Why Putting Myself First Is the Best Thing I've Done for My Daughter

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I used to think that it was noble and polite to put myself dead last. A little peek into my daughter's classroom demeanor changed that forever.

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"Panic disorder," Veronica, an anxiety specialist, says as I exit her San Francisco office following our first meeting. I am a 33-year-old mother of two young children, a shell of my former self lately, gripped by insomnia, severe anxiety, and panic attacks. She hands me a list of calming techniques -- balloon breath, progressive muscle relaxation, and body scan -- and says that I need lots of self-care.

I stare back at her perplexed, my eyes scrunched into a confused squint. Self-care? What's that? 

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I grew up in the south, in suburban Atlanta, and was raised to follow the Politeness Doctrine: Friends get the first turn on the swing set and the last piece of greasy, homemade fried chicken. My mother, a kind woman who tied a bright-pink ribbon in my hair on all occasions, from Easter Sunday to a random Tuesday at the neighborhood pool, taught me the importance of please, thank you, and a dutiful, polite yes. She died from a brain aneurysm when she was 43. I was 9.

When a new babysitter -- a twentysomething brunette wearing tight jeans, red pumps, and a cropped fuchsia tee shirt -- picked me up from school a few weeks after my mom's funeral, she asked what I wanted to eat for a snack. I sat in the back of my mother's Buick station wagon staring at my shoes and muttered a docile, "Anything is fine."

And over the years, as I navigated the windy and bumpy road of grief, my Southern graciousness morphed into an unhealthy desire to please. From the grocery checkout person to my closest friends, I feared that if I didn't meet others' needs just so, they might leave.

And then I attended my 3-year-old daughter's first parent-teacher conference.

As Jay and I walked into her preschool classroom, the walls adorned with cheerful finger paintings and proud displays of illegible scrawl, we chuckled at the idea of getting insight into our toddler's future from her imaginative block-building and sandbox play.

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"We are working with her to stick up for herself more," her teachers said. They went on to describe how our daughter needed help valuing her needs, how she instantly gave up her turn when another child wanted the tricycle.

An alarming, deafening siren howled in my brain. Ding, ding, ding! And as a lifetime of my self-sacrificing behaviors flashed before me, I heard a loud voice: Stop being such a pleaser. I saw it so clearly: I'd been inadvertently demonstrating that her needs were not important. "Give the stuffie to your friend Riley -- she's the guest, and she wants it," I'd say, practically clawing the soft bunny out of her hands, hoping for a nod as World's Most Polite Hostess.

Sometimes our kids are like tiny little messengers, sent from some wise, self-actualized source in the universe to nudge us toward better versions of ourselves. I don't always see my own broken places clearly, but they appear in high-definition through my children.

I didn't want to raise a selfish bully, of course, but it became clear that I had been modeling -- encouraging, even -- way too much self-sacrifice. I knew I had to take care of myself, just as I wanted my daughter to do for herself one day. So I began to learn the unfamiliar language of putting myself first.

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Over the coming months, I began carving out time for guilt-free rest and enjoyment: acupuncture, massages, and a weekend away with my girlfriends. And over the next year, I began to soften into motherhood and finally found sleep again. The panic that had assaulted me faded into the background of my life, like a clump of snow falling off a heated hood, dissolving into the road.

Life with two kids is full; cramming in extra to-dos makes me anxious, restless, and overwhelmed. So part of my self-care regimen means learning to say no. I've developed a new mantra: If I don't feel a hell-motherloving-yes burning deep within me, then I will offer a firm, confident no. Room parent? Nope. Auction chair? Negative. Make three batches of homemade play-dough by 8 a.m. tomorrow? Definitely not.

With each no I gave, I made room for a yes to something else. I finally had space to figure out what the heck I even wanted to say yes to beyond motherhood. Boundaries, self-respect, and clear communication gave me room to find my dreams and desires in this life: launching a writing career, beginning research for my first book, and teaching a weekly yoga class.

Now, my daughter is 8 years old and in the second grade. She has a firm sense of self and doesn't look to the approval of others to define her. This afternoon she has a friend over and, as a treat after school, I pull out the bag of Skittles she and I picked out together at Sugar, the little candy store in our Marin County town.

"Share them with Riley," I say, handing her the bag.

"That’s not fair!" she says. "You didn't say that yesterday when we bought them."

She gives me a mad scrunched-up face, hops on her rip stick -- a scooter-like skateboard -- and crashes into our kitchen bar stools at warp speed. A large part of me is horrified and wants to scream, "Why in the name of all things sacred can't you just be obedient?" But another part of me admires her tenacity, her ability to voice her perspective, even if it is not polite.

I know I'll have many more conversations with her over the years about the delicate intersection of politeness, submitting to the needs of others, and standing your ground. And we'll have a very specific conversation in two minutes when I ask her to apologize, remind her that we always share with guests at our home.

But right now I must embrace all of her: the light and the dark, the selfless and the self-interested -- the full range of her humanity. Only then will she know how to accept her whole self unflinchingly, and remember that politeness doesn't mean a lack of self-respect.

So, I smile a little too and think, that's my girl: opinionated, beautifully complex, and one hundred percent human.

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