of my life versus his not only had a detrimental effect on his development, but it affected mine, too. I became over-anxious, irritable, resentful and less confident in my abilities. I was judging my personal success as being mum to my kids, in spite of having a career I enjoyed, friends and a sound relationship. Which meant when either of the kids tripped over life’s hurdles, I saw those trips as my failures too.
Don’t let your children define who you are. Let them be an extension of you rather than your life’s work.