"I can't leave while you and your brother live at home." I can't tell you how many times I heard my mother fight against even the idea of a (very necessary) divorce, based on the fact that she had children. I grew up in an abusive environment, with a toxic parent who beat my mother, my brother, and myself. And while surviving an abusive childhood has made me a better parent, I can also say that I am still dealing and working through the long-term damage that comes from living in a house where two parents not only didn't love one another, but one parent was abusive to the other.
Of course, there were other reasons, other than the existence of my brother and I, why my mother — and many women like her — could not leave that volatile relationship: My mother lacked financial freedom (and financial abuse is present in over 98% of domestic violence cases); My mother was isolated from a large part of her family, and she didn't have the support system to facilitate not only herself, but her two children. It's never as easy as "just leaving" when someone is in an abusive relationship. Add to that the idea that letting go of a promise made with the best intentions (a promise that ensured you'd be part of a family), and the whole thing is nothing short of painfully difficult. In no way am I trying to suggest that someone is weak or cowardly or wrong for staying in a relationship that isn't working; every situation is so personal, and having the support and resources to walk away from someone is indeed a blessing and privilege that far too many people don't have access to... I'm not trying to shame anyone's choice to stay, whatever their reasons for doing so might be.
What I am saying is that if you can leave, and want to, and the only thing holding you back is concern for your kids emotional well-being and overall stability, that should not be the deciding factor. Because, as it turns out, by staying in a dysfunctional (or even merely unhappy) relationship for them, you aren't really helping anyone. The fact is, whether you're the victim of domestic abuse, or you and your partner simply don't love one another anymore, or fail to get along the majority of the time, staying together for the kids is not a healthy decision. Here are seven reasons why, because contrary to popular belief and prevalent social commentary, you do have to take care of yourself first if you want to be a good mom.
Your Kids Won't Learn About Healthy Relationships (At Least, Not From You)
The first romantic relationship a kid witnesses is the relationship between their parents. Whether it's a separated co-parenting relationship or a marriage or any kind of relationship in between, how a kid's parents talk about and/or treat one another will be the foundation of their future relationships, romantic or otherwise.
Elizabeth R. Lombardo, Ph.D., a psychologist and author in Wexford, Pennsylvania, told Parents.com, "As parents, we so often focus on teaching verbally, but we forget the importance of our actions." Kids mimic the relationships they see — and no relationship is as visible to a kid as the relationship between his or her parents. If that relationship is dysfunctional and unhealthy, the kids around it will start to believe that dysfunctional, unhealthy relationships are normal.
It's Impossible To Completely Hide The Fighting
No matter how hard you try, it's impossible to hide all of the fighting — or even the palpable unhappiness — away from your kids. Sorry, but no one is that good an actor. Not even Meryl. Meryl f*cking Streep could not hide a miserable partnership from her kids. And while a new study, published in the Journal of Child Psychiatry and Psychology, suggests that fighting in front of children is actually healthy and beneficial...it's only healthy when that fighting his fair, and kids can benefit from witnessing fair disagreements. "Destructive conflicts" (which covers anything from name calling and cursing to physical aggression, to forms of stonewalling, like sulking, crying and “the silent treatment) are still detrimental to your children. If you're not "fighting fair," your kids are definitely noticing, so it might be best to separate and possibly not fight at all.
Kids Understand What Is Happening Anyway
So, while many unhappy parents are quick to say, "The kids are too young to understand," they're still witnessing unhealthy behavior, and deciphering their surroundings themselves. They may not be able to understand every facet of a complicated and complex relationship, but they do understand that their parents aren't happy together. In fact, there's even an age-by-age guide to what children understand about divorce, so you can assess their evolving ability to understand their environment, and how you could better facilitate a healthy change.
It Fosters A Potentially Dangerous Living Environment
When two people who are no longer in love with one another, or even like one another, the potential for volatile situations substantially increases. According to the CDC, in 2012 over 38 million women have experienced physical intimate partner violence in their lifetimes. Three women are murdered every day by a former or current partner. When a child is a witness to domestic abuse, they're likely to experience numerous negative side effects, including: fear, guilt, shame, sleep disturbances, sadness, depression, anger, stomach aches, headaches, bedwetting, and/or the inability to concentrate. Like, this is not a small deal at all.
Your Kids Will Learn Not To Prioritize Personal Happiness
While mothers are routinely told that martyrdom and motherhood are synonymous, killing yourself for your children (sadly, sometimes literally) is not beneficial to them. When you stay in an unhappy relationship, even when you're doing so ostensibly for the sake of your kids, you're showing them that your happiness and your self-worth and your chance at true love are not important things. You're teaching them that it's not as important to love yourself as it is to love other people, and that is a dangerous precedence to set, even when those "other people" are your kids. If we want our kids to live the life they truly want to live, we need to start by showing them how it's done.
Your Kid Will Feel Responsible
If you stay together for the kids, and you're obviously (or even not-so-obviously) miserable, your kids will start to blame themselves. Just like you want your children to be happy, your children want you to be happy, and being told that they're the reason you're staying in an unhappy situation, will only lead them to believe that they're the problem.
You Won't Be Living A Balanced Life
Recently, actress and mother Jada Pinkett-Smith spoke on the difficulties of motherhood, and the undeniable importance of finding a life balance:
When you stop taking care of yourself, you get out of balance and you really forget how to take care of others. And I think that we've been taught that, taking care of yourself is a problem. And I'll tell you something about being a mother, and some of the messaging that we get in this country about being a mother. That you have to completely sacrifice everything. You have to completely sacrifice every single thing. And I think that the re-messaging that we, as mothers, need to have and gravitate to is that: you have to take care of yourself in order to have the alignment and the power to take care of others, at the capacity that we do.
Could someone pick up Jada's mic?