I Thought I Was Acing Parenting By Putting My Kids First. Then I Made A Major Change

I used to think the only way I could be a good parent was to put my four kids’ needs and demands ahead of my own. A month of putting myself first showed me that’s not the case…
Jennifer Barton
Jennifer Barton

As a mum-of-four, whose eldest has just turned 13, I (sometimes) feel like I know a thing or two about the joyful, messy and complicated puzzle of parenting.

But then dynamics change, something unexpected happens… and I’m just as clueless as when my first child was in nappies. (Except it’s even trickier now, because changing a dirty nappy won’t solve our problems.)

I recently figured out that despite making what I consider “progress” in my parenting journey: being more present, kinder to myself, letting balls drop and not feeling the need to pick them back up again (in both a metaphorical and actual sense), I’ve been living by the unspoken mantra of “don’t rock the boat, ever.”

I made my world smaller to fit around my parenting life. I never felt unhappy or bitter about the fact I rarely went out solo, evenings or weekends. I’ve never taken a girls’ trip in 13 years of parenting.

To be clear, I’m not complaining. I like my life: I’m very much a homebody, travelling stresses me out and I work from home because I enjoy my comfort zone. Even if it means some days I never go beyond the five-block-radius of school drop-off and home.

But there’s a problem with my parenting philosophy. Sure, I’m around a lot for my kids, but the more I said “no” – to nights out, weekend trips, daytime activities – the harder it became to say “yes”. Like, ever.

Something in my gut told me I had to change that. On a whim, I applied for a competition hosted by Eventbrite called the GTFO (Get the F*ck Out) Challenge.

The idea behind the competition was to encourage people to break out of their post-pandemic rut by trying new things: 30 experiences in 30 days.

The winner would be invited to try a new activity daily – everything from fitness to crafts, foodie activities to music and dance workshops.

I was thrilled when I learned I’d won… even after I realised 30-things-in-30-days meant being out pretty much every night and weekend.

As you can probably guess, my family’s reaction to all of this was a bit less enthusiastic.

“You’re abandoning us!” one of my tweens exclaimed. It didn’t make me feel great, but it also seemed ridiculous: this was 30 days out of 13 years. I had to do it.

I can’t explain why I felt I needed to do this so urgently, why I was so desperate to have this experience, but as I heard my family moaning, it hit me: I created this monster, I’ve let my family think I’m one of the beams supporting our home. I need to fix this. My youngest, five, has barely seen me leave the house, or work anywhere apart from home.

They say it takes a village when it comes to raising kids, and I can attest that is indeed the case: my network of mums and local families, cultivated over a decade, was indispensable when it came to sorting out playdates and sleepovers, day camps and birthday parties for wraparound childcare.

We are also lucky to have an amazing nanny who has been with us for 12 years and can help after school and in the summer holidays (a decision we couldn’t exactly afford but decided we needed since my mother died when I was 23, my dad’s not in the picture, and my husband’s parents couldn’t commit to helping weekly).

There was something beautiful about watching the “village” spring into action after years of being the parent who was more than willing to help all my friends out.

The author tried beekeeping, African drumming and forest bathing in the space of 30 days.
Eventbrite/Jen Barton
The author tried beekeeping, African drumming and forest bathing in the space of 30 days.

Going out night after night, to an extensive selection of activities and events – samurai workshops, kintsugi pottery classes, graffiti sessions, crystal-infused sober cocktail events, Gambian cookery evenings, to name a few – seemed to activate both my mind and muscles.

You’d think I’d be more exhausted than I ever had been given I was travelling around London, pushing my body to new physical limits. (Have you ever tried medieval sword fighting with a 1.5 kilo metal sword? It’s… not easy.)

I was also asking my brain to keep working long beyond what it usually did, learning routines and choreography, following recipes and making art pieces, long into the evening hours, when I’d normally be in bed.

Instead, I felt amazing: creative, energised, more sociable than I’d been in years.

I was less anxious and scared of new things, less worried about “messing up”. A lot of the activities I did ended up having a focus on mental health (sound baths, forest bathing, even classes like face yoga and witch workshops involved meditation and breathwork), so I was more present and in tune with myself and my needs than I have been in a very long time. Maybe ever.

Even though I was around what felt like a lot less in the month, I was a lot more present during daytime hours and in the snippets of weekends we did have together. And instead of wasting time with petty arguments, the kids had tons of stories to regale me with.

For once, I did too: “Kids, you’ll never believe this, but I learned samurai moves from one of the choreographers of the movie Kill Bill Volume 1 yesterday, which you’re way too young to watch, but when you do, I promise you’ll think your mother is the coolest…”

Eventbrite/Jen Barton

I’m not the only one who’s seen the benefits to this month of new activities, which has become a month of self-discovery for my family members.

My husband – who can best be described as a super-reluctant participant at first (his workload after-hours and on weekends did get a lot more childcare-heavy; since his job starts at 6am, I couldn’t exactly blame him for feeling stressed about this) – actually thanked me the other week for doing the challenge.

“Really?” I replied. “I thought it was kind of annoying for you.”

“It all worked out,” he said. “You’re a lot less crazy… and they seem so much more relaxed and happier now, don’t they?”

Um, thanks. I think.

He’s right: as a parent, especially a mother, I have felt the pressure that comes with being told we need to be there for every activity and drop-off… but even though I may have been there physically before, I was a lot more tense and stressed about everything.

Shaking things up that month with my family really did change things for the better. I had to let go – of my “system”, of my expectations – which was essential for helping me relax, as well as everyone else.

My older kids started proactively helping out around the house as a result. My youngest – who was clingy to an extreme with me – is much happier hanging out with other family members and her dad (he took them to his parents for a weekend, which was a huge success).

I think they are starting to value, appreciate and understand that I am a person who loves them immensely and will do anything for them… but that I still exist as a person for myself, too.

The weekend my kids were away, I tried another first: one Saturday, I took myself on a solo date to the Barbie movie after my event.

I listened to Rhea Perlman, who played Barbie inventor Ruth Handler, talk about mothers standing still so their daughters could look back and see how far they’d come and I felt myself bristle.

No, I thought. I don’t want my kids to watch me standing still. I want them to see me grow, too.

It’s taken me a really long time – 13 years! – to give myself permission to do things as a mum. To stop asking for permission.

I wish I’d done it sooner, and I’m so glad I’ve discovered how powerful it is to put yourself back in the picture – not just as a mum, but as a human being with interests and stories and adventures to be had.