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I admit it: I'm a selfish mom.

by Meagan Francis on July 20, 2009

Last week Babble.com ran an essay of mine about why I don’t plan to foot the bill for my kids’ college education. The essay was reprinted on Yahoo’s Shine and in the Chicago Sun-Times, and it got a lot of feedback.

I certainly didn’t expect all the readers to agree with me, and I totally respect that people feel differently about this topic than I do. What did surprise me was how many people chimed in to call me “selfish” in the comments.

At first I bristled. How dare these people who don’t know me at all suggest that I’m selfish?

And then, a moment later, my thoughts changed to wait a second — what’s wrong with being selfish?

This has stuck in my head as the 2009 BlogHer conference approaches. As I watch blog posts and tweets swirling around centered around what to wear, which parties to go to and who to meet, I’ve picked up on another undercurrent that’s quieter, but definitely there. Without coming right out and saying it, what I hear a lot of moms suggesting is: “I feel selfish for taking time away from my family to do something for myself.” “I feel selfish for investing our family’s income in my hobby” (even when that “hobby” is actually a money-earning career!) “I’d love to be going, but it would just be too selfish.”

Somehow, for moms being selfish is regarded as the worst possible sin. Anything you might sacrifice or cut back on in order to (ostensibly) make life better for your kids (despite the fact that we don’t all agree on what actually makes a child’s life better or happier)…If you don’t, you’re the dreaded S-word.

Moms, let’s embrace our selfishness a little. Is there anyone out there, really, that’s not selfish some of the time? Think about it: even our seemingly selfless actions usually gratify us in some way, even if it’s just that we feel good because we’ve done the right thing. Of course, we can’t always agree on what the “right” thing is to do. Nor is there a clear-cut answer about which “right” things rank highest. Simply by choosing to prioritize things differently than another person would, we allow ourselves to feel “selfish” (or, just as bad, we judge another mom for being “selfish”).

But that’s silly. We all sacrifice some things, but we don’t all sacrifice the same things. I’ll sacrifice freedom and sleep to breastfeed for two years, but there’s no way I’m going without caffeine and wine while I’m doing it. Selfish. Some moms believe it would be better for their kids if they could stay home with them, but are afraid of sacrificing their retirement savings to do so. Selfish. Perhaps yet another mom would like to give her child a sibling, but would rather not go through another pregnancy, labor, and recovery. Selfish. I’m guessing there’s somebody reading this who made her kid — gasp! — take actual bites out of a whole apple today, because she didn’t feel like slicing it up even though that’s how her kid prefers it. Selfish, selfish, selfish!

Even if you think it’s best to be selfless: where does it end? There’s always something more we could be doing, some edge we could give them. Give up the cable to start a college fund? Sure. But then what about that Friday-night pizza? Or the yoga class you wanted to take. Shouldn’t you give that up, too? Think of the children!

And if it’s not every last cent we owe the kids using this “selfless parenting” model, it’s every last minute of time. Cutting back on nights out with the girls when you have a baby? Absolutely. But what about that once-a-week book club…after all, you could be spending that time reading to your child. And that hour you spend online in the evening? Wouldn’t that time be more selflessly spent knitting your baby organic wool underwear to save her skin from pesticides and the taint of commercially-produced fabrics?

Even if it were possible to give up every shred of self in order to give our families what we think they need, I think kids can learn some important lessons from some mom-selfishness: namely, that the world doesn’t revolve around them. When possible, I try to meet both my kids’ and my own needs at the same time, but that isn’t always doable. And in order to keep from turning into a martyr who’ll eventually have nothing left to give, I recommend all moms practice planned acts of selfishness: time and money and energy we set aside to promote our own self-interests, even when it means other people in the family have to give a little.

So how can you tell when it’s okay to be selfish? Here are some questions I ask myself when it’s not clear how much giving I should expect myself to do, and when it’s okay to take a little:

*Is this truly a selfish act? If I believed my kids would be better off if I paid for their college educations from beginning to end and I refused to do it even though I could, that would be truly selfish. But life isn’t usually so black and white: sometimes you want to give your kids something and it’s just not possible; sometimes you aren’t convinced your kids will be better off if you did, anyway. There’s always more you could be giving. But not giving everything you have doesn’t make you selfish.

*For whom are the stakes higher? Limiting the time I’ll spend on a life-sucking activity while my children are young and very needy won’t hurt me as much as it would help my kids — after all, I can always go back to it later, but they won’t ever get those important early years back. On the other hand, weighing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity entails a different set of choices resulting in very different consequences for all involved.

*Try the 10 -10 -10 approach: how will this choice affect you and your child in ten minutes, ten months, or ten years? A much-awaited weekend doing something important to you might be painful in the short term for your child, who of course will miss you in your absence. But in ten months or ten years, he may have forgotten all about it, while it remains a great memory for you. On the other hand, if going away would mean missing your child’s Little League playoffs, or would likely result in weaning, or would mean you couldn’t afford a family vacation, your answer may very well be different. Everyone weighs these priorities differently, but taking the 10-10-10 approach allows you to move past the “how do I feel about the choice right this moment” and put it into perspective: it’s possible you’re inflating the actual effect this “selfish” act would have on your family over the long term (or completely missing the possible benefits they’ll experience).

