Are you a wife and/or a mom? If so, I have a little game I'd like to play with you. I'm going to guess some things about you and you're going to count how many things I get right. Ready?
1. You are the first person in your house to get up in the morning and the last to get in bed at night -- but it's not because you're taking extra "you" time and enjoying long bubble baths.
2. When your family is going out to dinner, you rarely lobby for your choice of restaurants -- but it's not because your family beats you to the punch by suggesting one of your favorites before you can even open your mouth.
3. You work outside the home, yet you still do more chores than everyone else in your house combined.
4. Last Christmas Eve -- no, make that every Christmas Eve since the birth of your first child -- you are the last person in your house to go to sleep because you have to get everything ready for everyone else, including filling up all the stockings (except for yours, of course).
5. If I ask you to name one thing in the last month that you did that was just for you (and going grocery shopping without the kids in tow doesn't count), you would be hard-pressed to give me an answer.
How'd I do? Pretty well, I'll bet. But here's the trick to interpreting my score. The better I did, the worse you did. That's because if you answered yes to many (or all) of my questions, you're probably a supportive wife and a nurturing mother, but you are a terrible grown-up girl -- which doesn't bode well for your or your family's future.
What's a grown-up girl, you're wondering? It's someone who is responsible (that's the part about being grown-up) but who also knows how to look out for herself by not forgetting about her own hopes, dreams and desires (that's the part about being a girl). A grown-up girl is different from a woman in that she still takes loving care of her family and supports their various endeavors like most women, but she also takes loving care of herself and promotes and pursues her own interests and projects -- interests and projects that are separate from being a wife and mother.
When a girl is little it's OK for her to have her own dreams -- and it's fine for her to dream big. She can pretend to be a princess and reign over an entire land, or announce that she wants to be an Academy Award-winning actress or declare that she is going to be the next President of the United States.
And once she is all grown-up, she can even be whatever she wants to be -- as long as she also honors the social contract of what it means to be a woman. In our society's rule book, being a woman means that on top of whatever else she does, she must also be a selfless wife and endlessly giving mother -- and those things require her to put her wants and needs last.
Although most women now work outside of the home and contribute to the economic support of the family, women still shoulder the lion's share of the domestic responsibilities and assume a secondary, more supportive role in marriage. Carrying most of the chore load and riding shotgun in your marriage are still considered primary characteristics of being a good wife and mother. And being a good wife and mother are essential to being a woman.
And therein lies the trap. Our prize for doing everything right is a place in the back of the line -- where we have a great view of watching as everybody else's turn comes except ours. And the better we perform, the more permanent our place is at the end of the line.
Anyone who has read Langston Hughes' Harlem knows the perils of a dream deferred. Accepting these terms can undermine your marriage by downgrading your status from significant other to domestic helper. Not hot. And it can transform your cute kids into entitled teen monsters. Not cool. Or, as Hughes might say, you could just explode.
To be clear, there's nothing wrong with being a giving spouse and a nurturing mother -- unless you're not getting supported and nurtured by your family in return. And part of being nurtured requires you, your spouse and your kids to genuinely believe that dedicating time to taking care of yourself does not make you selfish -- it makes the whole family loving and supportive.
The bottom line here is this: When it comes to nurturing your children, whatever you do, don't stop. But don't forget to prioritize your own needs, too. Sign up for a class in something you're interested in. Make time to go to the gym or yoga. Insist that everyone pull his weight at home. Say yes to occasional invitations to get together with friends. Remember, your kids will be grown before you know it. And when it's time for them to leave the nest, if you have a life of your own separate and apart from being their mom, that will go a long way toward easing everyone through that transition.
And when it comes to supporting your spouse, please continue to be his number one fan. But don't neglect your coaching duties when it comes to Team You. Healthy relationships allow enough sunlight, oxygen and space for both partners to keep growing. If you are each strong in your own right, your union will be stronger, healthier and more interesting as a result.
So, rather than constantly striving to be the perfect woman, insist upon being a grown-up girl instead. This effort won't require you to stop being a good wife or mother. To the contrary, you'll be better at both as a result.