Raising Happiness

 

Confessions of a Selfish Mother

April 28, 2008 | The Main Dish | 13 comments

Mother's Day is that one time of year that moms are allowed indulgence—in our household this usually involves breakfast in bed and a rare opportunity to read the paper. For me this breakfast-in-bed "indulgence" is, not surprisingly, messy and a little on the chaotic side. (Though definitely fun and cute, trying to balance coffee on a tray with two excited kids encouraging me to eat the toast they made—daddy scraped off the burned stuff—is just not that relaxing.)
But here's the thing: I don't really care if I experience bliss on Mother's Day because I take a lot of time for myself. I regularly travel to Los Angeles for my work, where I stay overnight to hang out with my brother, who is single and fun. I spend a half day every other weekend with a friend in the city—a world away from my family—working on paintings and talking about music. I regularly go out for food, belly-laughs, and soulful confessions with my good friends. I always try to be training athletically for something, which means I can often be found at the gym or on a long run or at a surf clinic. When we go swimming, I lounge in the shade and read (because my skin-cancer prone complexion conveniently can't tolerate much sun) while my kids' dad plays with them for hours on end.

I do feel guilty about taking all this time to myself. Am I being selfish? Should I be making more personal sacrifices for my children? Would my kids benefit from more time with me? Would they be happier or better prepared for adulthood if I joined them riding bikes at the local elementary school instead of painting on Sunday afternoons? (Or is it narcissistic to think that?) I even feel guilty that I'm privileged enough to make such choices—that financially I can afford not to work full-time, that my parents are nearby and often pick up the kids from school while I'm off running or am in LA, and that my kids have a very involved dad who picks up the slack. Shouldn't I be doing more of the parenting myself?

Truth is I start to feel bored and anxious if I spend too much time doing laundry, mediating sibling arguments, and reading Biscuit Goes To School. I don't really like playing Sorry! with my kids, especially if I have to do it all the time. And I just can't seem to make myself fully participate in the pretend play that so engages the endless imaginations of my daughters. (I mean really, how many cups of pretend coffee can a woman drink enthusiastically in the span of an hour?) Go ahead, judge me. I'm a bad mother.

GUFFAW. Of course I'm not a bad parent, and neither are you. I love being a mom. Clearly I think a lot about what it means to be a good parent, and though I'm not perfect I try hard. I find deep joy in a nose-to-nose snuggle with a child who puts off sleep by saying, "Mom, I want to tell you one more thing. So I had this idea…" And I really think that my own personal happiness—nourished by the time I take for myself—benefits my children.
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Happy Mothers, Happy Children?
Although I haven't seen good research to substantiate this theory that mothers' happiness directly influences the happiness of their children, a fairly extensive body of research has established a substantial link between mothers who feel depressed and "negative outcomes" in their children, like acting out and other behavior problems. As you might imagine, when we mothers feel depressed it is not good for our children's happiness.

Maternal depression affects kids in two ways. One way is direct—maternal depression actually seems to cause behavior problems in kids. The other way is that depression can also affect the way people parent—making their discipline less effective, for example—and so it creates behavior problems in kids that way as well. Depressed mothers tend to be less sensitive and proactive in responding to their children's needs, and they are less likely to play with their children in emotionally positive ways. The children of mothers who are chronically depressed—those whose feelings of sadness and despair persist—perform more poorly on tests of school readiness, they use less expressive language, and they have poorer social skills. And it isn't just depression: anxiety in mothers (something I'm prone to) is associated with increased anxiety in children.

So for goodness sake, take care of yourself or the mothers in your life this Mother's Day! "Indulge" in those things that will make you lastingly happy, knowing that when you do the things that nourish you as a whole person—one with more interests and needs than just being a good parent—you are also doing something good for your children. Next week I'm going to blog about those things that will bring you real joy on Mother's Day. If you aren't a mom but you know one—and I'm betting you do—let this be your gift guide for her! In the mean time, please post comments about those things that make you happiest as a person, and how you feel when you are "indulging" in those things.

Christine Carter, Ph.D., is a mother of two and the executive director of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley. Find more tips for raising happy kids at greatergoodparents.org.

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Reading is a luxury like no other.  Starting the day with a devotion makes me really happy.  Hours later, my indulgence is curling up in bed with a warm cup of green tea and a good book. 
I also love my time at the gym.  Not that I really love exercise or anything.  I just know that my life is hitting on all cylinders when I’m making time to take care of myself. 
My favorite time with my daughters is snuggle/prayer time.  And, when my mother-in-law can stay with the girls, I love nothing more than a late night stroll with my husband and our golden retriever.

