Prev Next

When sacrificing for your kids does more harm than good

By Alice Bradley

A friend of mine –let’s call her Julie—faced the following dilemma: she had organized a night out with her best friends, the first time they could all get together, without kids, in months. Her friends all being busy mothers, organizing that particular night took a great deal of planning. Needless to say, she was looking forward to it.
And then her daughter’s school rescheduled her violin concert. For that same night.
Now, Julie was coming out of a particularly tough winter—there had been one illness after another in her family, a constant stream of sick days for either her or her kids. She more than deserved this night out. If she didn’t make it this time, she probably wouldn’t have another chance for a while. And as for her daughter, she’s young, and probably not aspiring to be a professional violinist. It was just another end-of-the-year concert, the kind that Julie’s husband had missed before due to work conflicts.
Of course, this wasn’t work, tearing Julie away from her daughter’s concert. But did that make it less important?
There were more complicating factors. Her daughter was going through an easily wounded phase, and might be hurt by her absence. And as for her friends, they all believed her it was her motherly duty to attend the concert. So even though her husband encouraged her to go out and have fun, if her friends disagreed, how could she go?
When Julie first wrote to me about this dilemma, my first reaction was to recommend that she move next door to me. I would take her away from all that horror. I would take her out for the night and not mention anything about any concert. It was time her husband stepped up to the plate and let her have her night off, damn it. The fact that her friends would make her feel even a little bad about that made me nuts.
One of her friends then argued that, as mothers, we simply feel more guilt than our husbands. That mommies mean more to the kids than daddies do. That we would have to wait until the kids left home until we could really revel in ourselves and not constantly sacrifice for our babies.
Insert expletive here.
I can’t help but think my own experience I had as a kid. I was twelve, and it was my first voice recital. It was my secret, fervent wish to be a singer, and no one but my teacher had heard me sing, not even my parents. After the recital, I walked up to my parents, who were waiting for me in the wings. My mother looked pained. “Let’s get out of here,” she said. And I burst into tears.
Afterward it turned out that she had a terrible headache and should have stayed home. It’s a moment she probably wishes she could take back. She was feeling terrible, and I’m sure the caterwauling of all those voice students didn’t help. But she went, because that’s what mothers are expected to do. Miss her daughter’s first recital? Unthinkable.
But by being there, my mother failed me. Would I have been hurt if she had missed it? Possibly, but I can guarantee you that I wouldn’t recall her absence with the same clarity that I can now recall that look on her face—the one I took to be a reflection of my performance.
There’s no question that we all sacrifice for our children. We go to the concerts and the games; we put their needs before ours time and again. But there’s a point in which sacrificing does them more harm than good. We need to fill our emotional wells so that we can give something back to our families. If we’re drained dry, what can we do for them? What good is our presence if we’re resentful and sad?
Why should a mother apologize for occasionally wanting something for herself?
And you know, maybe her daughter would be hurt that she didn’t go. Maybe that would start a conversation between mother and daughter, in which the daughter got to hear that her mother loves herself enough to put her own needs first, every now and then. And yes, to be a little selfish. We all have to start being okay with that.
Have you had similar experiences? What do you think Julie should have done?

Alice Bradley
About the Author

Alice Bradley

Alice Bradley was a regular contributor to Alpha Mom, writing about current events as they related to parenting. You can read about her daily life at her personal blog, Finslippy.


Alice Bradley was a regular contributor to Alpha Mom, writing about current events as they related to parenting. You can read about her daily life at her personal blog, Finslippy.

icon icon
chat bubble icon


  • sarahbeanne

    June 6, 2008 at 3:22 pm

    Juicy topic & well written, Alice. I can’t wait to follow the discussion.

  • bessa

    June 6, 2008 at 3:23 pm

    That’s a toughie. Hindsight 20/20: I suppose you should’t wait to take time for youself so seldom that it’s a huge deal to reschedule your mommy time for Violin recital time. Not that any of us does that. Let that be a lesson to us.
    Personally, I probably would have gone to the recital. But my oldest is less than 2 y.o. so time may change as I get to be more seasoned at this mommy thing.
    But for sure, try to go to the recital (or part of it) and then still salvage some of girls’ night out.

