“I’m not really sure who I am without my kids.”
To someone without children, that sentence seems like an over-the-top piece of self-praise. It’s as if I’m playing the role of SuperDad – so enthralled in the life of his children that he can’t possibly fathom who he is without them. They roll their eyes at how I’m patting myself on the back and overemphasizing my own importance.
To a person with children, however, that sentence can actually be pretty terrifying.
The truth is that we’re all constantly growing. Your entire world could be unrecognizable three years from now. Your beliefs, your relationships, and your priorities can shift so quickly that you find yourself becoming a different person without warning. One year, you’re throwing a shoulder block in the pit at a Rancid concert. The next, you’re closing sales deals on office water coolers. It can happen in the blink of an eye.
It’s all a roller coaster ride of new likes and experiences. Most of them are ours alone. Sometimes, you have a partner to share some of the change along with you. But for the most part, the focus is primarily on you and who you’re becoming.
Then, some babies show up. Suddenly, you’re watching them grow. Rather than marveling at your own advancements, you’re watching a little person learn to walk and play. It’s not just about you anymore. It’s about the next versions of you and how you can ensure that they grow to be even better than you are.
While your focus may shift, your own evolution moves on. You notice it in the peripherals. Maybe there’s a band that you don’t listen to the same way you once did. Maybe you notice that you don’t like a certain food or friend anymore. Whatever the case, the cycle of life continues and it’s not limited to the little cycle in diapers that you’re intensely trying to teach the potty to.
I had a major life changing moment in 2012 when I went through an emergency quintuple bypass. Following that day, I changed so much about my life. My diet, exercise, and overall health took a turn for the better and mentally, I focused on staying alive. I did it because I couldn’t imagine a world where my family would lose me at such a relatively young age.
The truth, though? If it had happened earlier in my life, before marriage and children, I don’t know if I would have made any changes at all. I mean, I’d like to hope I would have, but I don’t really know. I think back to the person I was in 1997, full of anger and self-loathing, and wonder if he would have said, “I’m not changing anything. If I’m going to go out, I’m going out with a bang!”
Actually, I don’t wonder. I know. That’s exactly what I would have said.
That freaks me out a little bit. So, it’s safe to say that the person I was then and the person I am now are pretty different. My life has progressed with each passing day and, for nearly a decade, there have been kids there to fill in the time that used to be spent discovering the person I was evolving into.
That’s why, as a parent, it’s important to take time for yourself every once in a while. The instinct to make it “all about the kids” all the time is strong, but it’s not healthy for you or for them. It’s the reason you find parents throwing their shoes at little league umpires or threatening to fight the PTA at meetings. You might nudge the person next to you and remark, “It’s supposed to be about the kids.” Yeah. It is, but when you make the kids all about you, it ends up being all you have.
Having your children as your sole focus 100% of the time makes you lose touch with who you really are when you’re not being Mom or Dad. When the day comes that they go off to school, get married, or just outgrow the need for your constant attention, you’re lost. Suddenly, you have all the time in the world again…and all you can think to do is call your kid and ask when they’re going to invite you over.
The fact that you’re able to find time for yourself throughout the constant time constraints of parenting isn’t anything to feel guilty about. It’s something we all need to do. It recharges our batteries and makes us better people for our children to look up to. There’s a big difference between going fishing alone to clear your head when you have a free afternoon and going fishing alone to clear your head when your son has a school play you should be attending.
I wish I could tell you that I’m writing this because it’s how I live my life, but it’s not. I’m starting to, though. Whether it’s a literal walk in the park or just an hour sitting outside, I’ve started to devote a few moments to myself when time springs up. At 40, I’m not entirely sure of all my likes and beliefs. But looking back on those days of the 20 year old who would thumb his nose at heart surgery, one thing is certain. I’m not him anymore.
If you spend every waking moment focusing on other people out of the misguided notion that it’s selfish to focus on yourself, then one day you’ll wake up at 60 in a mostly empty house and say, “I’m not really sure who I am without my kids.”
And that sentence can actually be pretty terrifying.