P31dionne | 6:51 pm, April 28, 2008 | Link

 

This subject really strikes home for me. I am in a constant state of being unsure of how much time to allow myself to take care of myself. Lately I have been trying to spend a lot of time with my husband, keep up really good relationships with family and friends,working out, eating well, taking baths, watching horribly mindless TV (for shame!), and getting my hair and nails done. All of this takes time And time away from my kids. But I never feel 100% good about it. There is always that lingering, “but my kids will be big someday and I will regret I didn’t spend every waking moment with them”. Do we ever feel great about striking a balance? If anyone figures this out please let me know. Christine, thank you for giving me permission to take care of me!

Karen | 7:31 pm, April 28, 2008 | Link

 

You argue both sides of the argument well. But coming from a male perspective, I must ask whether your partner is also getting as much “me time” as _he_ really needs?

Martin Polley | 11:53 pm, April 28, 2008 | Link

 

Wow. I wonder who you are writing this for? The affluent, hopelessly idle? I get the idea of taking time for yourself, but I grow weary of mom’s who think they are “entitled” and carve out so much time their parenting lacks. I am surrounded by moms who don’t work, spend their husband’s hard earned money on facials, spa days, yet another blouse at Macys while their kids demand their pizza NOW! and otherwise terrorize everyone in their vicinity. I don’t believe in losing yourself in parenting, but giving “license” to the mom’s most likely to even have the tools to read this blog is really the last thing they need. Contributing to the planet would be a better call to arms.

JC | 9:00 am, April 29, 2008 | Link

 

I can appreciate not wanting to play the 25th game of Candy Land but I have another idea about your “me” time.
How about if the women who is lucky enough (and she admits it) to have the time and money to take care of herself finds the local womens’ shelter and take care of those women.  There is SO MUCH NEED that you could do some good for other people who would really appreciate it AND you will feel good about it as well.  Think about women who are dying inside because they have no home or don’t know where the next meal is coming from or who fear to be in public because their abuser may find her!
So next time, share your spa time.

another Christine | 11:41 am, April 29, 2008 | Link

 

Well, Christine, I do not consider myself to be “affluent, hopelessly idle” but I do think you are speaking to me!  I work full time, have 7 year old twins, and try to have a life for myself, too.  It is a constant struggle. I know that, for me, success is all in the balance.  I can physically feel it when I go too long without re-charging my personal batteries.  Thanks for reminding us that caring for ourselves is also caring for our families.

Debbie | 2:18 pm, April 29, 2008 | Link

 

Christine, Obviously you have hit a nerve with this article.  My husband read it first and passed it on to me, no doubt seeing that I often take too little time for myself, in between all the school and church volunteering that I do.  So I do understand that as mothers we need to nourish ourselves to be happier & more effective parents.  However, I do know many mothers that have a lot of “me” time (trips, spa days, etc) but they still don’t seem emotionally replenished.  I agree with the others that volunteer work, whether it be church, women’s shelter, or other, is just as important as a spa day.  It is a very soul-satisfying, uplifting thing to feel like I am helping my fellow man.  And, at least for me, it lasts far longer than a spa day (not that spa days are evil).  Both types of activities, IMHO, are essential to women.

Gina | 3:09 pm, April 29, 2008 | Link

 

I agree that when we, mothers, take care of ourselves, we are better able to take care of our families. I am now learning to take care of myself and balancing it with taking care of my family. Here is how I am doing this:

-I put the kids to bed earlier – so I can go to bed earlier.

-I get up 45 minutes to an hour earlier and spend that time doing my devotion, praying, reading the bible or a good book ( I am currently reading Great Women from the Bible)

Then, I wake my children up and we pray together with my spouse.

I truly feel renewed after this hour of devotion and meditation… Because of my spiritual walk, I feel at peace, joyful, I have more confidence, I am becoming wiser, and improving my parenting skills everday, while taking better care of myself. For example:

I no longer fill my Saturdays with chores and countless errands (WITH THE KIDS).

I try to do as much as possible during the week – I spend the first part of the day at home. I eat with the kids, play with them in the backyard, spend time in prayer, let them take a comfortable nap (no more car naps) – I TAKE A NAP too – then the second part of the day, I may get my hair done or visit a friend, attend choir practice…

Last week I went to visit a friend who also has kids. While we were chatting in the backyard, and the kids were playing with each other, my friend decided to give me a pedicure. This is what you call killing three birds wit one stone. I did not feel guilty about taking care of myself, enjoyed my friend’s company, let the kids play, and saved money (correction: 4 birds)

God Bless!