  • liz

    June 6, 2008 at 4:07 pm

    She should have gone out. I think so much of the “we mean more to the kids than dad does” guilt trip is a self-created issue. I have no idea whether my mom attended every school concert or play I was in, but I seriously doubt she did. I know she was there for the big stuff, and — way more important — she’s there for me now.

  • Sharron

    June 6, 2008 at 4:16 pm

    My mum could rarely make it to any of my school plays due to work commitments (she worked two jobs at one point) and to be honest I was fine about it, mostly as I was usually in the choir and she is genuinely tone deaf anyway 😀 The age of the child isn’t mentioned but if old enough a discussion would clear a lot of this up. I have to say I do go out by myself and leave my partner to look after our two daughters (1 and 3) as I feel it is important for my sanity and also important for them to see that it is ok to take time for yourself. Ok, so they are too young to fully understand but I feel it is better that they grow up with this happening than suddenly having it sprung on them.

  • anon

    June 6, 2008 at 5:05 pm

    Surely she could have managed to do both, even if it meant walking out immediately after her daughter performed. I would find some way to do both. If it’s utterly impossible, child wins.
    Your mom did good to attend the concert, but she should have bitten her tongue, as I am sure she regrets having not done.

  • Liz C

    June 6, 2008 at 5:21 pm

    Ouch! As mom to two ‘only children’ (a 25 yo and an 8 yo) I’ve dealt with this kind of stuff for many many years.
    I agree with your assessment of your vocal recital. My daughter (the 25 yo) certainly does not remember which parent was or was not at which elementary school performance.
    I’m probably older than all of the other moms here (I’m almost 50), or maybe it’s just me period, but I do think over the past 20+ years there’s been a disturbing trend for parents in general to become too entwined in their child’s emotional state. Heck, I’ve even noticed it in myself with my son.
    I think kids need to be allowed to take a little responsibility in learning to deal with their feelings, disappointment etc. included.
    It’s hard to watch your child be hurt, especially by something you did, but it is part of the process…. I’m just sayin’ is all.
    I also think Bessa’s point is excellent — don’t wait so long to take Mommy time in the first place.
    Also Sharron’s point is crucial to everyone’s sanity — our kids need to learn how to survive in the care of others when we’re not around, and it’s a skill best learned early on.
    (I’ll give advice on this kind of stuff all day long so I’ll shut up now. )

  • SuburbanCorrespondent

    June 6, 2008 at 5:22 pm

    Boy, does she need new friends, or what?

  • Asha {Parent Hacks}

    June 6, 2008 at 5:51 pm

    Thank you for this beautifully written post, Alice.
    There’s no way to know before the fact how one’s absence or begrudging presence will play out. There are too many possible reactions to track, all with their own contexts: dad’s, friends’, kid’s, self’s, grandma’s, Internet’s… And those reactions may (probably will) conflict.
    One of the wonderful and terrible things about parenting is the “case-by-case basis” nature of every decision. Past experience (and resulting wisdom) may not apply.
    All we can do is to make the best decisions we can at the time, and then be open to and accepting of the reactions. I will declare from any rooftop that modeling humanity — not perfection — to our kids is the best we can do for them.

  • cagey

    June 6, 2008 at 8:27 pm

    Once I could drive myself or walk, I usually went to my games or concerts by myself (my parents were divorced and my dad lived in a different town). There is no simple way to put this: it did hurt my feelings. In particular, it hurt when my mom would make the effort to go when my grandma came to town. The message was clear: my mom did not want to go those events but did not want my grandma to know that.
    I am not saying moms should be all sacrificing and all tied up into their children’s achievements, but I am also not convinced a girls’ night out is more important than a violin concert. I did not grow up to be a professional pianist, but I did work very hard on my performances.

