THE BLOG
04/14/2011 10:17 am ET Updated Jun 14, 2011

Stop Putting Your Kids First

It wasn't too many years ago that parents believed children should be "seen and not heard." Now they've become the center of our universe. But these have not been good years for the parents who hover over their kids' every thought and action and become slaves to their every desire. According to recent studies, college students who have helicopter parents were more likely to be neurotic and dependent, and are "the least happy with college and ... are doing less well academically and socially."

I can read the T-shirt now: "I spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on tutors, enrichment classes and Baby Einstein CDs and all I got was a neurotic kid."

But, forget about the poor kids -- Margaret K. Nelson, a sociology professor at Middlebury College and the author of Parenting Out of Control: Anxious Parents in Uncertain Times is much more worried about the parents -- specifically, the parents' marriage:

Working a demanding job while paying painstaking attention to one's children leaves little time for maintaining a marriage. A study by Robin Wilson of the Washington and Lee University School of Law reports that women with MBAs get divorced or separated more often than those who have only a bachelor's degree, while women with law or medical degrees are more likely to divorce or separate than their male counterparts.

Those kinds of statistics haven't gone unnoticed, so it's not surprising that there has been an increasingly vocal group challenging parents to change their ways, among them David Code, an Episcopal minister and family coach. In his 2009 book, Put Your Marriage Before Your Kids, Code writes, "To raise healthy kids, simply put your marriage first and your children second. For many of today's couples, the children are priority No. 1 one and marriage is priority No. 10 -- and few of us make it past the top three priorities on our daily to-do list."

Psychiatrist Michelle Goland agrees: "The mistake many moms make is they believe that if they are a good mother, their husband will be fine and he will understand, but in reality, the husband may feel pushed out of the parenting role and begrudgingly gives up trying to have a relationship with his wife."

Adds author and cognitive behaviorist Judith S. Beck, "Parents need not, and should not, sacrifice their needs (and some of their desires) for the sake of their children. They should be able to make decisions based on what is good for individual family members, including themselves, and what is good for the family as a whole."

It isn't necessarily easy for the moms who do that, however -- just ask author Ayelet Waldman, whose proclamation that she loves her husband, author Michael Chabon, more than their four kids caused such an outcry that she felt compelled to examine modern-day parenting in her book, Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities and Occasional Moments of Grace. Still, more and more parenting experts are encouraging parents to chill and refocus.

But what if you're divorced, as I am? What if you have no marriage to work on, no spouse to pamper and put first? What if there's just you? Can a divorced person put his or her needs first, before the kids?

I wouldn't want to admit to doing that too loudly at the next PTA gathering.

"Good" single parents are supposed to sacrifice for their kids, or so says single mom Shoshana Alexander, a founding editor of the Utne Reader. Researching for her book In Praise of Single Parents, she found that, "All of the successful single parents I interviewed ... had, early on, decided to make their children the central focus of their lives."

Somehow, that doesn't seem right -- or healthy.

Why would single parents have to go beyond the normal sacrifices that make up good parenting? A single mom who's frazzled trying to put her kids first isn't helping her kids; she's just making herself unhappy and unhealthy. And, as the saying goes, if momma ain't happy, ain't nobody happy.

But if single parents take care of our own needs, we're seen as selfish. Worse, we guilt-trip ourselves, believing that we're failing as a parent if we take time out for some personal indulgences, dating or even sex. It's worse if our kids don't see their other parent that much, or at all; it's easy to overcompensate while trying to take on the role of both parents. And so we fall into the single parent trap, forgetting that if we don't take care of ourselves, we turn into miserable, stressed-out, crappy parents.

I'd rather follow the advice of Kate Winslet, who says she started exercising post-divorce because "my way out of everything, has been really taking care of myself. I think that comes from an awareness that my children really need me, and they need me to be the healthiest version of myself that I can possibly be."

It's why airlines tell parents to put on their oxygen mask first before they assist their kids. You're not going to be much use to them if you pass out first.