A weekend spent sleeping on the floor at Grandma’s or in the care of a capable Dad–even if he doesn’t do everything just like you would–is unlikely to cause children long-term harm. But I fear that mothers who pass up every opportunity that comes their way, who always put everyone else first, or who never consider their own desires because they’re afraid of being “selfish” won’t escape quite so unscathed.

There’s no shame in being selfish once in a while. And I believe our kids learn important lessons when they see us taking care of ourselves, whether it’s by planning for our own retirements instead of running ourselves into the red every month in order to provide for them, or by refilling our emotional “well” by taking much-deserved time away doing something just for ourselves.

What planned act of selfishness will you engage in this week, this month, or this year — and do you think it’s possible it’ll actually benefit your kids? It doesn’t have to be a weekend-long blog conference. Anything counts. Tell me about it in the comments!

Want more ideas
for creating a happier home life?

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Mara July 20, 2009 at 5:31 pm

I don’t have much to say except AMEN!

I don’t assume that I would be doing my kids any favors by making them feel like I’m the only one who can take care of them. They will love having a weekend with Daddy (who isn’t babysitting by the way, but *parenting* just like I do) and will be happy to see me when I come back. And I know that I will be happier to see them than I’ve been in months!

Wanna call me selfish? I can live with that! And now what are you wearing to the cocktail parties? I’m kind of at a loss.

Mara’s last blog post..Mondays are for dreaming: Melbourne, Australia

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Motherhood Uncensored July 20, 2009 at 5:35 pm

This is one of my biggest challenges. But I love the 10-10-10 thing and I’m really going to try to implement that.

I don’t feel bad about leaving them since I rarely do it (not by choice – I’d take way more vacations alone!). But it’s the daily stuff that I find hard. I go between feeling bad for wanting so much time alone and then guilty for actually taking it.

Motherhood Uncensored’s last blog post..Sometimes Single Parent

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Karen Sugarpants July 20, 2009 at 5:50 pm

I’ll be at BlogHer and Daren and I have always maintained that we each need our own time away from each other and the kids – several times a year. It makes us better parents, period. It works for our family too.
BUT! Last night I blogged about how starting school next year makes me feel exactly that way. Like it feels wrong to be diving into 4 years of school even though it will benefit our family. I do wonder why some of us moms have such a hard time with these things!

Karen Sugarpants’s last blog post..Paging Nurse Scaredypants

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Maria July 20, 2009 at 6:03 pm

It really is hard to be selfish in those tangible ways, especially the ways that people can easily call out and throw back at us.

Maria’s last blog post..drinking the kool-aid

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Wisconsin Mommy July 20, 2009 at 6:05 pm

We need more posts like this as we get closer to BlogHer! I tried being the “perfect mom” who neglected herself and was all about the kid. I’ll tell you, NO ONE was better off for it. I was miserable and managed to make everyone around me miserable. Now I take time for me when I need it. Selfish? Maybe. But it was more selfish trying to be someone I wasn’t (and couldn’t be) in order to live up to some self serving image.

Wisconsin Mommy’s last blog post..The Weekend in Review

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Boston Mamas July 20, 2009 at 6:13 pm

It took me a long time before I finally started being “selfish” after being a mom. But it’s necessary to have your own space and be your own person. Otherwise, you get utterly lost.

Ironically, BlogHer is coming up following a couple of weeks where I have felt like the absolute last priority all around the block (e.g., evaporating childcare, husband’s new job transition, etc etc). I’m getting on that plane without a modicum of guilt.

Will also be interested to read your college tuition post. As someone who worked my ass off to pay my way through a private liberal art college, I’m definitely not in the “hand everything to your kids” camp.

-Christine

Boston Mamas’s last blog post..Featured Mama Tori Stuart

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the new girl July 20, 2009 at 6:25 pm

The word selfish has such a negative connotation to it. I like the way you describe it and own it. I’ve long advised parents (especially mothers) of patients that putting themselves first is imperative at times. They need to feel fulfilled and taken care of to be truly effective caretakers. There are some that are surprisingly hard to convince.

I call it self-care, though, to make it sound–nicer somehow. heh.

the new girl’s last blog post..A Bit Of Family History And Chocolate Oil Cake. Or, A Bunch Of Boring Stuff And A Recipe In Desperate Need Of A Name-Change.

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Angela July 20, 2009 at 7:43 pm

You make a very good point here. One I’ve been thinking about this summer. See, I decided in May, starting on Mother’s day weekend actually, to finally be “selfish,” or what I’d considered selfish before. I’m spending 40$ a month on ME. Just me, no one else. Every month.

What am I doing with my 40$? Weightwatchers. I’ve done it before, but always stopped because it just took too much money from other family needs. Too selfish. But I’m finally valuing myself enough to spend some money, time, and energy on just me.

