Saying yes to my own needs

[Please enjoy another post from one of our members - this one comes from Emily, mother of two, and a student of theology. I think this post speaks to what many parents go through - that struggle to come to terms with who they are and what they need and how to best be a happy parent.]

Before I had kids, I swore I would be a stay at home mom. Like, always at home. Or at least always with my kids. Sending kids off to school was something that cruel or selfish parents did. It was basically kid prison.

Then I had a son and a daughter within three years, all while I was finishing a graduate degree. I loved the challenge of school, but when I was on breaks from school and at home with my kids I didn’t enjoy it. And that made me feel so guilty. Was I a bad mother?

Then I realized that Henry, my two year old, wasn't enjoying it either. Here I was keeping Henry at home with me to be a good parent, and neither of us was happy. I had to ask myself: why was I so stuck on staying at home if neither of us actually wanted that? Little by little it added up. I was letting ghosts from my past control my present: teachers who’d hurt me, a school system that often overlooked the individual student, bullies. After years of swearing I’d never put my kids in school and that being a homeschooling parent would be my life, I had to muster up the courage to ask myself: without the ghosts of my past sculpting my present idea of what being a good parent is, what would my parenting actually look like? What does it really mean to be a good parent? I realized two things.

First: being a good parent means working with who your child is. I realized early on that Henry likes learning in the presence of other children. By trying to protect him by keeping him a home, I was actually hurting him. The right answer wasn’t keeping Henry home where I felt like he was safe. The right answer was finding a school that fit his personality and where his teachers cared about him. Protecting him didn’t mean keeping him away from things. It meant finding the right things to engage him in.

Second: I realized that being a good parent also means being happy yourself. When I finished my Master’s degree it felt like coming to the end of a long race and looking past the finish line and seeing something else entirely, something unfamiliar. Pretty quickly after graduating and being at home with the kids full time I had to admit it to myself: I wasn’t happy. And it wasn’t because I was doing something new or hard (I actually enjoyed the challenges of parenting two kids under two). It was because, back when I was coming to the end of graduate school and looking ahead into that unfamiliar land of being at home with my kids, I wasn’t just looking at something unfamiliar, I was looking at someone unfamiliar. Me just being at home with kids was me, not being fully myself. That’s not the example I want to give my kids: I want to give them a healthy, happy mom who’s passionate about work that she’s interested in. That’s the kind of life I want for them. What better can I do for them than model it?

And I finally remembered that that’s what I wanted as a kid. My mom stayed at home with us and wasn’t happy. While some men and women thrive staying home with their kids, she didn’t. I remember wishing I had a mom with an interesting job. I wanted to be brought into the world out there, to get to know the interesting people she worked with, to have my mind expanded by the things she was thinking about and doing. This is not to say that being at home as a mom is wrong if it’s what you love. For me, it isn’t. And that has been the hardest thing to admit to myself.

Right now, I’m finally saying yes (cheesy as that sounds) to my dream of pursuing a Ph.D. and be a professor. I’m looking forward to the day when Henry and Jane can come with me to whichever school I get into. I can’t wait for them to meet my colleagues, smell the smell of big, old libraries, and someday, meet my students. And when I’m working, I know that they will also be doing their own work and learning who they are alongside other children who are learning who they are. I know that there’s also the right environment for them and that I’m choosing what’s good for them based on who they are, and choosing what’s good for me based on who I am…instead of letting that tiny little part of me that’s a hurt child trying to figure it all out decide what’s good for me or my children.