Post by Gillian Harrison
I left my children in early 2010. My partner convinced me to take a kid-free holiday to Malaysia for 6 days. I remember feeling ridiculously guilty at first, despite leaving our two boys in the care of two loving and more than capable grandmothers. My heart actually ached as we waved goodbye. But once arriving at our hotel, I found myself able to celebrate and I did so by sleeping for 8 hours straight.
We returned home a week later to two emotionally unscathed children. But the holiday became tainted when I heard through the small town grape-vine that a ‘friend’ had bad mouthed my ability to “abandon” my children. My partner didn’t experience the same judgement from his mates. While I got unkind whispers, he got high fives.
More recently, I chatted to an acquaintance (a relationships counsellor) about the work she does to encourage mothers to put themselves first. She advises women/mothers to put their partners second on the priority list while the kids should touch down in third place. ‘Putting yourself first’ may refer to the mother’s work, fitness, creative projects or all of the above.
But how does putting yourself first make us better mothers? The theory works on the same premise as that of in-flight safety demonstrations – hook up your own life giving air supply before helping others with theirs. Simply put, look after yourself and you are better equipped to look after others. (And by giving your husband a little extra loving you develop a healthier relationship which in turn allows you to present as a more solid parenting team, rather than simply two individuals sharing bathroom space and bottom wiping duties.)
But hang on. Six days without the kids makes me selfish while not putting myself first makes me incompetent? And how far do I take putting myself first?
I remember watching the movie The Darjeeling Limited when 6 months pregnant with my first child (worth checking out if only for spectacular Indian scenery and Adrien Brody rocking over sized 70s sunglasses). The character played by Anjelica Huston confronted me. Three estranged brothers search India for their long lost mother (Huston) so they can confront her after she fails to show up at the funeral of their father. Eventually they find Huston living in a remote convent. She greets them with open arms and a promise to re-acquaint in the morning, only to once again skip town while the brothers are sleeping. This was a mother adept at putting her own life (or in this case, her spiritual journey) before her children – should we love or hate her for it?
I don’t compare leaving for 6 days with leaving permanently, but having now moved on from the pregnant, hormonal me who felt shocked by Huston’s “Mother Who Left”, every now and then (usually in the dead of night), I get it. I get her. I understand how and why she left. Then, on a lesser scale, I find myself wondering whether my pursuit of creativity needs a certain amount of selfishness. Is it possible to immerse yourself in a creative project when creativity falls at the bottom of the priority list?
Henri Matisse was so committed to his art that he warned his wife Amélie Parayre, “I love you dearly, mademoiselle; but I shall always love painting more.” Apparently towards the end of his life Matisse did display a fierce dedication to his grandchildren. Perhaps later on his priorities shifted? Even so, he achieved a remarkable artistic life. We remember Matisse for his artwork, not his relationship skills.
But Matisse was the father.
Fly in/fly out jobs have exploded here in Western Australia and I’ve noticed that many of the fathers whose work takes them away from their families for extended periods of time elicit sympathy. Do absent mothers receive the same sentiments?
Some mothers I talk to feel like bad mothers simply for having certain thoughts, for considering the mold of “Mum” and the tweaks they’d be ready to make to it. And while I know I love my children, I like the changing and varying molds. I like the flexibility some mothers are bringing to being “Mum” and I would like to do the same. Even if it brings unkind whispers.
What does it mean for you to “put yourself first”? Do you do it?