  • Fairly Odd Mother

    June 6, 2008 at 10:55 pm

    First of all, ALL parents should be allowed to miss a child’s violin concert! Have you ever heard a bunch of little kids playing the violin? Good god, I’d need a flask of whiskey and cotton balls to make it through the show.
    Eh, I’d probably guilt myself into going but I’d sure as hell hope my friends would talk me out of it. I agree with a previous commenter—she needs better friends.

  • Kate

    June 6, 2008 at 11:29 pm

    I think Julie should have gone. And should have received no flack from her friends for it. I grew up a music student. I always had recitals and concerts and my parents were there for all of them until I was about 15, when they pretty much stopped wanting to go. Who could blame them? I was totally okay with that, too. I was totally okay with them missing them all, actually. My parents don’t know a whole lot about music or any instrument I was playing, so their affirmations felt in vain to me. They couldn’t tell the difference, I always thought. (Except that one time when I totally sang in the wrong key through the whole song!) I always knew my parents would love me no matter my musical abilities.
    Maybe it’s because I figured, if I bombed the performance, they wouldn’t see, or maybe it’s because I felt like if I was going to receive compliments on my performance that they should be from my directors and teachers. Either way, when they stopped going, I barely noticed.
    In fact, the couple of times they were there for performances in which I did totally blow, their words of encouragement were worse than the words from my instructors. Kids know when they don’t do well. They’re not dumb. I didn’t want my parents to tell me I sucked, but I didn’t want them to tell me it was going to be okay either. The freedom of coming home and saying that I blew it was far better than the “Oh you’ll do better next time” or “You just weren’t hearing it right” type comments. Being able to say, “I totally blew it tonight” and hear “I’m sorry you had a bad performance” was better than “Boy that sucked,” “Oh you’ll do better next time.” I know I will. I don’t need you to tell me that.

  • zendaisy

    June 7, 2008 at 2:57 am

    [Full disclosure: I’m 28, and I don’t have any kids. I do have parents, though.]
    I think that it depends on (a.) the kid in question and (b.) the particular event you’re missing. My parents, especially my dad, didn’t go to most of my recitals and plays and stuff, and I never minded a bit. I had dance recitals when I was little and plays and academics ceremonies and choir or band concerts and stuff when I was older; there were maybe one or two things in my entire childhood that I would’ve been disappointed if my mom had been absent from; she was there for those. (My dad, to be blunt, is so critical and irritable that I was always profoundly relieved when he DIDN’T go to something.)
    If my mom wasn’t sure how important something was to me, she asked, which I appreciated, although I was always happy to let her off the hook. And it’s worth noting that my family is not at all a communicative family, so it was not all Hallmark-momenty–just a simple question of, ‘Would you be hurt if I didn’t go to X?’ and a reply of, ‘No, that’s fine.’ I knew my mom cared, which was the important thing, and that she’d go if it really mattered to me, even if she was tired or not feeling well or simply not wanting to be bored out of her mind by thirty off-key high schoolers singing a ‘Grease’ medley. (Seriously. Gahhh.)
    I agree, too, with Sharron and LizC that it’s good for your kids to see that you are allowed to take time for yourself and to understand that you, as a parent, are still allowed to be a human being and not just a MomDroid.

  • Marcy

    June 7, 2008 at 3:03 am

    I recently went on a girl’s night out to go see the SATC movie. It was my son’s 4 month birthday. And he’d just gotten his shots that day, too. And he hadn’t been taking bottles, so we didn’t even know if he’d let my husband feed him. But it was the one night that this event had been planned, the one chance I’d had t get away on my own with friends in a couple months. And I took it. And sure there was some crying at home without me, but not as much as I’d feared. And maybe it makes me a bad mother, but I was very very glad to get away for those few hours that night.

  • Holly

    June 7, 2008 at 10:20 am

    Wow- this is kind of a tough one. I definitely agree that if there was a way to do both that that would be the best option.
    Otherwise, as her friend, I would have encouraged her to go out. Of course, if it was me, I would probably go to the recital. But being objective, I know that one violin recital over many years of performances and/or games is not critical. Especially if the father was planning to go anyway. It’s not like both parents were bailing to have a night on the town.
    Finally, I agree with everyone else that Julie needs better friends. I can’t believe that not one of them spoke up for her being able to take some time for herself.

