The other night I was discussing with some friends the concept of loving others, and what it looks like to love others on a very practical level. If my aim is to love people, does that mean my aim is always to make them feel loved, or might there sometimes be a mismatch there? When is the mismatch appropriate, and how do I make that distinction in the moment of choice? Does loving others always mean I place their needs above my own? Always?
In the realm of parenting there is a tendency to act as though the answer is yes: loving others means always placing the needs of others—the needs my kids—above my own. Whether this is a conscious choice or a subconscious one, I see examples of this way of thinking all around me. We sacrifice sleep for our needy little ones, sacrifice our nutrition, our fitness, our social lives, or our hobbies. We hop to when they cry, hang up the phone when they scream, and miss work when they’re sick. These are all noble things parents do to meet the needs of their children, and it’s a beautiful thing.
But might there be some fuzzy areas where we are confusing real needs with mere wants? Does it benefit our kids to put their whims above our mental or physical health? Is it noble for me to say one more “yes” to them if the result leaves me depleted, exhausted, or even bitter?
My daughter helps me often with preparing dinner. As she gets older she is more and more helpful, but there is still a lot of effort and teaching involved and sometimes her help just means more work for me. This is something I am usually happy to accommodate, as I see that it meets her needs to connect with me, to contribute to the family, and to learn new skills.
But what about the occasional night when I’m not in the mood for a helper? The evening after a long day when there are no easy jobs for her to do and my own attitude, for better or worse, is not at its most patient or congenial? When my daughter scampers into the kitchen inquiring “Can I help?” I have a choice to make. I can swallow my preference for a few minutes of pure productivity and say yes. I can tell myself she has a need to connect with me and a need to contribute and a need to learn new skills, and that would all be true.
But what about if I consider the experience she’ll have if I were to say yes? She comes to me anticipating a good experience helping me prepare a meal. But if I’m in no place to provide that experience, does saying yes actually meet that need in her? What if my need right now is for peace and solitude? What if chances are high that in her twenty minutes of helping I will snap at her, make an unfair request of her, or express impatience with her. If I’m feeling close to the breaking point, might it be actually to her benefit for me to tell her “Not tonight sweetie, I need a little time to get this done on my own”?
My understanding of self-care has changed a great deal. I once saw it akin to self-indulgence, but now I see it as meeting my needs for the purpose of fulfilling my responsibilities. Rather than asking “What do I do for myself that I enjoy?” I ask “What will help me best meet the demands of my day?” This shift in perspective allows me to measure my own legitimate needs against my ability to address the legitimate needs in those I love. Sometimes self-care is going for a run, but frankly sometimes a run is just too time-consuming or energy-sapping. On those days self-care may mean a few extra minutes in the shower or ten minutes staring out the window and daydreaming. It may mean making dinner by myself tonight, knowing that the break I get now will fuel me to better meet my daughter’s needs tomorrow.