"I don't want to make my kids do things they don't want to do, but I hate feeling like their slave. How can I avoid being a martyr? Why does giving them what they want mean giving up what I want?"
--Frustrated mom of four.
Parental self-sacrifice creates unhappy child tyrants and unhappy mama (or papa) martyrs. It is a default solution for the same reason that coercion is a default solution -- we assume from the outset that if there is a conflict, somebody has to lose. When parents and kids who disagree are pitted against each other, as is the case in almost every article in almost every parenting magazine out there, everyone loses. If we accept the me vs. you mentality, then our choices are either to help our kids at our own expense, or to help ourselves while our kids suffer. I always thought I was lucky because my parents perpetually chose to help me while they suffered... Then I became a parent, and you know what, I didn't want to suffer! There must be a better way, I thought...
The TCS solution to conflicts is to find a common preference. (I'm only talking about genuine conflicts that actually impact both parent and child -- not hair brushing and clothing choices and all that personal domain jazz.) A common preference is a solution that everyone involved truly prefers to any other options that have been discussed. This means that everyone involved is happier with this solution than they were with their original idea. Sounds easy, I think. Sounds possible. Sounds simple.
It's not. At least, not always. When it's simple, you don't even notice it happening. When it's hard, well, you don't think about much else. The thing is, there are no rules now. Everything is open-ended. It's like that trick environmentalist question, what do you say when the cashier asks "paper or plastic?" And the right answer -- "cloth."
Who wins, you or me? The right answer -- we both do. If I want to go out to dinner, and you want to see a movie, our solution might be to eat first then go to the movie, or to sneak take-out into the theater, or to order pizza and rent a video, or to go have a picnic in the park and fly a kite. Solutions are not pre-fabricated. There is no such thing as one-size-fits-all.
So, how on earth does one do this when one is essentially programmed to self-sacrifice? Ya got me! I have no idea.
Okay, that isn't totally true. I think some of the most important things for martyred parents to do include:
-Accepting that even if you feel like you are programmed to self-sacrifice, you have the power and the tools to change that programming.
-Believing that you can change your mind, as can everyone else you love.
-Figuring out what your own personal "self-sacrifice is imminent" physical, emotional, or intellectual warning signs are.
-Figuring out what you really want, in a big-picture way as well as in all the mundane moments.
-Learning how to verbalize what your wants are without accusations or acrimony.
-Getting support from family and friends to enable time alone for pursuing interests that are personally exciting and fulfilling.
-Figuring out how to not do things that you don't want to do. Maybe those things don't need doing, or maybe someone else can do them, or maybe just thinking about all your options will bring you to the realization that you actually do want to do those things after all.
-Remembering that what you do choose to do you are doing for reasons that are important to you.
-Knowing that what you do today does not create debt owed to you. You are making your choices based on what you want now.
-Celebrating your choices, and acknowledging that nobody is making you do anything -- you are your own person.
-Figuring out how to feel empowered and happy with the life that you have created for yourself, and if that feels impossible, then looking long, hard, and deeply at your life to unravel the barriers before you and to find what it is that you truly want for yourself.
As always, I hope something here helps.