  • Karen

    June 7, 2008 at 6:25 pm

    Oh, does this one ever hit home for me!
    First, beautiful post, Alice, and well-put. I wish I had read it 12 years ago.
    Second, there are some wonderful comments here! Asha’s comes to mind.
    I’m in the process of undoing what I’ve been creating in the past 12 years. I took responsibility for the welfare of my 3 kids, for their every moment and every emotion. I sacrificed even the notion of wanting something for myself to do this: I didn’t deserve to even want. Anything. And of course that has to burst out from time to time.
    I can’t predict what ultimate effect that had on my kids, now 12, 8, and 4.
    Nor can I predict what will come of the changes I’m making. I have kids who can’t open the front door to find out how cold it is. I have kids who expect me to always be there, to do everything for them, to exist to serve them, because this is what I did. I did this partly to assuage my own emptiness, and partly because the energy of it, if not the actuality, was what was modeled for me by my mother.
    I want my kids to have a model of a woman they can love and admire, not a faceless doormat who cooks.
    I want my kids to grow up to be strong, creative, forthright, and independent people. They can do this, not only from the potential they already possess, but from what they see modeled.
    Will they interpret my new-found distance as a reflection of my feelings for them? Maybe. That’s a chance I’ll have to take, and I can use every way I can think of to tell them, show them, how very much I love them. I don’t have to do it by baking organic bread from home-ground wheat and knitting their toys.
    If Julie has a passion for something, she should follow it. Kids won’t remember the sacrifices. They’ll remember their parents’ glowing faces as they follow their hearts.

  • Criss

    June 7, 2008 at 8:08 pm

    Being a mother does not mean being a martyr.
    If this were the very first violin concert, it wold have been a bigger deal for her to go. But it doesn’t sound like it was. Dad was going to be there – this would have been a perfect opportunity for a father-daughter night out, especially if Dad had already missed two of these concerts. BOTH parents are important.
    THe friends should be taken our back and beaten with a wet noodle, for telling her she’s a bad mother if she does not put her entire life on hold to hover over her child eery single second of the day, and for being stupid and conceited enough to give her that blah-blah about fathers not being important. Don’t even get me started on that one…
    Given, I am not a mother, but I am still a person and a woman (and, like anothe commenter said, I have parents). The girl will get over it. It’s ONE concert. We don’t know how old she is, but it sounds like elementary school – I doubt she’ll even remember. (If Mom had promised for weeks and weeks to go to this concert, and the date had never changed, and then she flaked out at the last minute because she felt like going to the movies instead, that would be one thing. But the concert was rescheduled, the plans were changed – it is not the mother’s fault.)
    I hope Julie listens to you more than the other bitter hag friends she has. (I worry about those women’s daughters – the mothers are setting the scene for some pretty unheslthy relationships for those girls – but I said I wasn’t going to get into that…)
    Thanks for this post.

  • No Refills Left

    June 8, 2008 at 10:55 am

    I’m also quite new at this mommy thing – my son’s only 7 months old – but these scenarios are already on my mind a great deal. I had one of those demanding schedules as a child, between the ballet, the flute lessons, basketball, baseball, the school play, etc, and I know that it was tough on my parents (and sister) as well. I was always aware of who showed up to watch and who didn’t, but my parents were always very clear with me. If my dad couldn’t be there because he was travelling for work, then I simply needed to understand that. If my sister had a recital of her own, maybe it was her turn to have mom or grandma in the audience. I think it was important for me to learn that, though my parents and grandparents loved me very much, I wasn’t always the center of attention. I wish my parents had taken more “me” time for themselves, too, because as long as they communicated to me that that’s what they were doing and why it was important, I would have understood and would’ve been more mature for it.
    And I’m completely with you – sounds like dad needs to grow a pair and step up. AND Julie needs new friends – absolutely!

