One of the most common bits of advice that I remember getting as a new wife and stepparent was to put the children first.
Especially in families with divorce, custody agreements and cohabitation agreements there’s a lot of talk about thinking about the children and doing things for the children.
It seems like such a loving bit of information.
My parents were divorced and I can definitely remember thinking several times that I would love to be at the top of the priorities list in the family. I would love to have felt that some of the time I came first.
It is important.
Especially in families with divorce. Wait? didn’t I just imply that perhaps this wasn’t the case. Yes, sort of.
I think the advice to put the children first is probably incomplete.
I want to add that adults are important too.
What makes this complicated is that everybody in a family is important.
So, I say honor the children’s needs without discounting yourself.
In my marriage, prioritizing the first children was actually a condition that was set out by my husband. He was upfront while we were dating that his children were his top priority.
You could say that I knew that going in. In fact, I agreed with it. My parents had been divorced when I was a kid and I thought it was very good to have a partner who knew that the kids were a priority.
When I had children with my husband those kids were added to the list of things that are “top priority.” There was never a time where one group of kids was a different priority. All the kids were important.
In my experience, for some of us the commitment to putting children first can actually cause a problem.
I don’t think this happens to everybody but it did happen to me.
This is a blog post but I really probably could write thousands and thousands of words about this single topic and all the various ways I learned this lesson over and over again. What I did, why I decided what I decided and how it all began to pile up over the years.
The more I dedicated my focus and my whole being to the children the less was available for me.
I didn’t even realize I was doing this as it happened. Over time though I dug myself into a hole where I became disconnected from my own personal needs and desires. From the outside it may not have been apparent that I was struggling but at its worst it wasn’t a great time for me, to be honest.
This is why the guidance I offer is: to honor the needs of the children without discounting yourself.
This can be hard to put into practice because at many stages of life children and even young adults can take a lot of support. It is easy to get lost in what others need and desire.
Some parenting and family experts will call this “seasons.”
It’s accurate in an analytical way. In the moment, I don’t think it helps to have somebody tell you that you are in a season where others need you more than you might have to give.
It’s like telling a drowning person that they are drowning.
Small children require a lot of support. They need adults to help them. It’s almost unlimited how many adults can pitch in to support babies.
My dad used to tell a joke about taking me to the beach as a baby. He said we rented a house 1 block from the beach and when you were a baby we had to drive that one block because of all the gear you required for a day on the beach.
When I met my stepkids they were 8 and 4 years old. When I got married they were 12 and 8. When I had my first baby the kids were 13, 9, 0. Then 3 years later, 16, 12, 3, and 0. During that time my husband’s ex also had 2 kids. It was an incredibly busy season for our blended family. Which meant that as a completely practical matter it was easy for me to throw myself into the all the many ways to support the kids and the family.
I wanted to do this. I wanted to create a loving home for my kids and stepkids. I deeply craved being able to create wanted a place where everybody could be and have their own space. I did this intentionally but also looking back I was personally unaware of how strong this internal drive (to do for the kids what I felt wasn’t done for me) was to me until much later.
After more than 2 decades I can look back and see that was a driving force of my parenting style to do things differently than my parents had done.
I put time and effort into designing their rooms, buying clothes and toys, selecting preschools and activities for the kids. If people asked me to do things I tried to say yes. This was an actual philosophy of mine, try to say yes.
Pick up the stepkids at school, yes. Host the stepkids sleepover, yes. Attend all the concerts and games, yes. Drive 24 hours through a tropical storm with a cello in the passenger seat and 2 toddlers and a teenager in the back to make sure the teen gets to the first day of school. Sure, I’ll do that. Move to a neighborhood that I don’t love so the kids can have a big yard, yes. Drive a huge car for 20 years so the kids and all their friends fit, yes. Make meals that include only things that everybody likes even if it ignores a few things I like. I wanted to do it all and I was willing to make personal sacrifices to make it happen. In fact, I think I thought that my sacrifice was needed and required.
Several years later, I experienced what I call a redbook moment. Redbook is …or maybe was …the name of a magazine that was a popular Women’s magazine when I was growing up. I don’t know if it still exists. But as a teenager I remember seeing the headlines being about midlife crisis and survive after [insert midlife catastrophe here].
I actually had several of these moments in growing intensity over about a 10-15 year period until I tuned in enough to make adjustments that lasted.
The pattern of me putting my needs behind the needs of the kids continued in other ways for years. Every so often something would happen that would show me a glimpse of who I used to be and I would experience a wave of nostalgia and desire to have a part of that back.
I think this is important to note that in many ways we send caregivers a message that if they give and give eventually they will get back from those people. That’s not an accurate phenomenon because time only moves one direction and each human is self-actualizing. I actually think it’s a pretty harmful message.