Claudie | 9:35 am, April 30, 2008 | Link

 

Thanks for a very welcome conversation, Christine.  I too, strive to give myself quality time.  I encourage my husband to do the same for himself.  My favorite “me” time activities include tennis, walking, girlfriend time, reading, and now, blogging.
And I too struggle with guilt but I’m getting better at remembering that kids don’t require as much face time with mom as some magazines would have us believe.  They are quite able to enjoy their friends and have a fulfilled life without us being by their side every minute.  In fact, there’s an arguement to be made that this could encourage unhealthy dependence rather than the healthy independence we all hope for our kids.
There’s a big difference between busy, career and SAH moms taking time to keep themselves mentally and physically healthy and the “affluent, hopelessly idle.” That’s an entirely different topic.  I couldn’t agree more that meaningful work, be it volunteering at school or at a women’s shelter, is a necessary part of feeling fulfilled.  Emphasis on meaningful.

phd in yogurtry | 7:15 pm, April 30, 2008 | Link

 

Here’s a pertinent quote:
Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on their environment and especially on their children than the unlived life of the parent. — Carl Jung

phd in yogurtry | 7:47 pm, April 30, 2008 | Link

 

Love this post — here’s how I find enough time for myself:
1)  husband and I trade off “nights” — after supper on Tues/Thurs, I’m off to jazzercise, followed by meeting up with a friend or hanging out in a bookstore or something otherwise indulgent.  Mon/Wed are his nights.
2)  work at home a couple days of the week, just to get some “quiet” home time.  It’s great work if you can get it.
3)  schedule social lunches with friends I don’t get to see otherwise.
4)  date nights with my husband weekly.
I find having clearly scheduled time when my husband is primary parent is a really good way to strengthen both his skills as a parent and my daughter’s attachment to him.  (He’s just as good as I am, which is what we both — all 3? — want.)

Sara in Austin | 3:42 pm, May 5, 2008 | Link

 

I feel like crying. I envy your ability to balance work and parenting and me-time. I don’t seem to have any me-time.
Except this – in the evenings, after I’ve gotten the paperwork ready for the next day’s work (my husband and I run a very busy tree service together), after the kids are bathed, snuggled and in bed, after the house is quiet except for the quiet white noise of the dryer running… I wash my feet.
It seems like the dumbest thing, but I really pamper myself in this area. I didn’t always do this – but had rough patches that were really embarrassing. I decided to stop being embarrassed and do something about it.
This is my soul/sole time. I remember the story of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples and those guys were out walking around in sandles in the dirt – this was not just ceremonial – it was a grueling job. I remember that he cared to stoop to this level to show them that caring for the least, that serving people made you more of a leader than demanding that others serve you. I give myself the chance to unwind. I rub salts on my feet, I rub oils into my feet. I massage my feet. And I feel refreshed and sleepy when I’m done.
Someday when my kids are bigger, and I have more free time – I’ll be able to indulge a little more in the finer things of life like lunch with girlfriends or time at the gym. Right now – my season in life is incredibly busy and full and exhausting – and I’m happy with a little foot rub at night.
Thanks so much for this post. You’ve helped me remember that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. There will be days like this out there for me someday.

Liesl | 12:29 am, May 6, 2008 | Link

 

Personally I don’t skimp on “me” time because of guilt or some grandiose idea of what I’m supposed to be as a mother. Like many women, I find that the work of surviving is so intense, that there’s little time or energy for anything else. That’s just the reality of having a full-time job (and a spouse who does the same), and keeping a household together.
It seems like we all count the ways that we’re lucky to have what we have, and we also look with envy to others who seem to have more. I feel lucky that I have a job that I love in the field that I was trained in, that my spouse works from home and engages in so much of the domestic work, that my child doesn’t have to be in full-time daycare, that my step father helps us pay for babysitting, and that we have a great babysitter who is so good for our daughter. I envy those moms who can work part-time or not at all, or who have spouses who don’t have to work outside the home, and those who have mothers or mothers-in-law who can be there to help, and those who can afford to have someone else clean their house.
What I wish for all parents is that we could have longer paid maternity/paternity leaves, health care that isn’t dependent on our jobs, and affordable, accessible day care. Then we might all have the resources to make the “me” time that we need.

HeatherG | 1:45 pm, November 20, 2009 | Link

 
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