  • Amanda

    June 8, 2008 at 1:18 pm

    First, the role of self is an important part of Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits model. It usually applies to business, but I think it applies here as well. If we aren’t sharp ourselves, then we cannot be our fullest for everyone else.
    Second, mommyhood martyrdom is just another form of manipulation — a big pet peeve of mine. It just leads to anger and resentment later in life.

  • Rachel

    June 8, 2008 at 11:58 pm

    Great post!
    I am 7+ months pregnant with #3, and my first two are almost 9 and 6.5. I had a weekend of me time Memorial day when I went out of town with some friends to a folk festival. In July I have planned with just my kids and some other moms and their kids for a long weekend at the beach.
    And we are planning a family vacation for a long weekend in July, too (baby’s due end of July so this will all before mid-July)
    But, in all of this, my husband and I didn’t have anything for just us planned, and his birthday was this last week, Father’s Day is next weekend, and our anniversary is towards the end of the month.
    I had started to make plans for a weekend away in about 3 weeks as the kids would be with their dad that weekend, and it would be our only chance to do that.
    THEN I found out that my older son’s very first Taekwondo tournament he will be participating in will be that weekend. He just got his green belt, and is so proud.
    If this weren’t his first tournament, I would take that time with my husband before the baby and go ahead out of town. But in this particular circumstance we’ve agreed that we wouldn’t want to miss it, and that it will be very important to my son to have us there as well.
    (My son’s father would be there, as well as step mother and his brother and step siblings).
    But! There was only a momentary Aw, oh well, I wish there was another weekend we could do this, and it very quickly turned into a shrugging our shoulders type of thing. Neither my husband nor I feel any sort of disappointment, we are not sacrificing anything of ourselves.
    We hadn’t made concrete plans, and we’ll still make a point to have a very good weekend just the two of us here at home. If either of us felt differently, then we would need to discuss this further, but that isn’t the case in this instance. And I make sure that my needs are taken care of, so that when this type of thing does come up, it’s not a feeling of now or never.
    It took me a long time to learn not to sacrifice myself in my entirety for my children. I would do anything for them, but not to the detriment of myself.
    This type of situation reminds me of what they say in airplanes during the safety instructions about always putting the oxygen mask on yourself first before the children. I think taking time and care of yourself is important in a similar way.
    I sacrificed myself in a way that did a lot of harm to my mental well being when my children were much younger. I learned my lessons on that, and I know the importance of myself in all things.
    I think Julie should be able to tell her daughter that she had these plans, and that her daughter and her daddy would have a special night together (framing is everything!) and then she should find some much cooler friends to go out with that night.
    And I call bs on that about fathers. I have found that in my “ap” mothering community in the early days we all believed that, and I see now that nearly all of us regret not only not encouraging the fathers to bond more with their kids, but actively interfering when they tried. It’s ok for a dad to have to take more time to figure out why the baby is crying, don’t take the baby away from him! Let him work it out.
    And my husband, with this being his first bio baby, has threatened to throw down with me for lots of baby time 🙂 He WILL be taking her when he gets home from work and he WILL have her for more time than me just getting to take a shower 🙂 I love that man!

  • Kristine

    June 9, 2008 at 2:09 pm

    My mom has a picture of me winning some award at a school function. Someone else took the picture and gave it to her. Everytime that picture surfaces she gets all weird about how if she had known I was getting this award that she would have gone instead of whatever else she was doing that day.
    I have no memory of that award – I can guess the year because of the dress I was wearing, but I really have no context whatsoever for the whole event. She feels such guilt 20 years later over something that means diddly to me. It’s mommy guilt at its worst.
    I think it boils down to knowing your kid and how they will react (including whether it can be framed as a special Daddy event or not) and also whether your friends are going to be crappy and make you feel bad for choosing them over your kid. Because a night out with the girls who are being crappy is not worth going to anyway.

