The Way Back to Self: a parent’s guide


One of the greatest dangers of parenting is losing yourself and forgetting who you are and what was once important to you. In the day-to-day chaos of school obligations, doctors’ appointments, play dates and activities, we often forget what was most meaningful in our lives in the past, and who we are deep inside. Add to that a busy career or job that helps to make ends meet, and you can have a full blown spiritual crisis.

As the months and years move forward, this loss of self chips away at your mental and physical health. Health problems are your body’s way of protesting, to alert you to pay attention. It is a sign that “you” — the essence of who you are — is being lost and forgotten. This can affect your marriage and your parenting potential.

We don’t do service to our children or our mates by giving up what is important to us. Sometimes those lost parts are so hidden we don’t even remember what they are, or we rationalize that they are not important any more now that life has taken over. We joke about who we were in the past — but deep inside we are longing for what those pursuits once gave us. We believe we are too old now to re-engage in those frivolous activities of our youth. How can you begin to regain sanity and make your life more fulfilling today? How did we get to this place in which our children experience us as distant and preoccupied as we become more disconnected from our self?

Do we want to model this way of living for our children? Do we ever want them to reach this place in their own lives? How can you strike a balance between what is important to you, and still meet the needs of your family?

Preparing for change

First you must make this a priority, because no one but you can make time for self re-discovery. No one is going to give you permission to carve out a space for yourself, and even if they do, you will feel too guilty to accept it. Perhaps if you understand how damaging the effect of years of self-denial can be to your physical, mental and spiritual health, you will be more inclined to demand the time for self-healing. Most of all is the toll that it takes on your entire family. They might not understand at first as you start to explore the possibilities. They might experience you as being less accessible, or feel threatened by the changes in you. In the long run, though, giving yourself permission to have a self and an identity that is uniquely yours will provide multiple returns and dividends to your family’s well being. If you think that sacrificing your life for the benefit of your family is “for the good of the whole”, think again.

Begin by acknowledging that you have a right to be a whole person, just as your children and your spouse/mate do. Just as you nurture their talents and abilities, begin to do the same for yourself. If you are really good at helping your children expand and grow, think about the steps that you have taken to accomplish this.

Write down these steps. For instance . . .
1. Made some calls to find out where the best classes are for ______(dance, art, sports). The key is that you made some calls on behalf of your child, and you can do the same for yourself.
2. Conducted an Internet search.
3. Budgeted the money or took a second job to pay for the lessons.

Now we know that you know how to do it for others — so apply those same steps for yourself.

Step 1

Write down five things right now that you love or loved in the past. Think of activities that gave you inner peace and a sense of joy. If you can’t come up with five, then come up with three. If you have more than five, write them all down.

Now, narrow these down to your two favorites. What was your feeling after you did these activities (example: writing, dancing, painting, walking, volunteering, ice skating, museum going, studying a language, taking courses, quilting). You don’t have to become an expert in this area, you just need to start to explore what is out there via the Internet, conversations, or looking through newspaper advertisements. Whatever your technique for gathering information, begin to find out what is out there without saying, “No.” The very act of exploring will make you feel better, and you will be well on your way toward building momentum.

Step 2

The second stage is to budget time and money. Start as small as possible. If you are inclined to jump in to things too fast and to become too compulsive, hold yourself back and take baby steps instead. If you are the opposite, give yourself the push that you need.

You might find that when you tell your family that you are going to do this, they will shrug and think “no big deal”. But to you, it is a huge deal. You are starting your journey back to yourself and there is no more important journey. In doing this, you are giving a gift to your children because you are teaching them how to do it for themselves. You are also gaining your family’s respect as you reclaim yourself and declare yourself as an important human being who is entitled to not only a full life, but a fulfilling one as well.

DEBORAH SIMON, MSW, is a Brooklyn Heights-based psychotherapist. She has worked in oncology, and chronic and terminal illness care, as well as running stress management workshops for parents. While living in Tokyo from 1989-1992, she ran an international New Mothers’ Support Group for English-speaking women. She has a son in college and one in high school, and her favorite pastime is Argentine Tango — which she fits in to her busy schedule at least three nights a week for stress relief. She can be reached at (917) 804-0165;