Who are you when you’re not a parent?

“My kids are the center of my universe.” I hear parents say this all the time, and it’s not necessarily a sentiment I applaud. Should your kids really be the be-all and end-all of your life, the sun around which everything else revolves? What does this intense love and attention do to the rest of your relationships and, for that matter, the rest of your life?

Twenty-six years ago, before there were kids in my world, I went on my very first trip with my brand new husband. We honeymooned in Jamaica, a place I have since thought of as paradise, likely because it was my first jaunt out of the country and my first time spending seven full days with my husband. We loved it so much that we vowed that every year on our anniversary, we would take a trip somewhere, just the two of us. Our vacations varied over the years based on work schedules, the amount of money we had in the bank, and our changing desires for different locales, but we never missed a year, regardless of what was going on in our lives.

This meant that eventually, we had to leave our children. The third year, our first child was only 6 months old. I sought the advice of our pediatrician, a wizened, jovial doc with a lot of parent-observation years under his belt.”Do you think it’s okay to leave her at this age?” I’ll never forget his response. “Of course it’s okay. When you take a break from each other and explore other interests, it makes everyone appreciate each other all the more. Go, have a great time, and let your parents enjoy their time with their grandchildren.” I was beyond relieved. Dr. Duckwall (the most perfectly named pediatrician on the planet) gave me permission to have a life outside of my children, to cultivate my marriage, and to relax without feeling guilty for it. It was a tremendous gift for which I will forever be grateful. It shaped my ideas about parenting and no doubt strengthened and supported my marriage over the years.

It saddens me when I meet a woman (my apologies for this gender-specific comment, but the truth is the truth) who has wrapped her entire world around the needs and desires of her children and who now suffers as they grow up just as they should and leave her in their proverbial dust. It hurts me knowing that every day mid-life couples around the world are waking up, looking at their spouses as if seeing them for the first time, and saying, “It’s just us now. I’m not sure how I feel about that.” Their life has focused only on supporting their kids and giving to them until it hurts… their identities, their marriage, and their relationships with other people.

Of course, it’s all with the best intentions. We’re supposed to love our children with a love that can’t be measured. We would give our lives for our kids without even thinking about it. But some parents feel the need to demonstrate the intensity of their love by constantly giving, hovering, and supporting to the nth degree. They can’t leave their kids because doing so would imply a love for other people and other experiences, and this would somehow threaten their special parent-child relationship.

But I argue the opposite. Love is not synonymous with martyrdom. It shouldn’t be cutting yourself into pieces and giving yourself away to others, including your children. It should be balanced giving of what matters most to who matters most, including yourself.  Wherever you may be on the parenting spectrum – a new parent or a veteran dealing with teenagers – take some time to reflect on the energy you put into the priorities in your life, other than your children. These can include your marriage, your career, your ambitions and dreams, your faith, your health, and your other relationships. Are you neglecting them in an effort to give everything to your children? And in doing so, are you setting a good example for your kids?

It’s important for our children to see that “parent” is just one of many roles we play. Give yourself permission to have an identity outside of your kids and your kids will learn to cultivate their own identities in turn.

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4 thoughts on “Who are you when you’re not a parent?

  1. Huzzah, huzzah. I couldn’t agree more. While admittedly I think it’s great that the culture has swung to a more involved style of parenting, lots of us have taken it way too far. One of the blessings in being an older parent is that I KNEW when my daughter came along, I couldn’t subjugate all my needs to hers, or I would be a miserable parent and not very good to her anyway! I have to have my own interests and identity, and then when she and I are together, I really try to be present and attentive to her. She also LOVES to “kick me out” when it’s time for her to go somewhere, or try a new thing – I’d like to think we helped her figure out that you can be together AND apart, and love each other all the more for it.

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    • Good point! I didn’t even think to draw the parallel to our kids and the fact that they should do the exact same thing with us. You need to write a guest post on that! 😉

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  2. When I got pregnant with my first child my friend handed me the book Bringing Up Bebe, the memoir of an American mother raising her kids in France. She comments about how the “living only for your child” mentality is decidedly American. She finds that culturally many Europeans do not celebrate the martyrdom of parenthood and love with the expectation that they are valued individuals with a life, interests and relationships outside their kids. I do think that we will see the pendulum swing away from overly-involved parents to a more balanced life in this country as well.

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    • Yes! It’s an entirely different way of thinking. I remember reading that adults in France simply do not allow their children to interrupt during conversations, as one example. Interesting book.

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