  • e.darcy

    June 10, 2008 at 8:16 am

    When I was younger my mom worked away from home quite a lot. I don’t really remember the times she was gone, just the fond memories I had with my dad-braiding my hair, painting my nails (‘daaad you aren’t doing it like mom!!’), and all the places we would go. I do know that my mom missed one of my birthdays (but guess what? I don’t know which one, because it didn’t matter…) I know she felt guilty about it, but I’m sure that she was more sad that she was on a business trip than with me. She ordered a large cake to be sent to me and the rest? blurry. We picked her up from the airport and ta-da! Had her back.
    I think in this case mom would be a better mother if she went out, had a few laughs, loosened up. After a while we all start to get short, grouchy, hot tempered if we were really looking forward to something, and then being held back. (regardless of how sentimental said violin concert would be) If she doesn’t make a big deal about not being there, I think that it won’t be a big deal for the girl in the future. No massive apologies, no big explanations, just go out (preferably with friends that aren’t as judgemental and ‘super-mom’)

  • Brenda

    June 10, 2008 at 4:16 pm

    My parents had a division of labor. Dad did sports. Mom did music. And they were both there for things that were really important to me.
    One of the keys, I realize in retrospect, is that they knew what was and was not important to me. They asked me sometimes if they weren’t sure. Every Sunday night we’d go over the “family schedule” of who had to be where and when. So if I had a game on Thursday and my mom had a session meeting and Dad needed to take my sister to a Knowledge Bowl meet (or whatever), I knew that my folks probably wouldn’t make it to my game. If it was a really important game to me, and I desperately desired someone to be there, I could express my desire. Sometimes I got an apology. Sometimes they rejiggered their schedule to be there.
    So I guess my question is … what does the DAUGHTER want? If she’s old enough to play violin, she’s old enough to understand that her mother is a separate person who has a separate life and schedule, and she’s old enough to express how much it means to her to have her mother there. If the young lady hasn’t quite realized mom isn’t a prop on her stage, well, there’s no time for her to learn like right now.

  • dregina

    June 10, 2008 at 4:22 pm

    Another way she can miss it and still have the special memory is to get a video from someone who DOES go and then have a mommy-daughter night watching the movie with a big bowl of popcorn. Maybe some nail painting or shrinky dinking too. She does NOT have to go. Does NOT NOT NOT.

  • lolismum

    June 12, 2008 at 2:37 pm

    Good grief, go out and have fun. One freaking concert of many, daddy will be present, as most people attested to it, she won’t even remember any of this. I am a working mom, my kids spend 10 hours a day with a nanny. I go out of town for business and sometimes I miss important events, sometimes I miss them because I want to take the later flight home and sleep past 6:30 am without interruptions.
    And after you go out, dump those idiotic friends and make friends with Alice.

  • Suburban Turmoil

    June 16, 2008 at 8:20 am

    Well, I gave up a fabulous all-expenses-paid trip to Disney World in order to attend my teenage stepdaughter’s play, give her a bouquet at the end of the show, and promptly be ignored for the rest of the evening.
    I comfort myself with the knowledge that I’ll get my reward in heaven. *smiles sweetly and folds hands in lap*

  • kym b

    June 17, 2008 at 10:29 pm

    She should have gone out with her friends. Maybe find new ones first though.
    What would I have done? My motherly guilt probably would have gotten the best of me and I would have gone to the performance and ducked out right after her part and met up with my friends.
    I totally agree that we mothers need time to ourselves. I think we neeed it to not feel bitter later in life about making all the sacrifices we do on a daily basis. I make sure to take a 3-day weekend with some girlfriends at least twice yearly to keep my sanity. I don’t think I would make it without those.

  • Jennifer

    June 24, 2008 at 3:07 am

    “Why should a mother apologize for occasionally wanting something for herself?”
    Thank you!
    And your friend needs to tell her judgmental pseudo-friends to stick it.

  • Marivic

    February 19, 2016 at 7:43 pm

    We need to be a little selfish sometimes. Its one way of energising yourself otherwise we’ll be drained, emotional, spiritually, physically. You cannot give something which you dont have, so you must feel loved, to give more love.