Is it time to choose yourself first?

These were my signs:

  • I had surrounded myself with stacks of unread parenting books and I kept buying more.
  • I couldn’t stop yelling—and regretting it every night.
  • I searched the internet for tips and tricks that could help—but they didn’t work for my kids.
  • I felt like I had zero time for myself and was exhausted every single day.
  • I spend a lot of time disagreeing with or feeling punished by family and friends’ advice.

Maybe this list rings true for you too. Maybe it’s time to start parenting differently. Maybe it’s time to put yourself first.

I know that sounds like an empty statement or platitude. I know because I have felt trapped with my guilt and feelings of failure and I lived that way for many years—choosing myself first didn’t even feel like an option.

After that confession, it may surprise you to find out that I have been a professional nanny for over 20 years (and a pretty good one too). But just because you have studied child development and can diffuse a toddler meltdown in less than three minutes does not mean you are ready for the emotional bombs your children set off as you white knuckle your way through parenting.

Without a doubt, after providing support for hundreds of families, I can tell you that parenting styles vary dramatically and everyone has baggage that comes bubbling to the surface when their kids push their buttons.

I have also found that what unites us is the desire to be good parents that are happy. Plus, we all love our children and want them to be happy too. Over the years I have noticed what separates the unhappy parents from the happy ones (mental health concerns notwithstanding) is who they choose to take care of first. It may seem brutal, but it boils down to us or them.

Just because we are parents now doesn’t mean we can’t still grow and heal as people. We are not stuck with what we were taught as children, or the habits we developed to cope with stress over the years. And yet so often we find ourselves sacrificing our whole being for them.

If you follow the data, researchers have found that having children does not actually make you happy right away. It’s quite the opposite. In what is called the “parenting happiness gap” parents in industrialized nations were found to be unhappier than before they had kids—and that was pre-COVID. So it’s normal to feel unhappy at first, but for 5 or 10 or 18 years…no.

We give birth and then we dedicate decades of our lives to their futures. Paired with parenting a child who may or may not have a personality that gels with our own, we are dropped into an ever-changing and pretty volatile environment, and told we should instinctually know what to do. It’s a unique and yet universal predicament. Then there’s the scarcity of childhood slipping by us as we tread water trying to keep ourselves from drowning. No wonder our unhappiness can last even as the “parenting happiness gap” fades.

So how do we break the cycle of unhappiness? Our children aren’t going anywhere for a while—and as you well know, they change on a weekly and monthly basis. Naturally, we look outside of ourselves and tune into the chorus of voices pleading with us to make time for self-care!

Here’s the thing, though. Self-care is a setup.

It’s a lie our culture tells parents—a magical solution to stress and disappointment. Just take a bathtub selfie or walk the dog alone and boom! your kids will behave. Sorry, but after 12 years of parenting, I can tell you there is no magical equation of “tub time” and “quiet walks” that is going to ease your habitual reactions to stress or magically make your guilt and self-doubt go away.

Our accumulated feelings of failure and mom guilt don’t get solved in the tub; they creep in under the cloak of night when we lie awake in our bed, or in the overtired weepy hours of the evening where we ask ourselves why life can’t be “normal” and wonder what is wrong with our kids.

We all desperately need a shift in perspective.

Forget self-care. Let’s shift our good intentions and stop worrying about being a good parent; let’s just focus on just being happy.

By choosing our happiness first we will discover a well of creativity and the freedom to parent from our hearts instead of what’s inside a book or what our mothers may say.

These days, my goal to be happy keeps me from trying to create a “perfect day” with my kids—because I’m not a perfect mom and I’m okay with that. I also don’t retreat to the tub to fix a day that might have been a disaster. Instead, I actively look for the good that fills me up, and I do it ALL the time because otherwise, my latest mom tantrum could be what keeps me up the whole night (and I’m not my best when I’m tired).

There’s always something good that happened you just have to look for it.

I have also discovered that my tendency to only see the bad is not my fault. We all struggle with this inherited negativity bias—and what a relief that is! With that common humanity in mind, I can choose my path and I can take charge of my brain. I can train it towards gratitude and noticing what makes me feel good each day.

Self-reflection and gratitude inject the concept of self-care into your daily life. They help to see your reactions and typical feelings, and shift your perspective to one of kindness and empathy offering a “You are okay, this is hard” or a “You are doing your best” instead of “I cant believe youre so bad at this!”.

So now instead of the list I was making before I knew I had a choice, I am more likely to make a list like this instead:

  • I am reading books I love and make me excited to pick up.
  • I am still yelling, but a bit less—and more importantly, I’m noticing when I do and apologizing.
  • I am talking to my kids about what’s going on for me when they act in certain ways, instead of trying to fix them.
  • I am requiring time for myself and asking for help to make it routine.
  • I am distancing from some family and discovering friends who want to grow too.

We can be happy and have kids. We don’t have to lose ourselves so that they can live.

Choose yourself first and you become a model of self-love, gratitude and patience which naturally breaks the cycle of habitual parenting stress. It’s time to start parenting differently—are you with me?