I write this column as a psychologist, a parenting 'expert', and a fallible mother of three. I'm sitting on my sofa at the end of a long day, which has consisted of seeing clients, racing to my daughter's school to lead her Girl Scouts troop, coming home and battling with my kids to determine who will shower first, preparing dinner (ordering takeaway on this particular day), followed by feeding it to them and yet again explaining the importance of drinking milk, then chasing them around the house to get them into bed, reading them a story (one book each), and, finally, collapsing on my sofa to brainstorm ideas for my Conscious Parent Lecture series on how to be a conscious and effective parent...right.
The only thought that keeps popping up over and over again is, "Why do we parenting 'experts' always focus on what we can do for our children - why are the parents' needs so often neglected?" As a parent I understand that we want the best for our children and our families, but I think we often go about that in a counterproductive way.
As parents we are programmed to nurture and support our children, often at the expense of our own fulfilment and dreams. We dig deep, over-schedule, hardly take breaks, and collapse at the end of each day, never really getting any appreciation for what we do. How effective is a mother who is not caring for herself? How good can she be if she is not fulfilling her own dreams but only being a facilitator of her child's dreams? It is as if when we have children something happens in us that says we have to give up everything we are, and everything we want, in order to serve our children's needs and wants.
But what are we teaching our children when we do this? The wise words of my clinical supervisor ring in my ear: "Take care of yourself Saliha, you are modelling self-care for your children." What am I modelling for my children? Are they seeing self-compassion? Are they seeing a mother who lives a balanced life?
Growing up with a mother who modelled, with perfection, the art of 'giving', I never learnt the art of 'taking' from someone. I don't know how to ask for help with grace. I don't know how much or how little to take so that I don't deplete the other person. I am a masterful giver but a sloppy taker. This way of being has resulted in periods of depression and care-giver burnout for me (yes, there is such a thing as burning out from caring).
There were times and moments when others gave to me and nurtured me, but I had absolved myself of taking any responsibility for asking anything from anyone for many reasons: firstly, because I told myself that it was better to give than to take; secondly, because it's easier to wait for someone to give than for me to ask; and lastly, because I didn't know the language of taking. But a few years into my many caring roles (my career as a psychologist, plus being a mother of three, as well as a sister, daughter and friend), I'm learning I have to take ownership of my own care, too. This makes me a fulfilled caregiver and a better role model for those around me.
As a parent it is not just our responsibility to give the best to our children; it is also our responsibility to be the best that we can be. And I believe this starts with giving to ourselves first - mind, body, and soul. I'm reminded of the metaphor of the falling oxygen mask on a plane: "If you are travelling with the young or elderly, make sure you put the mask on yourself first." Thus, I have made a decision to teach something different to my children. I want them to learn to give and take in life and relationships. I want them to learn the language of taking what they need. I want them to have compassion and mercy for themselves. I want them to live their own dreams while they have a family. And I have to start with doing that for myself.