That prams and art are not mutually exclusive.

Putting yourself first

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?

8 Responses to “Putting yourself first”

  1. Lisa

    My husband and I are lucky enough to go away for a couple of weeks each year over the last 5 years leaving our kids in the enthusiastic arms of their grandparents. We travel to places we’d never ever take our kids, we sleep in dodgy accommodation sometimes, we get henna tattoos, we travel with only limited clothes, we eat street food (in India – yes and not a whiff of delhi belly!) we drink beers at odd times of the days and immerse ourselves in whatever culture we’re in. And not only is this good for our marriage, but also our souls and our family unit. We all love each other and appreciate each other a little more. The time we have to do this is limited. My parents in law are getting too old and we know we may have just had our last trip. But that is ok. I never feel that I am deserting my kids, but I always feel we have managed to capture the essence of who we used to be before we had kids, and that we can be a little free spirited, and not particularly sensible, so at times when I’m in my normal life and feel too sensible again, I can remind myself of the person I can be.

    • Gill

      Drinking beers at odd times of the day…yes! I can relate to feeling like I need to be so sensible all the time. I AM a sensible person but that doesn’t mean I don’t also enjoy being a little reckless from time to time. I loved reading your comment Lisa and I think I will come back to it whenever I’m in need of inspiration.

  2. booksaremyfavouriteandbest

    A year ago I went on a solo trip overseas for 14 nights, leaving my four kids with my husband (I won’t bore you with the details of how this trip came about but needless to say it was FANTASTIC, MEMORABLE and good for my soul). The interesting thing was that at school I was a hero with the mums (“How did you pull that off?!) and my husband got the big thumbs down from the dads – “Mate, you’ve set a precedent we don’t like!”… “Now they’ll all want holidays…”

    Apart from the fact that other people pass judgement on your holidays (!) I actually find it incredibly valuable to holiday on my own/ away from the family. I enjoy family holidays but I do think it can be beneficial to have some time away. without the pressures of family routine.

    PS. I do extend my husband the same offer of a solo holiday but he never takes me up on it!

    • Gill

      It is interesting to me that you (and Lisa) mentioned the word “soul” and both of you in the context of travel.

      And how funny that you had the opposite response to me! Perhaps because you went on your own, while I went with my partner? Who knows? But good on you, your trip sounds amazing!

  3. Shelly

    As I type this, a friend of mine is in Dublin Ireland having just flown there to celebrate after participating in the marathon in New York. Then it’s on to London and back home; she’ll have been away for two weeks. She says herself that she spent her entire 30s, pregnant, breastfeeding or with a toddler permanently wrapped around her leg.

    Now that she has passed 40, she has found that she’s good at running, and while the training is gruelling, it gives her a wonderful sense of achievement. Her husband encouraged her to take the trip when the opportunity presented itself. I imagine a few eyebrows may have been raised when this came about, and I myself was a little envious, but I don’t begrudge her this trip in the slightest. I only wish I could have joined her!

    Everybody needs a little time out every once in a while. If we don’t put ourselves first then we risk losing ourselves completely.

    I enjoyed this post immensely. I spent 3 hours over the weekend watching this excellent PBS series. It really opened my eyes to the role of women over the years and how women have fought to gain equality. I hope you don’t mind my sharing the link here:

    • Gill

      Thanks for the link, Shelly. I’ll look forward to checking it out.

      Every time I ponder the idea of “putting myself first” I think of my Grandmother raising 7 daughters in the 1950s and I feel so grateful for the opportunities available to me. An overseas holiday was not an option for my Grandmother at the same age. To think that putting ourselves first now is even an option shows how far many of us have come… Instead of fighting to keep a roof over our heads we fight to keep our lives soul-full.

  4. Rae Hilhorst

    30 years ago to leave your children and go on holiday without them was seen as being incredibly selfish, unfathomable. I remember as a young mother, feeling shocked, that mothers would go back to work, (how ignorant was I), as that would leave others to pick up after them, do double school duty etc. I was one of the lucky ones that didn’t need to work, though times are very different now. Times have changed, there has been a shift, more public awareness, of everyones well being, makes time apart more acceptable, for some a healthier, family life, a duty to survive. Those that judge harshly would think differently over time as they become faced with these opportunities, better educated, clearer acceptance, changing child rearing practices. I now know, that with the stress of rearing children, behind me, (not that it ever really is) am more acceptable, giving and less judgemental. Thankfully xxx

  5. Kymmie @ a day in the life of us

    I’ve just read your two latest posts and am feeling a “feminist” vibe. Not in a negative way, but I sense the questioning in your articles about what’s fair, and what’s honest. I think that there are no answers for mother guilt and often the worst critics are women, not men. I’m a feminist and I believe there is a long way to go before women leaving their children for work or a break (and so many other issues) have a long way to go before ya “equal”. Will it ever be?, is also the question. Beautiful writing as always Karen. X


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