There’s an archetype of motherhood in our culture that I think we all, on some level, understand is damaging and unhealthy. There’s no doubt that our cultural mythos around motherhood has some variance, but again and again, in many different corners, I see self-sacrificing mothers held up as the ideal. We imagine that if you're a mom, it means putting everyone else’s needs ahead of your own, constantly sacrificing your own well being and happiness for your children, your spouse, and your family. My own crash course in motherhood has been a little different. While of course parenthood (see what I did there? Not just motherhood, but parenthood…) does sometimes mean putting my kid’s needs first, time and time again the biggest lesson I’ve learned is that I need to take care of myself, too. I’m a mom, yes, but I’m also a human being, and I deserve to be able to treat myself just as well as I treat my child.
I didn't appreciate or even understand, when I was a kid myself, just how much my own mother gave up for me. As kids, we always had our needs met no matter what it took, but my mom often went without. My family didn’t always have a ton of money while I was growing up, and my mother went without things like new clothes, even when she really needed them for work, in an attempt to make sure we had enough. Now that I’m an adult, I have respect and appreciation for what she did and I understand way better the reasons why she did it. But it also, and I think this is key here, taught me an unhealthy model of motherhood, one that I couldn’t possibly live up to.
Slowly but surely, my own kid has been helping me to unlearn some of my earliest ideas about what it is to be a mom.
I want to be a good mom, so when I make decisions for him I take time to think them over, sometimes do some research, and make the best decision possible. And then I have to ask myself... if I'm willing to do all of that for him, why wouldn't I be willing to do the same thing for myself?
When he was a newborn, I was recovering from a long and difficult labor, an unexpected c-section, an infection, and gallbladder surgery all at the same time. It was hellish and difficult, but it also forced me not to go on autopilot and completely neglect myself. There’s no way to recover from that kind of physical trauma without taking time out to take care of yourself, and so that’s what happened. And while I certainly wouldn’t have asked for it, all of that forced me to acknowledge at a very early point that parenthood is not merely about self sacrifice, it’s about a give and take, about the complicated balancing acts you perform to try to make sure that everyone in the family gets their needs met.
Another major learning moment for me happened once he started eating solid food. We started with the baby-led weaning approach and since then our philosophy has been primarily to simply offer him whatever we were eating, rather than preparing specific “kid foods.” For the most part, that has worked out great, but slowly but surely we realized that a few of our regular meals simply didn’t offer enough nutritional variety. For one thing, it turned out that when left to our own devices, my wife and I pretty much never ate fruit. Let me repeat that: We almost never ate fruit. But we wanted our child to have an opportunity to try all sorts of foods, so we started adding side dishes to our meals. Over time we all started eating better, which was lovely.
But it still took months of cutting up apple and pear slices “for the baby” until it occurred to me that apples and pears are, in fact, not luxury items and there was nothing to stop me from eating them as well. Apples and pears are just great foods, period. This may seem like a tiny thing, but in actuality it was a huge revelation for me. Because it turns out that good nutrition is not something that one needs while growing up and then never again.Nowadays, when it’s my night to cook dinner for the family, I make sure that we all get our needs met. If I’m cutting up an apple, I put some on everyone’s plate, because it turns out that apples don’t actually stop being good for you once you turn 25 or whatever.
And these aren't isolated examples, either. I'd say that this has happened in nearly every area of parenting and life. Whether it's nutrition, or learning and practicing consent, or having opportunities for self expression, my son continues to inspire me to be kinder to myself. The fact is, I want to be a good mom, so when I make decisions for him I take time to think them over, sometimes do some research, and make the best decision possible. And then I have to ask myself... if I'm willing to do all of that for him, why wouldn't I be willing to do the same thing for myself?
We make compromises, we all do, because that's what it takes to have relationships with others.
Parenting is hard, sometimes it is incredibly and heartbreakingly difficult. In our family, we try to make decisions that are the best for everyone, and make an earnest attempt to get everyone's needs met. Inevitably, sometimes that means parents foregoing things they want or need, sure. If I'm exhausted, but the baby gets up at 3 a.m. because he's teething, I'm going to try to comfort him even though it sucks for me. And just this past week, I've been sick, but that didn't mean that I got any time off parenting. Family life is, as far as I'm concerned, about trying to find a balance. So while I was at my sickest, we watched more Mister Rogers' Neighborhood and went for less walks, so mama could rest at least a little. We make compromises, we all do, because that's what it takes to have relationships with others.
But parenting doesn't have to mean constant self sacrifice. It doesn't mean completely neglecting my own needs. And you know what? If I completely neglect taking care of myself, it doesn't make me a better mom most of the time. I can't bring my A-game to parenting when I'm exhausted, underfed, and miserable. But frankly, even if it didn't benefit my son, I'd still deserve to take good care of myself. I deserve basic care, including things like nutrition, rest, and decent clothing, the same way my child does. I'm a person, just like my kid is, and I didn't forgo my personhood when I decided to become a mother.