It’s not just in blended families that caregivers struggle with balancing the needs of others with their own lives. It happens to stepmoms and moms and also people who care for disabled siblings and spouses and sick family members. In an extreme form it can become something called compassion fatigue. That’s when people give so much of themselves for so long that they become resentful and angry.
Often people will talk about balance at this point.
I think balance is a terrible goal. Life is hardly ever “in balance” in my experience.
I think metaphors about juggling are a little better when it comes to family. There are times were people in our family need our full attention and the only way through these times is often to put our personal desires briefly to the side. Where possible however I do think it’s important to do that with intention and come back to yourself and your needs and your dreams when you can. If you don’t make it a priority there is no guarantee that anybody else will.
Anyway, I think the error that I repeatedly made was that I wasn’t aware of how much I was losing of myself in each of these steps where I leaned in to serve others in my family.
Truthfully, I suspect that this is perhaps very tough for us to see for ourselves. This is my guess from my own personal experience. I think it can be very hard to see this in ourselves. Which means it can be helpful to have others show us.
I had my triathlon hobby. I always had side-hustles. But without realizing it I was training my family that I would routinely prioritize everybody else before me. They began to expect it.
Oprah once said, “We train people how to treat us.” I taught my husband and my kids that I would do whatever they wanted and needed even at the expense of whatever I had going on.
I personally came to a breaking point when my kids were in middle school. It got to the point where I was spending 3 hours a day driving the kids to and from school and activities. My stress level was through the roof and I felt completely unvalued and unappreciated.
It finally happened where I got miserable enough that the misery leached over to my husband and my kids and I was pushed to make significant changes.
At one point we were asked to host a birthday party for a person in the extended family at our house. One thing that happens when you have the biggest house is that you can become a default host for events. I had hosted many many things at our house. I loved throwing parties at the house because then I didn’t have to go anywhere.
This time I said, no. I was very clear with my partner and the other people in the family that I did not want to host this event. I suggested alternate options. Imagine my surprise when I got an email …an email …it was the invitation email to the party which was in fact going to be at my house.
My request was just ignored. Boldly ignored.
I realized very clearly in that moment that I had a very big problem on my hands where people in my family were taking me for granted and I didn’t know how to get it to stop.
Somewhere in here is when I took the online quiz that classified me as a people pleaser. That was also a sign. I wrote about this in another spot – I thought that the test was flawed but I had actually fundamentally changed as a person to nurture and support my family at my own personal expense.
Another final straw was when the school announced a bus service. I was very excited. This was an answer to at least some my stress. But the kids announced that they would rather I drive them and my husband said he didn’t think the bus service was worth paying for.
That’s when I crumbled. What I heard was that I wasn’t even worth the price of that bus service.
I cried for a lot for several days. Not openly standing in the kitchen and not wailing and screaming. I didn’t throw stuff around and break it. I cried in the shower and in my closet and when I was alone on my run I would just cry.
I had a lot of guilt about this too. I had a lot of wonderful things in my life and I felt like a major brat that I was still so unhappy. I also felt like I “should” be able to manage this if I was a “good wife” and a “good mom.”
Eventually I did put the words together to try and explain how I could not continue to do this anymore. My anger at this point was beginning to break through the cracks. The next part of this story is a little embarrassing because how I acted was definitely like a spoiled suburban mom-brat.
It is what I did so I’ll tell the whole story.
I went on strike.
I announced that I would not drive anymore.
Probably because I had been so annoying and bratty my husband chose to dig in his heels and said this would be no big deal he would do the driving.
By Wednesday he admitted that it was a lot.
On Thursday, he said, I don’t know how you have any time for yourself.
Which is an accurate description of the problem … I didn’t.
And also while my husband was doing the driving I was getting a lot of stuff done that I just hadn’t been able to do for what felt like forever.
On Friday my son forgot a part of his football uniform and he called me to ask me to bring it. We had an animated family discussion about this situation. This really allowed my family to see how impossible it was for me at the moment and we began to make changes.
That’s at least part of my story of how I slowly and painfully learned this lesson over and over and over again.
You know what?
I’m not sure I’ve completely learned it for myself. This is a lesson that I kind of need to learn over and over again and be on the look out for sliding back.
Everybody in a family is important. I hope by telling you this story you are less likely to repeat this for yourself.
Yes, there are seasons where one person may need more effort and time than others. Yes it’s important to be loving and compassionate to the people in our family. But overall no one person’s needs are more important than any other person in a family. If you give too much of yourself for too long you can in fact lose a bit of yourself.
The good news is that I’m proof that you can also get it back.