We have this great thirst for freedom because our fundamental aspiration is for happiness; and we sense that there is no happiness without love, and no love without freedom. This is perfectly true. Human beings were created for love, and they can only find happiness in loving and being loved. . . The problem is that our love often goes in the wrong direction: we love ourselves, selfishly, and we end up frustrated, because only genuine love can fulfill us. . . There is true love, and therefore happiness, only between people who freely yield possession of the self in order to give themselves to one another.
-Father Jacques Philippe, Interior Freedom
I came across this article recently which urges moms to put themselves first. The writer suggests unapologetically that moms should be selfish: “Your needs, your dreams, and your relationship [with your spouse] should come first because here is the thing: One day, maybe not soon, but somewhere in the future, your children will leave you . . .You don’t want to end up resenting your children for all the things you didn’t do in your life. You have to go and do those things, make yourself proud and make them proud.” She argues that you should come first, and you shouldn’t feel guilty about it, because when you make yourself the priority you will be happier, and a happy mom will be a better parent. You will be a great example to your kids of somebody who lives life well.
While I appreciate her advice about protecting your relationship with your spouse, she is wrong about the importance of prioritizing the needs of children, and she is wrong about the consequences of putting yourself first even before your kids. This brand of motherhood – the ME FIRST attitude, the IF MAMA AIN’T HAPPY, AIN’T NOBODY HAPPY shtick – is very appealing because it requires so little of us. It appeals to that infantile part of us that wants to be the center of universe.
I have heard this advice before. As a young woman, I received the message that I should take ownership of my future and my time, and that I shouldn’t allow children to take away something that is my right: my self-actualization and success. I was taught that women shouldn’t step off the track to “success” for the sake of their children, because not only would this be an injustice to women, but it would set a bad example to their children. Women who put others first? Bah! Boring and uninspiring; a waste of talent. Women should be interesting, independent, and intelligent just like men; they shouldn’t be sacrificing, soft, or sentimental because this image is a mere cultural construction that is meant to control women and to reserve most economic privileges for men.
Nonsense. Utter nonsense. These messages overlook the truth about human beings and how we’re wired.
The Successful Mother
I’ve learned over the years that, in reality, I could never be successful or self-actualized without taking into account the needs and well-being of my children. Because to place yourself always first, to prioritize your own needs, desires, and goals – well, that is a self-imposed prison. Putting yourself first at the cost of others is a sign if emotional impoverishment, not strength or wisdom. Nobody with any sense will admire you for it, least of all your children.
Of course, there is a huge difference between a want and a need. Our needs as parents can come before a child’s desires. Our need for sleep can be prioritized over a child’s desire to go to the park. But a child’s legitimate needs always come before a parent’s goals and desires, and almost always the child’s needs even come before a parent’s needs. This is where I disagree with the writer.
Now, the writer does make some excellent points. We do have to work with our husbands to figure out how to find a balance that works for everyone, so that our families as a whole can thrive. Moms should feel fulfilled, they should have meaningful work and hobbies, they should live with joy. But what does that look like to us? Moms should have all these things, but not at any cost. Not at the cost of a child’s well-being. The truth is, if we climb ladders to success, but leave our kids behind, we are actually failures. We will fail the most important assignment of our lives.
Mothering is not a shackle that holds us back. Mothering releases us to become our best selves. I’ve learned that the path to freedom lies not in shedding responsibility or obligations to my family, but in embracing them. Because true freedom and happiness are found in an unexpected and surprising place: in surrendering my will, my time, and my needs in order to love others – to do the good of the other no matter the cost to me. This is not a trick. It is the truth about me, about all women, about all human beings.
We were created through love for the purpose of love, and without the ability to give and receive love, we will never be happy or free. This is the greatest paradox of our existence: we find ourselves by emptying ourselves for the good of another.
When Kids Leave Home
Putting your own needs before the needs of your kids simply because they will leave home someday seems shallow to me. A mother who makes this choice is looking to her children to fill some hole within herself. Children aren’t there to meet our needs; we are there to meet their needs. Children have intense needs for nurturance, stability, and consistency from their parents, and it’s our duty to meet those needs the best we can. In fact, you can be an engaged mother who loves generously and still be incredibly happy and fulfilled. In truth, when you prioritize your kids’ legitimate needs, when they are fulfilled and at peace emotionally, then you find your own sense of peace and fulfillment increases.
Dr. William Sears says frequently that a need left unmet in childhood doesn’t disappear; it just resurfaces as depression or addiction in adulthood. Our children need to be able to take for granted — now when they are children — that we love them, that we have their backs, that they are safe. I, as a mother, could never justify denying my children their right to well-being in order to protect my desire to be successful or amused or congratulated in some way.
Yes, it’s true, one day your children will leave home. My oldest son, Aidan, left for college in August, and it was like a sword in my heart. I cried for a week. But I watched him fly from the nest with very strong wings: he is confident, compassionate, and filled with faith. He has the capacity for self-giving love, because he experienced that kind of love as a child. He is strong now because his parents were his strength when he needed it. He will need us less and less to be his secure base as he matures, because he carries a sense of equanimity and rightness within himself.
Can I just remind everyone, as an aside, that when your kids grow up and become adults, it doesn’t mean they disappear. When your child leaves home, it’s the ending of his or her childhood, but it’s not the ending of your relationship. It’s a new beginning, a new chapter to be enjoyed.
Now that Aidan is gone, I do not resent a single moment that I gave him, and I do not feel I missed out on something that I somehow deserved personally as a woman. (What do any of us really deserve anyway?) This suggestion is preposterous. It was privilege to be there for him every day and to witness the unfolding of the extraordinary young man he has become.
What I do regret is the 3 years he spent in daycare while I was in law school. I honestly remember very little of those years because I was subject to chronic stress. It’s all a blur to me. My son was sick so often that he lost his hearing for a few years. I was listening to that stupid advice I received about prioritizing my own future. That was a mistake and it hurt my family. When I made a choice to step off the path I was on in order to put my son first, and also my newborn daughter, I could not have anticipated the blessings I would experience.
Let me be crystal clear: I am not suggesting that every mother should forgo paid work as I did. Many stay-at-home mothers are self-absorbed, and many working mothers find ways to balance paid work and mothering. Many wonderful moms have to work out of economic necessity. I am stating that no mother should prioritize her own needs and goals over the needs of her children, because this is an injustice to children. Because as a principle of justice, we should always attend to the needs of the weakest among us, whether we are at-home moms or working moms. We should always consider first the needs of our children when making decisions about how we spend our time. When I considered my options, I chose to focus primarily on raising my children and running my home.
God’s Plan for Your Life Is Always Better than Your Plan
As it turned out, all the warnings and cautionary tales about devoted mothers becoming lobotomized, boring, depressed shells of what they “might have been” turned out to be quite wrong. I didn’t lose myself in motherhood. I found myself and my dignity. Every time I choose to do the right thing and show up for my family, God shows up for me, showering me with graces and gifts I never saw coming.
We can have our ideas about what would fulfill us, but God’s plans and dreams for us are always better. Happiness is never found when we forget others in order to do what we want. God’s invites us all to love more fully through our vocation, whatever that may be, and when we respond generously to that invitation, it’s impossible for us to be a failure or resentful. And the more we get that – the more we let go of our self-interest, our plans, our rights – the more content and happy we will become.