And I feel so much better! Down 23 pounds and actually starting to exercise too.

I wish I’d decided to be selfish a long time ago.

Angela’s last blog post..Giddy up!

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Amber July 20, 2009 at 9:06 pm

My daughter loves raspberries. L-O-V-E-S them, especially fresh from our garden. But so do I. So sometimes when she’s busy I sneak out and eat them so I don’t have to share.

Oh, and I send my 4-year-old to daycare part time even though I’m home right now. At this point it’s like preschool, she actually really enjoys it, and it gives me some peace a few days a week. But probably selfish. ;)

Amber’s last blog post..Maternity Leave Around the World

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kim/hormone-colored days July 20, 2009 at 11:42 pm

I wasn’t feeling at all bad about BlogHer until I realized there was a fun community event taking place the Saturday of the conference.
Me: Oh, I can’t make it, but dad will take you. You’ll have a lot of fun.
DS 9: Why can’t you come to?
Me: It’s the BlogHer Conference.
DS 9: Why do you ALWAYS got to BlogHer!
Me: But it’s only once a year for a couple of days.
DS: Yes, but you ALWAYS go.
This will be my third year and I know they will be fine without me, even if I do miss out on a fun family day. I remind myslef I’ll also “miss out” on mcuh whining and at least a few tantrums. :-)

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Marilyn July 21, 2009 at 4:45 am

There’s a middle way between being truly, badly, selfish and a martyr. I don’t know exactly what it is, but I’m trying to walk it.

This year I made it a goal to do a few things for myself – I’m preparing for a famous Sydney fun run for the first time (a long-time dream), I went to a two-day conference,I attend a fortnightly women’s group and I’m starting on my first book.

All of them take me away from my family for chunks of time, but all of them refresh and energise me so I can be more like the mother I want to be.

Marilyn’s last blog post..A conference on happiness

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Marinka July 21, 2009 at 7:55 am

“Selfish” seems to be a word that’s applied exclusively to mothers. Screw that.

I’m going to BlogHer. Guilt-free.

Marinka’s last blog post..Remedial Blog School: Your Questions Lovingly Answered

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marymac July 21, 2009 at 8:22 am

our family vacation is coming up in a few weeks. the only part i am looking forward to? my day at the spa. alone. selfish? yes. necessary? absolutely.

marymac’s last blog post..Funniest Crap on the Internet

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Toni July 21, 2009 at 8:35 am

Every year I attend a girlfriends’ getaway weekend that we all look forward to very much. I invited a good friend who stays at home with her kids (ages 9 and 5), and her response was that she didn’t feel right asking her husband to take vacation days to watch their kids “just” so she could have fun.

I remember feeling that way, and I respect her response, knowing that maybe in a couple of years, she might change her mind. And even if she doesn’t, I respect HER boundary and HER way of doing things.

It took me a long time to understand the saying, “If mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” It’s always a balancing act, as you said here already. Some opportunities are worth pursuing, and some are worth setting aside until the kids are older or your family situation is different.

Toni’s last blog post..Summer Break

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Selfish Mom July 21, 2009 at 8:48 am

Meagan, I always wondered how you were able to have so many kids and still seem so sane. Now I have an idea. Smart lady.

Selfish Mom’s last blog post..The Beatles Rock Band: HARMONY!

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melanie July 21, 2009 at 12:56 pm

i am definitely a selfish mom–i just yelled at both my kids to get back to their rooms even though there is only ten minutes left of “room-time” because i want every last minute for my own time!

but i always promise them i will be a nicer, happier mom at the end, if they give me my own space and time…

melanie’s last blog post..summer slide

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candice August 5, 2009 at 9:37 am

I just read your article yesterday about paying (or not) for college. Today, my cousin emailed me about a nosy relative who asked how she expected to pay for college for her 3 children. She answered that she didn’t think colleges were going to price themselves out of business and anyway, she was going to raise them to be responsible adults who can help pay their way! I just sent her the link to your article… great stuff. Keep it up!

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Ruth April 8, 2011 at 11:32 am

I know this is a super-old post, but somebody just sent me the link to this post. I, personally, think it is selfish and irresponsible to do everything for your children. It is our responsibility to prepare them for adulthood in the real world and being responsible, contributing members of society. How are we preparing them if we are denying them the chance to learn sacrifice, responsibility, and self-reliance? My parents had a 6-figure salary, and all five of us children paid our own way through college. We all bought our own first clunker car in high school and paid for our insurance and gas. Could our parents have afforded to pay for these things? Yes. Would we be the same self-reliant, responsible, successful adults that we all are today if they had? Probably not. I think that the most unselfish, and difficult, thing we as parents could do for our children, is to restrain ourselves, and stand back, and allow our children the chance to struggle through their challenges and achieve their own levels of success, and gain new levels of self-confidence from doing so. We can, in turn, be their biggest cheerleaders, and give them endless encouragement, love, and advice.
Sorry to rant. :)

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