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Putting myself first doesn’t mean I don’t love my kids

Last week, I unwittingly dropped the equivalent of a hand grenade into a social media post on the cry-it-out method. And boy, did it explode. I was called a bad parent, that once you decide to have a child, they always come first — you’re secondary. Because I admitted that I put my baby in his crib, left his room and went to sleep in mine, even if he started crying. I worked a swing shift; I’d head to work at around 3 or 4 p.m. and get off at midnight or 1 a.m. I needed the sleep. But honestly, it doesn’t matter why. I’d made a conscious choice to put myself first, to put myself before my kids. And that was my grave sin.

I was pushing 30 when I had my eldest son and was focused on getting my career back on track. My husband and I had just moved back from Germany, where the Army had sent us for three years. And I was pregnant with him as I planned maternity leave for a job I didn’t even have yet (six weeks, if you’re wondering).

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When I had his brother four years later, I was in a similar position — applying for jobs during my pregnancy, interviewing while on maternity leave. My point? I had many, many years when I had a career, friends, activities… before I had kids.

One of the commenters in the aforementioned social media thread made the perfect analogy: “There’s a reason when you’re on a plane you put your oxygen mask on first before helping any man woman or child. If you don’t take care of yourself you’re no good to anyone else.”

But how many times do we do exactly the opposite as moms? Scheduling children’s pre-emptive immunizations while we just deal with the back pain we’ve felt for months. Dragging home from a hard day at work (or hell, even dragging from your home office) to cook two different meals because one kid won’t eat anything green. We get tired. We get sick. We get depressed. We try to put our kids’ oxygen masks on before we put on our own, and even though it works for a while, eventually we get tired, we burn out, we collapse, we can’t breathe.

I’ve been there before. I’ve felt paralyzed, unable to move. I put my schoolwork, my internship opportunities, my relationships, my community service and my two (and a half) jobs first. And I won’t make that mistake again — not even for my kids.

That doesn’t mean I don’t care about my kids; they’ve changed me in ways I could never have imagined. Having these little humans who depend on you for everything and caring so deeply about them that it physically hurts to imagine them not being in your life. Carrying the weight of knowing that, my husband and I are raising two citizens in this country, and it’s up to us to make sure they aren’t a-holes, that they are productive, that they stay alive. I would do anything to protect them. And yet — I put myself first.

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I schedule happy hours with friends and don’t cook dinner first. I go for runs even when I know the distance might mean I could miss bedtime. I schedule work trips without a thought to how my first-grader’s school project will get done. I sometimes come home, hand them the remote and take a nap. I put myself first. And I’m a happier person for it. And my kids notice that. That I’m much less angry, much less stressed (well, most of the time) and that I (usually) have more patience.

Putting yourself first means that you’re at the top of your game when it comes time to give of yourself to your family. Seriously, how can you take care of anyone else when you need taking care of yourself? I wasn’t helping anyone by letting my own priorities and needs fall to the wayside — I was martyring myself. And when I made the conscious decision that I was the most person in my own life, I felt like I was finally giving myself permission to live.

My husband is a pro at this. When he gets home from work, he turns on the TV and sits down. That’s it. He sits down, winds down and has that critical period that allows him to de-stress before joining the family. He puts his oxygen mask on first.

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So moms, give yourselves permission to put yourself first, permission to do something without thinking of your kids first. Get a massage or a pedicure. Send the kids to another room, and binge on Netflix. Make yourself an elaborate, ridiculous meal, and feed everyone else PB&J. Obviously don’t do anything dangerous. But give yourself permission to take care of yourself. To rest when you need to. To unwind. To de-stress. Put your oxygen mask on first. Because until you do, you can’t help anyone else. Especially not your kids.

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