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Post-Divorce Parenting: How to Be a Smarter Mom, Not a Martyr Mom

09/27/2013 04:50 pm ET | Updated Nov 27, 2013

So, you got a divorce and now you have a raging case of parental guilt. You want to make up for the hell your kids have endured, but you're smart enough to know that buying them things is not the right way to go about it. Sure, a brand new flat screen would get you some immediate props, but you know material things can't address emotional wrongs. You don't want your kids to view retail therapy as a solution rather than a problem in and of itself. Plus, you don't want to send the message that atonement can be bought rather than earned.

Because you're smart, you understand all of that. But still you want to make it up to your kids so you come up with an even better plan. You morph into Super Mom and dedicate your entire life to being the best. Mom. Ever!

As Super Mom, you don't just give your kids help whenever they ask for it; you meet all of their needs before they even realize they have any. A BPA-free, condensation-proof water bottle filled with chilled, filtered water magically appears in one hand long before your kid realizes he's thirsty. And like a guardian angel, you lovingly place the strap to his soccer bag over his shoulder as he walks out the door. Your touch is so light he doesn't even notice you doing it -- just like he doesn't notice that you carefully packed his bag with a neatly folded soccer uniform, a fresh change of clothes for after practice, and a power bar just in case he gets hungry.

As Super Mom, you don't leave your kids' education to chance; you have all of their homework assignments calendared and their teachers on speed dial. And as Super Mom, you don't do anything selfish like catch up with friends or pursue you own interests when your kids are visiting their dad; you spend all of that time redecorating your kids' bedrooms and organizing their closets. As Super Mom, you don't just go the extra mile for your kids, you line out the road, pave it, then carry them all the way down it.

Why do you do all of these things? Because it proves to your kids (and everyone else in the whole wide world) how much you love them. Plus, it earns you a permanent place in their hearts -- and not just any old place, but first place -- way above the one occupied by you ex husband. Right?

Wrong.

What you don't realize is that in your effort to morph into Super Mom, you've become Smother Mother instead. And Smother Mother is no help to anyone at all, either in the short- or long-run. Here's why:

Smother Mother cripples her kids' development. One of the main projects your kids need to work on while growing up is figuring out how to master doing things on their own. If you always pack every bag for them, they will never figure out how to pack for themselves, let alone learn how to think through what items they need. And managing their schedules, relationships, and homework while they are under your roof sets them up for failure once they leave home. All of your help ends up hurting them, leaving them with a very real handicap to overcome.

Smother Mother trains her kids to take things for granted. Each time you flip a switch and the lights come on, are you filled with gratitude? Probably not. You likely take for granted that the lights will come on -- because they always do. And when a light bulb does burn out once in a while, rather than making you appreciate all the times the lights work without incident, it most likely makes you irritated at the inconvenience.

This realization should generate a light bulb moment for your parenting -- because when it comes to doing nice things for your kids, the same principle applies. If you occasionally do something nice for them, they will recognize it as a special treat. But if you constantly do that same nice thing for them, they will come to see it as your job. They will only notice when you don't do it -- and then they will be irritated because from their perspective you dropped the ball.

When you do everything for your kids all the time, the same effect gets magnified across the board -- they expect everything and appreciate nothing. When parents require kids to pitch in with the household chores and keep up with their personal responsibilities as much as their age and ability allow, those kids are more likely to recognize other people's contributions, and appreciate the times when someone cuts them a break.

Smother Mother conditions her kids to be entitled. Kids that are raised by Smother Mother have a hard time in their personal relationships. Why? Because they have skewed expectations. Smother Mother did everything without them even realizing it, much less appreciating it -- and they gave nothing in return. As a result, they expect a concierge service rather than a partner. If these kids do manage to get into relationships, they're likely to be as lopsided as they are brief.

Kids raised by Smother Mother can also have a difficult time in the workplace. Without their mom to manage deadlines and keep them organized and on task, their performance suffers. But when this happens they don't recognize that it's their fault. From their standpoint, their employer is to blame for not providing the same level of support they're accustomed to getting from Smother Mother -- and they need that support in order to do their jobs.

Smother Mother robs herself of the chance to be a complete person. It sounds clichéd to say this, but your kids are going to be grown and gone before you know it. And their ability to make the transition from childhood to adulthood not only depends on their ability to do things for themselves, it also depends on your ability to let them go. Letting go is far easier if you have projects, interests, and hobbies independent of your identity as your kids' mom.

When you have an infant the only hobby for which you have time is brushing your teeth -- and that's on a good day. But the older your kids get, the more front and center your individual interests should be. By the time your kids move out of the house you should have a full life and an identity of your own. That way you won't be tempted to hang on to your kids in an unhealthy way, and they won't feel guilty for moving forward without you.

Smother Mother is boring company. You may think that doing everything for your kids will make them prefer being with you to anyone else, but it actually has the opposite effect. If your entire identity is wrapped up in being their mom, you don't exactly make for interesting company. A good conversationalist is someone who has a variety of interesting things to talk about -- topics that are surprising or different. If your only topic is your kids, you will likely come across as one-dimensional. And ironically, the folks whom you most want to impress -- your kids -- will be the ones who find you the least enjoyable to be around. Talking to you will have all the conversational sparkle of chatting with the chore lady.

So rather than trying to be Super Mom and ending up Smother Mother instead, aim for being [insert your name here]-Mom. As [insert your name here]-Mom, you will maintain a clear sense of who you are separate and apart from being a mom, and your kids will grow up with that awareness, too. Valuing your individual identity enough prevent it from being consumed by your role as mother is a critically important part of being a good mom. It means you love your kids enough not to make them crippled, entitled, or responsible for your social and emotional needs. If you succeed in maintaining this balance, chances are good that your kids will enjoy your company even after they're grown. But if for some reason they don't, you'll have a full life of your own, anyway.