Putting Yourself First: Is it Selfish for a Mother to Come First?

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Has anyone ever said to you, “You should write a book, you’ve got great stories”? Yeah, yeah, that would be nice, but I don’t have the patience. Most of what I write is a few words, then done. Quick thoughts. I put it out there on a Linkedin article and done… and of course, one-liners on my Pinterest page. A book? Out of the question! But a blog post? That’s something that is more my speed.

Here is my question… When you’re a mother, is putting yourself first selfish? I would really like to end right here and hear what you, the reader, think. Are you clear cut one way, or do you see both sides? It’s probably easier if you are in the clear cut camp… less angst.

I was raised in a family where my mother might have looked like she had a foot in both camps. When my brother and I were young, younger than teens, my mother was a stay at home mom. That certainly didn’t mean she was home waiting with milk and cookies when we got off the school bus. And no… she was NOT there waiting at the bus stop in her station wagon to pick us up. She didn’t even have a station wagon! Today, it would be an SUV, right? She was an avid believer in putting yourself first, and this showed even in her choice of car… she had a pretty yellow Chrysler, very elegant for those days.

1950s momI groan every time I visit my hometown, Queensbury, NY, and I see the moms waiting at the bus stop, in their cars, to pick up their darlings. Oops… I think I am spilling the beans. You probably are getting an idea of which camp I belong to. Don’t children need exercise? Children still do come with legs and feet, right?

What are the repercussions of the way moms these days seem to be always present, looking after their kids? If the parents, usually moms, are there to pick up their children right from the bus, how do kids learn how to play? And talk? How do they learn to make their way in the world? They have been cooped up all day in school. Other than recess, they are structured all day long- they need this time to be free from parents and teachers and order.

Back to my mother. I was totally loved by her. I could tell her anything and she was 100% there to listen. I even thought her words were wise when I was a teenager. She was beautiful, cool, and not my “friend.” She made me make my bed, do the dishes, and do my homework. She couldn’t stand whining. It wasn’t a rule that we HAD to play outside all of the time, but it was strongly encouraged. We kids spent hours in the woods up the street building forts. They were terrible forts… one wind storm and down they came! It never occurred to either of my parents to build us a fort in our backyard. My father worked like crazy in his business and my mother just didn’t want to build a fort for her children. I didn’t resent that they didn’t do that kind of stuff- it’s just how parents were when I was a child, close to 50 years ago.

1950s familyIf what my parents wanted to do coincided with bringing the kids, then we were brought along.

Our activities did not drive their lives, except for my brother and basketball. I’ll get to that later. I was lucky enough that my parents skied, so we got to go skiing… a lot! Once or twice a year, we would stay in a lodge in Vermont and ski. I would take lessons in the morning, and we would get to ski with my parents in the afternoon.

When we skied locally, my parents would give us a quarter each at 9 AM and tell us to meet them in the lodge at noon. When I was tiny, say 3 or 4 years old, we skied at a place called Hickory Hill in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains. My parents would leave me in the lodge to play with toys while they took a couple of runs. Putting yourself first was considered ordinary. In my adulthood, I told my father that they would have been arrested today for child abandonment. His reply was, “For goodness sake, there was always an adult around!” He didn’t really say for goodness sake, but I was told not to swear in this article.

My parents also took vacations without my brother and me.

Most of their trips were an overnight or two. When we were teens, they went to Europe for over a month. Now really… they were lucky that we were so good. I left my 20-year-old daughter on New Year’s Eve and allowed her to have a “small” party in our house. Our agreement was that everyone who came over, stayed over. Ha! There were about two hundred and fifty 20-year-olds in our house that night. Whenever I bring up that party to any of my daughter’s friends, they all say, “Ah… THAT party!” The point being, I saw my parents treat themselves to time alone. It helped to keep their marriage fresh.  That, in turn, made for a happier household.

1960s familyBack to my brother, Josh, and basketball. My parents went through a phase of going to all of his games. You might think… ok, Nan’s parents were putting their child first. No… My father played basketball in high school and college. He liked basketball. I, on the other hand, was a cheerleader. They came to one game a year to see me cheer. I loved having them come to that one game, and I looked to see where they were in the stands, and then forgot them. The rest of the time? I didn’t need my parents at every game. It would have stunted my… my what? Style? Who knows, I just know I didn’t need them there. It was a lot better to come home at the end of a night to tell my mother everything that went on. She may have been putting herself first, but I didn’t know any different.

You might be wondering what my mother did all day while she was a stay at home mom. First, she was bored out of her mind. She did belong to a local theater group, but she stopped that because my father didn’t like her leaving him at night. I also remember her taking trips with her best pal, Lila. They would do a couple of days in NYC together. Once, when we were 7 or 8, my mother took us to visit cousins near the city. We went in to see the Museum of Natural History and the Bronx Zoo. When I got older, I loved trips to the city with her. She was so much fun! However, when we were young, there were no trips to Disneyland, and we certainly didn’t fly to tropical places. No one did that kind of stuff.

My mother did much better when she went to work. She sold radio time and a little real estate, but her best gig was as a probation officer for Warren County, NY. She was fabulous at it. Those listening skills were put to great use.

Fast forward to my generation and my go at it as a mother. As my mother did, I love my daughter fiercely. Unlike my mom, I was a working mother from day one.

I was a downtown retail owner in Burlington, VT… Nan Patrick, better women’s clothing. I only took one month off when my daughter, Liza was born. That was both dumb and ridiculous! At the very least, I should have taken the first month completely off, then weaned myself back to work. The next month, two days a week, and the 3rd month, three days a week. Hey! Life doesn’t come with instructions.

