It wasn’t too many years ago that people believed children should be seen and not heard. Now kids have become the center of their parents’ universe. But that hasn’t necessarily been good for the kids whose parents hover over their every thought and action: According to recent studies, college students who have helicopter parents were more likely to be neurotic and dependent, and kids who keep hearing how special they are are likely to turn into narcissists.
Not to mention the guilt moms — especially moms employed outside the home — have wrestled with about not having enough time with their kids. Relax, moms; new research indicates that the amount of time parents spend with their young kids pretty much makes no difference in how they turn out (there’s a minimal difference when it comes to adolescents). In fact, kids actually suffer when parents — particularly moms — are sleep-deprived, guilty and anxious.
But, forget about the kids; What about the parents?
Some experts are much more worried about what all this sacrifice is doing to a couple’s marriage. As Margaret K. Nelson, a sociology professor at Middlebury College, notes, trying to balance a demanding job with the pressure moms feel to be with their kids means they’re more at risk of divorce or separation; there’s just less time for their husbands.
Agreeing with him is psychiatrist Michelle Goland who says, “The mistake many moms make is they believe that if they are a good mother, their husband will be fine and he will understand, but in reality, the husband may feel pushed out of the parenting role and begrudgingly gives up trying to have a relationship with his wife.”
Adds author and cognitive behaviorist Judith S. Beck, “Parents need not, and should not, sacrifice their needs (and some of their desires) for the sake of their children. They should be able to make decisions based on what is good for individual family members, including themselves, and what is good for the family as a whole.”
But what if you’re divorced, as I am? What if you have no marriage to work on, no spouse to pamper and put first? What if there’s just you and your kids? Can a divorced person put his or her needs first, before the kids?
Not so fast! It’s bad enough that 69 percent of Americans believe the rise in single moms is bad for society. But most of us believe that “good” single parents are supposed to sacrifice for their kids. After all, our kids need us; a new love? Meh.
That’s what single mom Shoshana Alexander, a founding editor of the Utne Reader, found while doing research for her book In Praise of Single Parents: Mothers and Fathers Embracing the Challenge: “All of the successful single parents I interviewed … had, early on, decided to make their children the central focus of their lives.”
Somehow, that doesn’t seem right — or healthy.
Why would single parents have to go beyond the normal sacrifices that make up good parenting? A single mom who’s frazzled trying to put her kids first isn’t helping her kids; she’s just making herself unhappy and unhealthy. And, as the saying goes, if momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.
But if we single parents take care of our own needs, we’re seen as, well, selfish. Worse, many of us guilt-trip ourselves, believing that we’re failing as a parent if we take time out for some personal indulgences, dating or even casual sex. It’s worse if our kids don’t see their other parent that much, or at all; it’s easy to overcompensate while trying to take on the role of both parents. And so we fall into the single parent trap, forgetting that if we don’t take care of ourselves, we turn into miserable, stressed-out, crappy parents.
Here’s why we need to re-frame that conversation. In some ways, single parents are poised to raise kids exactly right — they’re able to get their emotional and sexual needs met outside of a romantic love-based co-parenting situation, and often outside of a cohabiting situation, while also focusing on caring for their kids (not unlike the parenting marriage we propose in The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels). There’s no romantic drama when you’re raising kids solo (and let’s not forget that it’s conflict that’s damaging to kids). They just need to be sure to create a healthy balance of caring for themselves and their kids, as Beck says, “based on what is good for individual family members, including themselves, and what is good for the family as a whole.”
Why isn’t that seen as a good thing?
Interested in learning about ways to re-create your marriage? Read The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press, September 2014). Order the book on Amazon, follow us on Twitter, like us on Facebook.