Moms Talk: Mommy Martyrdom

How much sacrificing for your kids is the right amount?


My daughter’s elementary school does a three-day sleepover camp at the beginning of the year, so that the families and kids can get to know each other. It is one of my girl's very favorite things in the world.

Not so much for me.

This was my second year going, and as a hardcore introvert, those three days of constant people interaction are a real challenge for me. By the end of day two, I pretty much want to roll into a ball and never see another human again.

I still get up and do day three. For my daughter's sake.

Modern parents are frequently told to take care of themselves first. Not to put our kid’s needs ahead of our own. To always make sure that we put on our own oxygen masks before assisting our child.

I call bull.

If I always did what I wanted without thinking of my child first, I would never have left the hospital with her. I was panicked, exhausted, and already rolling in the post partum depression that would become the hallmark of that first year. Picking her up in her carrier and strapping her in the car to come home was the first truly selfless thing I think I’d ever done. I had to push past every selfish instinct and do what I had to do.

And I do it every day.

If you think I want to get up at the crack of dawn on weekday mornings to make breakfast, pack a lunch, and drive to Kirkland, you are incorrect. I’d prefer to sleep in until 10 a.m. and have my daughter bring me tea before hopping in bed for cuddles and video games.

But you do what you have to do, and I feel in my bones that I have to get my girl to school on time, well fed, and with lunch.

Parenting is the job of filling all of a child’s needs in the beginning. From changing diapers to cooking for your hungry toddler to buying clothes and school supplies for your teen, parents do the things that kids can’t yet do for themselves. We are the source of what they need, from food to affection. And putting those needs before our own is natural.

I think we parents do get in trouble when we put our kids’ wants ahead of our own needs. When I don’t make myself breakfast because I’m busy making her a third yolk-free fried egg, I get resentful, hungry, and am no use to anyone, including her. When I make myself something after her first round, then I can go back to short order cooking with even blood sugar and a smile.

I think for me, the priority order that works best is:

  1. Her needs
  2. My needs
  3. Her wants
  4. My wants

And I’m definitely open to discussion about the order of the last two. It seems to be changing as she gets older, so we’ll see where her wants fall on my priority list 10 years from now.

Children are a pile of needs. They need everything from us the day they are born, and then they need less from us every day after. For the few years left that she is reliant on me, my daughter and her needs will always come first for me. 

Except for that oxygen mask thing. I think they’re really right about the order on that one.

How do you manage to balance your children's needs with your own? Tell us in the comments section.

Kirkland Tony September 24, 2012 at 12:24 AM
Malia, that wasn't your best work. In fact, it sounds pretty self-indulgent. Try describing being the family (financial) provider in the same terms. Using your own words with a few tweaks for the context change... If I always did what I wanted without thinking of my family first, I would take off for the good life. But I go to work and bring home the money that enables us a nice life. And I do it every day. If you think I want to get up at the crack of dawn on weekday mornings to make breakfast, pack a lunch, and drive to work... and then slave for "The Man"... you are incorrect. I’d prefer to sleep in until 10 a.m. and have my wife bring me tea before hopping in bed for cuddles and video games. See how pathetic that sounds? Nobody has it easy. You at least have more autonomy than a wage-serf who labors at the pleasure of (and can be trivially dismissed by) upper management. Your daughter can't fire you from your position. And your poor husband, who you don't mention or credit, provides you at least some security. It doesn't sound like the problem is how to "balance your children's needs with your own" but rather how to accept that adult-hood does not bring as many options as we, as kids, hoped it would. We have more options in theory, but the costs are higher. (e.g. I could take off, but would lose what I care for.)
Malia Kawaguchi September 24, 2012 at 05:55 AM
Tony - wow! It seems it certainly wasn't my best work, as what you heard wasn't at all my intent. I don't think what you describe the financial provider saying sounds pathetic. I think it sounds pretty sensible. It sounds like someone who has daydreams of an easy life that they know that they can't just have because they have a real life and real responsibilities which are more important to them then those infantile daydreams. My intent with the article was to say that my child's needs are more important than my trivial wants right now, and was a response to being told to "not be a martyr" to my kid's needs. I apologize if that didn't come across in the writing, but I instead sounded like the entitled hot mess you are responding to.
Chris Macbeth September 24, 2012 at 07:46 AM
I understood and can relate to what you are saying. I think many parents try to make sure that their kids not only get all their needs met but also their wants before thinking of themselves. Typically but not always this means the dad works long hours at a job he may or may not find fulfilling and the mother makes sure the kids are at school and activities during almost every waking hour. Often this can make parents feel overwhelmed and burnt out. That is why it is important to find time to be a little selfish after you meet your children's needs. My husband and I try to each have a couple nights a month we do something alone and try to get out kid free a couple times a month.
Greg Johnston (Editor) September 24, 2012 at 01:17 PM
Malia, I understand perfectly what you are saying and it's similar for fathers as well. I found the dealing with the balance between my three kids' needs and my own one of the biggest challenges of being a dad. They're all grown up now and as I look back, I wish I had done a better job of handling that pressure.


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