As we progressed through Liza’s childhood, we did take her to Disney World, and I followed in my parents’ footsteps, including their mantra of putting yourself first. The ski trips continued. Actually, my father still paid for that.  Thanks, Dad. My husband and I also took many, many trips without Liza. When she was eight months old, we went to Miami for a week. When she was two years old, we went to Paris for the weekend and to Nice and the Riviera for a week. To date, I think it was one of the best trips of my life.

One day, when Liza was a preteen, she was complaining about the fact that my husband, Ken, and I took so many trips without her. I said, “Liza, do you want Dad and me to stay happily married?” She said yes. I then told her that we needed trips alone for our marriage to stay fresh. She bought it… probably because it was true. Note this!  Where did I figure out that is was ok to travel without children? My parents modeled it for me. Putting yourself first is good for your whole family.

Thirteen years after I opened my retail store, I started a part-time business with Mary Kay Cosmetics. After going to a workshop, one of the sales directors suggested that we make a goal around our families. I laugh now, but it was a novel concept to me. I came home and told Liza about this. I told her that this director had said that we should make our MK businesses be worthwhile to our families.

She was a little confused when I asked her to remind me what she most often complained about. She guessed that she complained frequently that I made her do her homework. No, I said, you say that Dad and I don’t take you on trips. I then told her that the next day after school, she should go to Church Street where there once was a travel agency, and pick a family trip. She picked a Carnival Cruise. Phew! Thank goodness she didn’t select a trip around the world or something crazy.

The trip was not born in selflessness. We had a price for the trip and we gave ourselves a year to earn the money for it. I told Liza that the first $300 a week that we earned was still going to go into my business. If I earned $400 one week, we would put aside $100 for the trip. If I earned $200 in a week, we had to pay back money from our trip fund to my business. You can’t believe how engaged Liza became in my business while we were working on this goal. PS. I paid for the trip in nine months. The very next week after meeting our goal, when I told my daughter what my sales were, she told me, “Who cares, the goal is done.” Kids.

The trip was amazing. Before we left, Liza made the most adorable goal poster. It had photos of stuff she would want to do, what her sister and my stepdaughter would want to do, and photos of things my husband and I would want to do. Then, there was a journal sheet in the middle of the poster.

When Liza was sick, we’d take her Care Bear sleeping bag and she would cuddle up in a corner of the store to nap. This is what a working mom did, as a matter of course. Oh brother! Again, life doesn’t come with instructions.

Of course, that is just one of a thousand stories. I did tell my daughter that I would go to two of her games each season and that she should pick which ones, and I would be there with my pom-poms. Mind you, she was a bench warmer. In any given game, she would maybe play for a minute, literally. What I did see was her team spirit and support for her teammates. Sharing my admiration for that went on well beyond watching one game. Her support for her teammates seemed far more important than what she did on the basketball court. I went to her school plays too, but only one performance, not all of them.

She was allowed to do any activity within my comfort zone. No getting up for swimming at 3am. I just wasn’t going to do that.

If she could go on a school trip, great. I didn’t go. This was her life. I had a life and was living it. She was living hers.

And, like my mother, I was excitedly waiting to hear all about her adventures. Camp? She went for a month and as an older camper, six weeks. She loved it and my husband and I enjoyed the freedom to do what we wanted during that time.

I encouraged Liza to try different things. I also discouraged anything that would take time and money away from me.

Mom skiingI worked six days a week in my store and traveling every weekend for a game just was not going to happen. The expense of constant sports tournaments would have been more than a college education. I was not committed to making sports happen for my daughter.

I was thrilled to have every girl at Burlington High School come over to get ready for the prom. That was my sweet spot in parenting. I knew fashion and makeup. The girls had so much fun and I loved their energy. I was always welcoming all the local kids to stop by my store to hang out. It was a convenient place for moms to pick their kids up. We spent many days with a heap of backpacks in front of the store mirror.

mother and daughter huggingWhen Liza was graduating from college, I asked her what it was like to have me as her mother… being the consummate businesswoman I am. She said, “Especially with Mary Kay mom, I saw you get excited, I saw you get disappointed, then I saw how you got yourself excited again. Where was I going to learn that in school?” What, may you ask, has THAT to do with putting yourself first?  Everything. The enthusiasm, the disappointments, and the renewed energy were all mine.

Kids watch.  They don’t miss a thing- the good, the bad, the ugly, and the beautiful. If my daughter learned the lesson of resiliency by watching me in action… then, I am all in when it comes to the idea of putting yourself first.

If you have any thoughts, I’ll be keeping an eye on the comments section after this post. Let me know what you’re thinking.

Putting Yourself First: Is it Selfish for a Mother to Come First?

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Nan Patrick
Nan grew up in Glens Falls, New York, and attended Boston University. She thought of herself as ”very urban” until she realized she enjoyed being a big fish in a small pond. At the very “mature” age of 23, she moved to Burlington, Vermont to open an eponymous women’s clothing store. That was a 27-year run and a wonderful experience. Her store was a place where women felt like they mattered. During that time, She married my husband, Ken, became a stepmom, became a mom, and started a second business with Mary Kay Cosmetics. Now her kids are grown, and she has a 16-year-old granddaughter… what? How did THAT happen so quickly? She was promoted to a sales director with Mary Kay. Life is good. She figured out how to make money, save money, and enjoy what she earned. She loves to travel, spend time with her friends and family, take ballet and yoga, go on fun walks with my dog, and is an avid skier who loves to ski the bumps!

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