Mothers Who Put Themselves First: Selfish Or Sane?

05/13/2017 08:15 am ET Updated May 13, 2017

The motherhood job is hard. Frankly, I think it’s getting harder.

You have to see me in the mornings. From exactly 7:30 am to 8 am, I’m checking my phone for any fires I need to deal with, I'm waiting for a text from the bus driver to say they are getting close, my 22-month-old wants a diaper change and milk stat, I have to get my oldest dressed and fed while he argues with me over my choice of shirts ALL while I simultaneously get myself dressed, hop into control top pantyhose and try to look like a normal human being. I eat a hard boiled egg (because it’s portable) as I walk to the subway, I do my makeup on the train and typically fix my hair on the street on the way to wherever meeting I’m heading to. “What? Me? Oh no. I woke up like this while canaries and kittens basked in my motherly glow!” The second I get home, I immediately pick out my outfit and my oldest’s outfits for the next morning, put cheerios in a bowl to lovingly serve (i.e., remove from a ziplock bag) to my children in the morning and prepare the hard boiled egg to hurl towards me as I race to the R line. Then I put on my Wonder Woman pajamas and pass out at 9:30pm. Wake up, repeat, drop dead.

My husband asked me what I wanted for Mother’s Day and instead of flowers or jewelry, I asked if I could just have a few hours to catch up on “me time”. What’s odd (and potentially sad) is, for me, this doesn’t entail going to the spa or napping. My goal for me time is to finally binge watch Season Two of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend while switching my winter clothes for my summer clothes. Really. That’s it. To watch television that isn’t made by Pixar and to catch up on errands. I may sneak in an episode of The Golden Girls if I feel like really mixing it up.

A couple of months ago, I was talking to a friend about their mom. They were saying she wasn’t the best mother because she always “put herself first”. Then, a few weeks after that, a different friend of mine was talking about her mother and how she always put everyone else ahead of herself. Both conversations got me thinking.

When you hear people talk about what makes a “good mom”, you often hear phrases like, “She did everything for her children.” Or “She always puts family first.” There seems to be a perception that whether a mom works or stays home, a “selfless” mom is a good mom and a mom who “puts her needs first”, whatever that means, isn’t.

The puts-herself-first thing can vary, obviously. If your children are sitting there hungry and a mom is like, “I’m going to Nobu! Bye!” and doesn’t take care of her children whatsoever, that’s an entirely different matter. If a mom is like, “Here’s a yummy dinner and a fun babysitter to watch you while your father and I actually catch up.”, that’s different. Then, of course, there’s the mom’s that makes an organic three course meal from scratch for her children and will eat the burnt scraps while she cleans up. My feeling is society would think the third category would be “the best mom”.

But haven’t we learned, though, that you need to put the oxygen mask on yourself first before you help others? Growing up, my mother always said, “A happy mom is a good mom.” So if you are happier working, do it. If you’re happier being a stay home mom, do it. I also think that if you do need to put yourself first occasionally to be in a good place, then you should do it. I don’t think that’s selfish though. I think it’s more about survival or sanity.

“My company registered tagline speaks loud and clear about how I view motherhood - registered trademarked tagline is ‘Motherhood is not where dreams go to die.’” Jacqueline Miller, CEO & Founder of Jacqueline DuJour Enterprises, and Working Mom Enthusiast said. “No matter how great you are at fulfilling your children’s needs, if you aren’t fulfilling your own, you’re not setting the positive example you want to set. When you aren’t completely happy, overflowing with joy, chasing your dreams with unadulterated bliss and living your best life, the entire household suffers, whether it’s your intent or not.”

Julie Ross, Owner and Executive Director at Parenting Horizons adds, “One, if mothers put their children’s needs before their own all the time, it’s likely that they are not facilitating independence in their children. For example, a child leaves a school book at home. Mom receives a frantic call from the child at school asking to please, PLEASE drop everything and bring the book to school. When the mom does that, she’s certainly taking care of her child’s need. Unfortunately, the child is learning that they don’t have to think for themselves ahead of time to remember the materials they need in school that day and that mom will be there to pick up the pieces. That experience won’t serve the child in later life when they forget a deadline for a boss.”

“Two,”, Ross continues, “Always putting your child’s needs first by fixing their problems means that you are not developing resilient children. Children need to be a little uncomfortable when faced with a problem and they need to develop good problem solving skills. But when a mother puts their child’s needs first, she is often doing the problem solving for them, making sure that the “road of life” is as smooth and comfortable for them as possible. It’s the bumps in the road that teach us resiliency and strength.”

I asked both Miller and Ross the tough question of what they think is a “good mother”. Ross said, “I think a ‘good mom’ is a balanced mom. Being balanced means taking not only your children’s needs seriously but also your own. When mothers practice self-care, they impart the importance of that on their children as well. I think that more and more, the world is becoming imbalanced, with ‘success’ being determined by how many hours one works and how much money one makes. To create balance (for themselves and for their children), moms need to show that it’s ok to take a break, read a book, have a nice long bath, take a walk by yourself. In that way, they can come back to parenting refreshed and renewed.”

Miller sees it as more open to opinion. “The term ‘good mother’ is subjective. No one can define what that means for you, within the confines of your home. Are you, your family, functional (by general societal standards), healthy and happy with the family dynamic? Is your goal excellence versus perfection when it comes to parenting? Are you content with being perfectly imperfect? Are you able to put your head on the pillow at night, content that you are being the best Mom that you possibly could be? I encourage women to focus more on those questions, than an outsider’s definition.”

Miller also said something I myself aim for: Balance. “Personally, I don’t believe that balance or equalization is possible because something or someone inevitably comes up short.” So how does one aim for any kind of structure? Miller suggests, “My number one recommendation is for individuals to establish time and place boundaries. For example, no discussions of work during meals, no phone calls to or from colleagues during a specified timeframe, shut the work cellphone off at a particular time and never, ever bring work related items into the bedroom.” This seems doable.

Ross also recommends, “Self-care, self-care, self-care.” And who doesn’t love that? She says, “Remind yourself that it’s ok to set boundaries with your children; it’s ok to ask that they take care of their own needs sometimes (the ones that the child is developmentally capable of taking care of, of course); that a warm bath, a short walk, a cup of coffee or reading the page of a newspaper is not only ok, it’s important for your own balance. Even more importantly, it teaches children that creating balance in their own lives as well is not only ok, it’s essential.”

And Miller certainly agrees. “You CAN be a great Mom and follow your dreams. Guilt-free. The truth is this: being a mother does NOT mean you stop being a human. Sure, priorities shift when you have children, however, they don’t have to stay that way forever. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. If you truly love your own children, the LAST THING you should do is neglect your own passions. Why? Because when you’re sitting around sipping too many glasses of Cabernet and watching the same Real Housewives episode over and over feeling unsatisfied about your life outside of motherhood, your children notice.”

To me, and I’m not just saying this because we’re so close to Mother’s Day, I do think my mom was right: A happy mom is a good mom. Yes, you have responsibilities, you need to make sure (somehow) that everyone’s needs are met but we must remember that does, in fact, include your own needs too. You can’t pour from an empty cup.

So whether you’re a mother, godmother, hopeful mother, or a sexy mother, I hope you all take a moment to fill up your own cup up with any liquid of your choice (although I personally like Miller’s suggestion of a Cabernet).

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