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!