I Love You, but I Choose Me: On Parenting and Prioritizing Yourself

The glitter reflected the light like a setting sun shining through a thousand icicles. Rising over the letters beautifully scripted with school glue, the different colors bled together and formed the most magnificent piece of art, right on my kitchen counter. It was stunning, truly. It was also lunchtime. I was hungry, I was tired, and the four-year-old at my elbow had just knocked over a second jar of glitter. There was glitter on the counter, glitter on her hands, glitter on the floor, on my pants, even a dusting on the wall.

My husband and one-year-old son were at the dinner table behind us, enjoying their lunch while my daughter’s plate went cold next to them. I don’t know what lapse in communication led my daughter and me to be crafting when we should have been lunching but it’s where we were, and I wasn’t thrilled about it. Every little thing my daughter was doing added to my discontent. The mess, the questions, the cold pasta on the table.

I began to feel irritable and knew that just one more spilled jar of glitter would toss me over the edge. So I did something that has taken me four years of parenting to begin to do: I expressed the mounting frustration I felt bubbling up inside. I told my family I might need to remove myself from the situation before I said or did something I regretted. My husband nodded enthusiastically, giving me the support I needed in that moment.

Then, inexplicably, I looked at my glittered daughter, and I was somehow okay. It turned out I didn’t actually have to remove myself from the frustrating situation, I merely had to express what I was feeling—and, importantly, I had to be validated—and the mounting anger began to fade away. I calmly took a piece of paper and curved it at just the right angle to scoop up the sea of sparkling glitter and pour it onto a second piece, with which I created a funnel and returned the glitter to its jar—barely dropping a speck. Together, my daughter and I cleaned up the rest of the mess and eventually ate our lunch and forgot about the incident.

This is one infinitesimal moment, one of thousands in a day, in which I am faced with decisions and needing to provide answers, as well as support, entertainment, hugs, food and water, and every other need my two young children have. The weight I carry as their primary caretaker compounds with every demand of my attention, and sometimes something as small as a dusting of glitter is all it takes to feel like I might break.

The key to not breaking, I have found, is trifold:

  1. Being attentive to my own needs and emotions;
  2. Expressing said needs and emotions when the weight feels exceptionally heavy;
  3. Taking the space I need to catch a breath and snap back to myself.

Being attentive to my own needs comes in the form of pouring myself a cup of coffee before I do anything else when I wake up in the morning. Before I change my son’s diaper and feed him, I pour myself a coffee. Sometimes he’s in my arms crying when I do it, but I always do it first. It’s my boundary, and it only takes twenty seconds to achieve. Then, with a clearer head, I am able to meet all of the demands of my attention.

At lunch, I almost always prepare and serve their food before throwing my meal together. But there have been times in which I needed to quickly make myself a sandwich before I did anything else. I needed that boost of energy and nourishment before I could think about getting them settled with a meal. It sounds terrible, feeding myself before feeding my children, but they didn’t even notice. They didn’t care, they were too busy being kids. I, on the other hand, had a need, and I knew that if I didn’t meet that need first, the dozens of other needs would lead to overwhelm.

Attention to my emotions is identifying the rising annoyance, frustration, or anger, as in the case of the glitter. If I feel exceptionally frustrated about something, I will express it to my children. I’ll tell them I’m having big feelings and I just need a minute. They are perceptive, and chances are they know before I even say anything. And then, once I tell whoever will listen—my kids, my partner, anybody else around us—my identified emotion, I will take space for a breath.

I recently learned that the clinical term for what I’ve been referring to as taking space for a breath is regulating oneself. In the new book What Happened to You?: Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing by Oprah Winfrey and Bruce D. Perry, Dr. Perry says in conversation with Oprah:

“If you don’t give back to yourself, you simply will not be effective as a teacher, a leader, a supervisor, a parent, a coach, anything. Self-care is huge. Unfortunately, many people feel some guilt about taking care of themselves; they view self-care as selfish. It’s not selfish — it’s essential.”

That afternoon while crafting instead of eating, I was about to regulate myself by removing myself from the situation and, as it turned out, just speaking my truth regulated me. But the times are many in which I do need it, and I go for it. Sometimes (oftentimes) all the space I can give myself is a mere minute, but if the need is there, I will take it. I have to. Sometimes I just want to be quiet near a little stream, listening to the trickling of the water and the other gentle, undemanding sounds nature provides. But since I am rarely alone near a picturesque stream, I create that needed stillness in my own way—even if it’s just going to the kitchen for a glass of water while the children play. It’s not what I do so much as that I do it.

I love my children more than my daughter loves glitter, more than my son loves running around with a capless marker, but in order to give them the freedom to play the way they want and deserve to play, I need to prioritize myself.

If my near-constant application of creativity to my family’s exhaustive arts and crafts hobbies has taught me anything, it’s how to use my imagination, and when the only little stream of water I have access to is the water dispenser in my refrigerator, then I can use my practiced imagination and make whatever I need out of what I’ve got in front of me.

Beyond these in-the-moment needs of identifying and expressing my emotions and taking space for a breath alone, I also choose myself by scheduling time to practice my art, which is writing. These quiet moments at my computer with a candle burning and my brain ticking—these give me life. They make me me, and I am fortunate enough to have a partner who recognizes how important it is that I get this time to myself. I see my mom friends practice their own sacred arts too, like creating a flower truck and writing a children’s book. Not for money, but for sanity; for a deepened sense of self; for a purpose beyond that which brings us the most joy in the world, which is, of course, parenting.

I love my children more than my daughter loves glitter, more than my son loves running around with a capless marker, but in order to give them the freedom to play the way they want and deserve to play, I need to prioritize myself. I need to take that breath, get that glass of water, eat that sandwich. Only once I am fulfilled can I fulfill them. If I need to, I will just say to my children, “I love you, but I choose me.” It’s the only way I can truly choose them.

Kolina Cicero is enamored with stories – reading them, writing them, getting lost within them. Other things she loves include yoga, traveling, and taking cooking, Italian, and writing classes. Her first children’s book, Rosie and the Hobby Farm, was published in July 2020.

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