Don't Worry, Mom

Coping with anxiety in families

Self Care and a Pink Purse

A reminder that parental happiness matters

It all started with an innocuous pink purse.  From the second that I clicked “complete purchase” my stomach sunk.  The negative thoughts crept in—thoughts of what I could have bought for my kids with that money and ideas about how I really didn’t need that purse, even if I wanted it.  I thought about how that money could have gone towards one more night at the vacation spot that my husband wants to go to, or to the babysitter so we could go out on one of our rare date nights.  I thought about how many cups of coffee my husband could have bought using that money and the groceries that I could have bought.  I was wracked with guilt because I bought such an impractical luxury and asked my friends if I should return it and save the money for a more responsible parent purchase. 

Yes, all of this distress was over a purse.  I realize that seems ridiculous and that there are families who cannot afford food and rent.  I know that seems shallow and self-indulgent to spend the time thinking about this when so many families have so little.  And I know that it is stupid to focus so much on a leather good, but like most families, money is tight despite working incredibly hard, so luxuries are infrequent and precious and how we spend our limited luxury budget is indicative of our priorities.  By asking my friends to justify the purchase, I was really asking them whether it’s okay to make myself a priority.

When I told a friend about the crushing guilt that I was feeling after buying the purse for myself a friend of mine said “You’re a mom.  That’s what we do.”  And I wondered why and whether we see that as necessary to be a good mom.  Do we look at other parents and consider them selfish if they take care of themselves?  Is being a parent synonymous with constant self-sacrifice?

Obviously there is an element of self-sacrifice in being a parent.  Most parents would throw down their lives to save their child’s life.  Parents spend hours of chauffeuring kids to afterschool activities, refereeing sibling squabbles, and birthday parties at Chuck E Cheese and end up with virtually no time to themselves to relax.  But there is a difference between making your children your top priority and removing yourself from the priority list altogether?

There used to be a time when I took care of myself—I worked out, I read books for pleasure and had hobbies.  I bought things for myself.  It wasn’t the expenditure that mattered—what mattered is that I had a life that was my own and I focused on my own happiness (obviously in addition to the happiness of my romantic partner, friends, and family members).  But at some point after becoming a parent, all of those things that I did for me stopped and with that I ceased to exist other than as a caregiver for my kids.  When I think of what I would do if given an entire day with nothing to do, what springs to my mind is that I would go grocery shopping and get my daughter her favorite foods.  Or I would cook a fabulous dinner for my family.  Maybe I would finally tackle the loads of laundry that have built up or finish some of those work projects that have been on the back burner. What doesn’t come to mind is what I would want to do.  In fact, when I ask myself what I want, I can’t remember anymore. 

This is how my parents lived their lives as well.  I cannot recall a time when my mother bought anything for herself.  She would wear clothing until it disintegrated so she could spend the money on us.  My father worked 6 days a week to pay the bills.  Neither one of them had hobbies or any life outside of taking care of us.  They focused on us and we focused on ourselves too—blissfully unaware of what our parents were giving up to care for us.  I don’t know who my parents are as people—what their dreams or desires were.  I have no idea if they used to have hobbies or what types of movies they would have liked to see.  They didn’t exist as anything other than my parents—a selfish way for me to have lived. 

But we learn from our parents and later follow in their footsteps.  And what I realized when I bought that purse is that I have become my mother and father wrapped up in one—working constantly to pay the bills and give my kids the quality of life that I wanted them to have and refusing to spend any time or energy caring for myself.  The problem is that we need to engage in self-care and to make ourselves a priority--even if we are parents.  We need to relax and to think of ourselves and our own happiness, not only think about what would make others happy.  And we need to show our children that being a parent is about caring for your kids but it's also about caring for yourself.  The two shouldn't be diametrically opposed.  And yet for some reason, it seems like some mothers (and fathers) have a hard time prioritizing themselves at all. 

So that purse means so much more than just the money that I spent from our limited luxury budget.  It means that my happiness matters and that my happiness can stem from something that is just for me and unrelated to my being a parent.  It is a reminder that I must live the life that I want for my daughter because she is watching what I do and learning from it and if I don’t change my ways and start taking care of myself, my daughter will emulate this if she becomes a parent.  We have to ask ourselves, is this what I want for my children when they become parents? So I will carry that impractical pink purse (likely with a mixture of guilt and pride) and hope that sometimes when I am stuffing it with snacks for my kids or papers for work, I will be reminded that I am a person with my own wishes and desires in addition to being my kids’ mom and that as a mom, it is my job to care for myself as much as it is to care for my children.

For more on self-care: Taking a Me Day

Copyright Amy Przeworski.  This post and all portions of this post may NOT be duplicated or posted elsewhere (including on other websites) without permission of the author.  However, a link to this post may be posted on your website without the need to request permission.

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Amy Przeworski, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of psychology at Case Western Reserve University and specializes in anxiety disorders in children, adolescents, and adults.

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