There is a woman I think about sometimes.
I knew her when my son was small, before our daughter arrived. Our social circles overlapped we were often in the same place at the same time but I didn’t know her well. On the day I’m thinking about we were at some group playdate event and she was sitting a little away from the rest of us nursing her toddler. Her older child — preschool-ish aged — was standing behind her screaming. (It’s why she’d removed herself from the group.) He was beating on her back and pulling her hair. Her nursing toddler was wriggling around, the way nursing toddlers do, sticking his little feet in her face. She was sitting there on the floor, trying to ignore her oldest and silently crying. Tears running down her face, she refused all of our offers of help.
When I think back on that day I always think about the proud way she refused our assistance. She felt it was her duty (she explained later) to meet her children’s demands at her own expense. Whatever they wanted took precedence. As the adult, she argued, her needs could always take a backseat because their lives were more fragile and more important than her own.
She was proud of this. She was proud that she wasn’t as neglectful as her own mom. Only she was still continuing that dysfunctional pattern.
I call parents like this “high intensity” because parenthood becomes our end all be all. When we bring that kind of high intensity to parenthood, we are usually trying to heal our own trauma in a kind of do-over. Unfortunately we end up perpetuating trauma, mostly against ourselves but against our kids, too. This is because when we center our child’s needs/wants above everything else we continue the pattern that’s been used against us. We didn’t matter in the way we needed to to our own parents; we do not matter in the way we need to to our own selves. And we teach that to our children. We teach them to treat us badly. We turn them into abusers, really, and trust me — no child wants that kind of power. It does its own kind of damage.
It gets confusing because yes, our children’s needs do take precedence in lots of necessary ways. We do have to set aside our own wants and wishes when it comes to parenting and if we weren’t raised with healthy boundaries then we don’t know when it’s reasonable and when it’s unnecessary sacrifice. Our thinking gets stuck in all or nothing. We let them cannibalize us because we think that if we don’t, they’ll starve. We forget we’re part of a dyad — parent and child — not the backup performer to our child’s all star show.
We matter, too.
And our children need us to matter. They need us to matter so that they also get to matter someday when they have children. They need us to matter so they get to be the helper instead of always the helpee. They need us to matter so that they learn how to respond empathetically. What does it do to a child to hit mom until she’s silently crying, passively allowing them to hurt her? How does that impact their idea about themselves?
But there’s another thing. When we deny our own needs so thoroughly our needs don’t disappear; they just come out sideways. They come out in passive-aggressive ways, guilt-inducing ways. They come out as manipulation, silent tears running down our cheeks while we assure our children, “No, mommy’s fine. It’s ok.” It’s its own kind of gaslighting.
For the high intensity parent meeting our own needs may be a learned skill. Often we need reassurance that it’s ok to do the thing we need or want to do. We might struggle with the all or nothingness of it. Stopping them from hitting us, even showing our anger, is not the same thing as making them victim to our rage. Walking away because we need a break from the whining is not the same thing as abandoning them alone in the woods.
We do not have to be martyrs to be good parents. The choice is not Happy Child or Happy Parent. It really can be both, not all of the time (we will disappoint each other, we will have to wait our turn, sure) but most of it. I promise.