Why being ‘selfish’ made me a better parent

CakeThu 26th April 2018

One of the most common accusations I have had levelled at me since I came out about my open marriage, subsequent separation and now polyamorous lifestyle is that I was the epitome of selfishness.

I promise you that no one has thought that about me more then I have.

The question I asked myself, before I sat down and told Marc that I could no longer be married to him, was this: what would I tell my daughter if she came to me one day in the future, in the same situation?

The moment I put my daughter in my shoes I knew that I only had one choice: to leave.

When I look back at my decade as a mother (my son turned ten in January) I see that maybe all the things that I thought were selfless were actually quite selfish and that this – this new behaviour, this meeting of my own needs – is actually the opposite.

When I was washing cloth nappies, cooking from scratch, cleaning and tidying so that we always ‘looked’ perfect, who was I doing that for? The cooking was important to me, and the attempts to minimise waste important too, but the cost was time with my son, time with my daughter… Who was I trying to appease? The inner audience that said, if I was a stay-at-home mum, then everything had to be just so… it all had to be ‘perfect’?

I could cut no corners, I had no excuse – I was at home! What else was I doing all day?!

I had to play even if I felt like resting; I had to go out when I felt like staying in; and stay in when I felt like going out, because this was what mothers did: they put everyone else first. I did all that because I felt I should, and it never occurred to me to consider how I ate when no one was looking, or why I had to have a glass of wine on the dot of 5 p.m., to make myself feel better for the giving and ‘loving’ I was doing.

It was, bizarrely, when I actually began to get out and meet my own needs for friendship and connection, firstly to talk about writing with my writing group and then, later, to go to gigs and meet new people, that I found myself really being able to be happier at home, more able to respond to my family’s needs. It was only the challenges of opening up my marriage, exploring conscious non-monogamy, and the subsequent transition to being separated, that taught me how to truly listen, how to communicate, how to tune into my own feelings and the feelings of my children.

Something about the word ‘self’ always implies the word ‘selfish’. Maslow said so in 1943, and it is his work on the self, as well as much reading of the work of Rogers and Branden, as well as months of personal therapy, that has helped me to understand how deeply held these beliefs are.

Now, I am kinder to myself and therefore kinder to my children. I am more accepting of myself and therefore of them. I feel happier more often and therefore am less tired and more able to cook and also be present and engaged when I am with them.

It was understanding my self and my needs that made me a better parent, not putting those needs last. 

When I put myself and my own needs last, I was also telling my daughter (and teaching my son): women’s needs are not important. I was telling her it is okay to seethe and be upset, as long as you can reassure yourself that you are putting everyone else first. I was telling her that you can give and give even when you are empty, and as long as you are topped up with wine then it is okay. How healthy is this? Is this what we want to be telling our children?

Would you want your kids to have the same relationship with themselves that you have with you?

By working at the balance between myself and my family – by making time for my hobbies, my friends (yes, it is dull sitting for lunch for two hours with adults but I let my children know how much I appreciate them doing that) as well as making, in an age appropriate way, my feelings clear, I am modelling the kind of self care, awareness and respect that I would like my children to have. How can they model something they never see?

I hope that my mistakes and my honesty about those will help them learn and be able to be self confident, self possessed and also self aware and self kind in a way that shows the world that the world self is not a dirty one. First put on your air mask then help those around you. It is a simple safety message and one we can all stand to be reminded of: the care and understanding of self is the start of all other caring and understanding.