When I was a child, our family struggled financially. Yet despite how hard our situation was, my mum and dad gave us all they could; they worked hard so we could get the education we deserved, as they didn't want their children to experience the same hardships they’d been through, and they rarely spent time away from us because we were their number one priority.
My mum and dad taught me what it means to be selfless. But now that I'm a parent myself, I've realised that it's okay to think about yourself sometimes, too.
My parenting journey
Seven years ago, I became a mother. From the moment our daughter was born, my husband and I faced many challenges. Alisha was premature and spent time in the neonatal intensive care unit; she was underweight, contracted group B strep, and had jaundice. She struggled with breastfeeding. On top of burping and changing her, I barely had any sleep. I was mentally and physical drained, but I was determined to do all I could for my daughter.
Alisha slowly gained weight, but after eight months I suspected she had a language delay. My suspicions were confirmed and Alisha was later diagnosed with a specific language impairment.
Until Alisha was five, she regularly saw a speech pathologist, paediatrician and a dietician. We later went through a similar process with our two younger daughters, who also have language issues, as well as other delays.
My three children have come very far now, and I'm proud to have held their hand every step of the way. But it's been a difficult journey for me as a mother.
Realising that I matter too
As I was confronted with so many challenges, I started neglecting my own needs.
Prior to starting our family, I was studying psychology at university. I was ambitious and determined; I was passionate about making the world a better place to live in.
After becoming a mother, though, I pushed aside my own future. I hardly made time for my friends, and only occasionally got out of the house. I was so focused on my daughters and their special needs that I wasn't paying enough attention to my own.
But then, two years ago, everything changed when I discovered my passion for writing. I'm now a freelance writer and I get paid to do what I love.
Last Christmas, I attended my husband's work party and donned a pair of shoes that I'd purchased with money I'd earned myself. I felt so much pride wearing them. I've contributed to our weekly groceries. I'm even helping us save for our future house.
It's not the money itself that means something to me, but what it represents - the fact that I matter. It represents what I have accomplished through my own hard work.
My husband and I now go on date nights. We get dressed up and have a night out to ourselves, while our children spend time with their grandparents. After five years of abstaining from alcohol, I now drink socially; I don't feel guilty any more about letting loose every now and again.
I know that I'm not the only parent who has felt this way. I know that many of us are so busy looking after the needs of our children that we sometimes neglect our very own.
But I also know that thinking about myself has made me a happier person.
Clinical psychologist Sally-Anne McCormack says that when it comes to parenting, selflessness isn't necessarily a good thing. “We need to have a balance. Although we need to put our children first for many years, we are also included in that mix too. It's not children above everything – we need to look out for ourselves as well.”
Jodie Benveniste, director of Parent WellBeing, agrees. “When you attend to your own needs, you are also better able to manage all the demands that your kids' needs place on you - as well as all your other responsibilities,” she says.
Benveniste adds that it's also about modelling appropriate behaviour for your children.
“If you're looking after yourself, your kids will understand that attending to your own needs is important, and something they should also do.”
Even doing small things for yourself – such as going for a walk, catching up with friends (without the children), or taking up a hobby – can make a difference.
“Finding small pockets of time for ourselves is generally achievable, and can give you the energy boost and mind reset that you need to return to your family with more compassion and patience,” Benveniste says.
“It allows you to be a better person and a better parent because you do value and nourish yourself.”
McCormack recommends doing at least one good thing for yourself a day, saying, “It could be simple things like doing your nails, getting a haircut, having a bath after the children are in bed, or watching a funny show.”
Speaking as a mother of four, McCormack says, “If I'm in a good mood, I'm going to be a much better mum than when I'm in a bad mood. So it's important for me and for my family that I nurture myself a little bit on any given day to make sure I'm feeling the best I can.”
Being less selfless doesn't mean you're selfish
All of us have been in the same boat. We've dealt with the sleepless nights, the endless nappy changes, the feeds, the sacrifices. Being a parent isn't easy, and we all deserve a break every once in a while.
I'm glad I've learned that there's nothing 'selfish' in being less 'selfless' – and that although my children's needs matter, mine truly do as well.