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Since I’ve become a parent, I’ve seen debate after debate about whose needs should be paramount in a family. Moms should put themselves first, their children first, their partner first. I’ve always wondered why it matters who’s first. As long as everyone is having their needs met, isn’t that what matters? Do we always need to make it such a big deal?
To me, the concept of anyone being “first” in a family feels weird. We all have a hierarchy of needs, right? There will be times when my kid needs more of me than my partner, or maybe I need more attention from her because I’m feeling some type of way and I need my person. Or maybe she needs me to acknowledge the fact that she’s been working hard and love on her a little more. Families shouldn’t have a hierarchy of who is more important. That creates dynamics that can potentially hurt people.
I was a single parent for six and a half years. When my son was young, putting him “first” felt like the right thing to do. I didn’t have a partner to worry about, and I could devote all of my time and energy to making sure he felt loved and cared for. Honestly, my life was in such turmoil that it felt good to pour everything I had into him. Making him happy felt like a great way to deal with my own unhappiness. If he was happy playing with a new toy or having a treat at Starbucks, I could distract myself from the fact that I was exhausted and lonely.
I think there are sacrifices we as parents have to make sometimes, and I don’t think it means we’re putting our kids at a higher position than we are. If my kid needs a new pair of shoes, I can wait to buy myself the jacket I saw online and liked. Either it will still be there when I have the money again or it won’t. But it’s not the end of the world. If getting him the birthday present he wants means I have to skip Starbucks for a few days, then so be it. That toy will make him happy way longer than the drink served me.
Our kids didn’t ask to be here; that was our choice as parents. I don’t think that means we have to ignore ourselves to serve them, but I do think it means that a lot of the time, their needs and wants take precedence over ours. While it’s true that your kids never stop needing you, there is a finite amount of time where they will be children, and I’m all about making the most of that time.
Now that it’s not just me and my son and he’s getting older, spending quality time together is more important but also requires more of an effort. He’s quickly approaching those teen years, and I know he’s not going to want to hang out with me, so I’m trying to make the most of it. For us, it looks like spending one on one time with each other. Sometimes it’s out of necessity, but I always try to find ways to make it fun. If we have to go run an errand, I make sure there’s time to stop for a treat. There was a period in the last couple of years where I was working so much there wasn’t time for me to be the hands on parent I was, and I realized how much I missed him and how to him it might have felt like I wasn’t prioritizing his need to be with his momma, so now I’m making more of a commitment to giving him that time and energy.
When my partner and I started dating, she understood my son and his needs were always going to be a little higher up on the list. She entered our relationship not only knowing that but understanding it and respecting it. She would never ask me to choose between them, but she also knows that if she ever did, I would choose him with no hesitation. I’ve known him longer, and he is the most important person in my life.
My relationship with her is also incredibly important to me, and I will always make the time to cultivate it. But when you’re adults, there are a lot of different ways to make sure you’re giving your partner what they need. It’s not always about going on dates or out to dinner, even though that’s always a nice thing to do. Sometimes it looks like sitting on the couch all day on a Sunday afternoon watching TV together and telling the kid he has to wait until we’re done to watch his shows. Sometimes it looks like making something she would like for dinner even though you want something else. We may not get a lot of date nights out, but we try to spend at least a couple of nights a week watching TV or whatever after the kid goes to bed. For me, quality time isn’t about going and doing, it’s about being together. And honestly, my favorite way to spend quality time together is to just be in the same place. Whether we’re on the couch watching TV or holding hands in the aisles of Target, being around my partner makes me happy in a completely different way than spending time with my kiddo does.
I know there will be many more years where it’s just the two of us and we need to maintain a solid relationship so that when the kid is gone we know how to be around each other, but that doesn’t make our relationship paramount to anything else.
Admittedly, carving out time for myself isn’t always the easiest thing to do. When you’re the default parent, that’s just how it happens sometimes. When I was a single mom, I stole moments when my kid was at school or with his dad to go grab dinner out or sit in bed and eat olives out of the jar while watching several episodes of Say Yes to the Dress. When I could, I would have dinner with friends or go to a book event and be around other adults. But for the most part, I had to be last, simply because there weren’t enough hours in the day or because I didn’t have the money to pay for a babysitter.
Now I have my partner, and my son is older, and that gives me more time and resources to make time for myself. Sometimes all I need is a solo trip to Target or to run to Sephora and pick up new face wash. Other times, it’s buying myself Starbucks three days in a row. Prioritizing my needs is still something that requires active practice for me, because for so long I couldn’t. I still don’t see it as putting myself first; I see it as making sure my cup is full enough to be able to care for myself and my family the best way I can.
Sometimes prioritizing my needs is the last thing I want to do because I’m so fucking tired from making sure everyone else is okay. But it’s in those moments where I realize why I need to make sure I’m making the effort to check in with myself and see what I need. Maybe it’s just having my partner handle bedtime so I can snooze on the couch for a few minutes or making sure I have time to read a good book. I recently started teaching myself how to do handlettering, and it’s been nice having a thing that is just for me.
There are so many ways to make sure everyone in your family is feeling happy and healthy without having to put anyone on a higher pedestal than anyone else. Do you feel like you have to put someone in your family “first?” Why or why not?
Queer Mom Chronicles is a column where I examine all of the many facets of queer parenthood through my tired mom eyes.