Mr. X and I had a fascinating coversation the other day while driving in the X-Mobile. We talked about things that we had done when we were kids that sent our parents in rages that seemed totally disproportionate to the apparent crime. For example, Mr. X one time sharpened a pencil … on both ends. Oh, the horror! Well, his dad seemed to think so and was infuriated. Mr. X still has no idea what would have caused such a reaction. And, his dad, by the way, is one of the most mild mannered people you would ever meet.
My story was about the time I lost my swimsuit. It was a Speedo, more expensive than your average swimsuit – but I would swim everyday, so it made sense. I was at the pool so much that my mother had to buy the special shampoo to prevent your hair from changing color due to the chlorine. So, the loss of my swimsuit was actually kind of a big deal. But, wow, the way I remember it, my father went into an apoplectic rage as if I had broken his most prized possession in the whole wide world. He chastised me for being careless and forgetful, two flaws I still am very careful not to possess.
I was walking G this morning, contemplating my conversation with Mr. X, when I remembered something my father said to me when I was at least younger than 10. I must have been talking about trying on the “mother” occupation for size and he said,
You’re too selfish to be a mother.
Putting aside for a moment how breathtakingly inappropriate this was to say to any child, let alone your own child, I still wonder deep down if he actually was right. I was a told that I was a very selfish child – but then, aren’t all children? My father worked doggedly to reduce my selfishness and I am still very aware of trying not to be selfish. But, I still feel as though I am a selfish person.
I love my “me” time, my time to read in the bath, or to sit on the back porch in the afternoon and watch G roll around in the grass. Outside of work, I don’t take on a lot of extracurricular activities, in part because I don’t want to give up my free time. I don’t give a lot of money to charity, and I don’t do a lot of volunteering. I keep my commitments to a limited few, but I do help out my friends when they need it and I love to do things for Mr. X like making him dinner or helping him with something (although ironing his shirts is not on the list) .
I do believe that there is such a thing as not being selfish enough. You can give away too much of your personal resources to others in the name of being unselfish, but in the end, you are emotionally bankrupt. I don’t think I’m in any danger of this as my sense of self-preservation is exceedingly strong. But, I’m still haunted by the fact that the man who knows me the best, perhaps even better than my own husband, would think this and articulate it and may still be right.
When I was a child, all I knew of selfishness was that it was exceedingly bad – although there was no mention of ‘sin’ in my house. It was just a bad behavior that was not rewarded. As I have grown, of course, the nuances in the question of selfishness have developed and I see the argument that pretty much all of human behavior is in some way motivated by selfishness, even having children (I want a legacy! I want someone to take care of me when I’m 80!).
But, it is possible to be too selfish to be a loving, caring mother? My mother made what would appear to be a very selfish decision to go back to work after I was born, because, as she put it, she would have gone crazy with me sitting at home. She was happier for the decision and I suppose that I was happier too.
I’m still puzzled, though, as to what level of selfishness my father was talking about was enough to trigger that threshold where you no longer are a ‘good’ mother.