Flight attendants remind us routinely: take care of yourself first. This is not selfishness. It’s survival. The parent who takes care of himself or herself first is better able to take care of her child. If you aren’t convinced by the airlines’ logic, look in the mirror. Do you see your own parent(s) staring back?
Your children are watching. They are destined to do what you do, long before they do what you say. If you want them to be able to take care of themselves someday, to be able to trust others to anchor and refuel and hold them tight, they need permission through your example today.
If you give endlessly to your children with no consideration of your own needs, one of two things is likely to occur. You will either discover that your kids have grown up to become martyrs or they have grown up to become narcissists: painfully refueling others to their own detriment, or constantly demanding that others refuel them. The martyr has built an identity that is self-effacing, feeling that he can only be valued for what he gives. The narcissist has built an identity that can never be adequately fulfilled, his boundaries fortress-like and impenetrable.
Neither is happy.
Neither is healthy.
We must help our children to find a balance between these two extremes, a way to build a self that is both deserving of love and able to offer it selectively to others. But this balance can’t be directly taught. The process isn’t cognitive or analytical, verbal or intellectual. The process is emotional and experiential.
How do your children see you take care of you?
Do they see you dulling the pain with alcohol or drugs? Mistreating your body or mistreating your mind? Or do they see you getting up and going out to exercise? Saying no at least sometimes to fast food and overeating? Do they see the structures that anchor your life—abiding by the speed limit; attending church; supporting a charity; respecting other people; getting to work on time—as much as they see the structures that you impose on them? Or do they see in you a hypocrite, a person who doesn’t practice what she preaches? Will they see this as permission to someday do the same themselves?
Do you let them see that you are imperfect? That you need other people to refuel you? That you can cry and grieve and then heal? Do you let them see that you trust other people to anchor you? Or do you hide your feelings and failings and humanity behind false pretenses, blame, and rage?
Don’t fool yourself: your kids know the truth. Evolution has programmed them to read your face and your posture, to resonate with your heartbeat and your breathing, to interpret the tension in your muscles, and to respond to the chemical messages in your scent. Even if they can’t say it, they know who you are, whether your tank is full, and whether their anchor is secure at a glance.