Words of My Father

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.

12 thoughts on “Words of My Father

  1. Wow. There’s a lot in this post to absorb and I appreciate all your honesty in it. I have many examples that I could give you about what my parents have said to me in similar situations, but for some reason I can’t pinpoint one single event. However, what I’ve taken from whatever they’ve said in those “rages” were always the most awful things they could say … for instance, “You only think of yourself. You could never handle a family of your own.” Which, if you knew the role I hold in my family now, is furthest from the truth. I’m the peacemaker. I’m the one making sure everyone’s feelings were not hurt. I’m the one sacrificing my feelings so that others wouldn’t hurt so much.

    Okay, so what I’m trying to say is that … It’s amazing how much words (and actions) said (and done) to young children affect who they become when they grow up.

    Thanks for a great post.

    Mrs. X: thanks. It is so hard to view things that our parents tell us when we are younger as things that only applied to us when we were younger. But, just recognizing that you are struggling with it is a great step.

  2. I have the feeling your father was just transferring his feelings about someone else onto you. Any reasonable adult would know that how we act at 10 is not a reflection of the adult we will be at 25, 30, or 35.

    I was worried myself that I would have fits of selfishness that would make me a bad mother. When it comes down to it, when my son is crying, or has a need, it’s met, even when I am exhausted or sick and feel more grudging to give it. A selfish person would both grudge it and not give it.

    Mrs. X: Excellent example of selflessness, not selfishness.

  3. When DH and I first got married, we were against having children. Our reason being that we were selfish. I’m not quite sure what changed when we finally decided we wanted a child. I know it certainly wasn’t our tendency to be selfish. Eight years of marriage w/out a child yields a lot of freedom for “me” time. Even in the middle of IF treatment, when I sleep late on Sat. mornings, I still wonder if I’m ready to give it up. My friends tell me that when I hold my child for the first time, I’ll be willing to make sacrifices I never imagined. I hope that’s true!

    Mrs. X: I don’t know that making a decision to not have children is necessarily ‘selfish’ so much as it is that you really enjoy that you enjoy the life that you have and don’t have to add kids to the mix. There are a lot of people who have kids for entirely selfish reasons. So, maybe the shift from not wanting children to wanting them is not so much about being selfish as it is about shifting priorities.

  4. Oh, ouch. : ( I’m sure your father didn’t mean it the way it sounded, but it’s so true, our parents’ words can sure reverberate through the years for us.

    When I was a toddler, I was in a store with my mother & acting up. She took me outside to the car, spanked me soundly & said, “Don’t you EVER do that again!!” (Today, I’m sure someone would call the authorities on her… but I digress…) I never did (I still remember that day VERY clearly!)… and you know, I still have it ingrained in me that you DON’T make a scene, you suck it up & swallow your anger. When sometimes, you are justified in making a scene or expressing your feelings.

    Mrs. X: it is amazing what we remember. I one time told my father something I remembered and he was flabbergasted at what I remembered as he had no memory.

  5. Mmm. Great post. Everyone is motivated out of selfishness, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. It depends on what the self values, don’t you think?

    There is a lot to be said for making time for yourself – to do nothing if you wish. I enjoy my quiet morning time to have coffee and read posts and write, etc. I can enjoy 24 hours straight doing nothing but this and that around the house.

    However, there is a lot to be said for extending yourself to other people in your free time. It just depends on your willingness to push beyond your boundaries. I’ve spent countless hours with my Buddhist colleagues doing volunteer activiites. In return, my emotional reserves have expanded, not decreased. I learned I had a lot to give and even more to receive. I never felt empty or depleted.

    I’ve had an inkling on what it takes to mother when I became my mother’s guardian. I understood what she gave up to raise her children. There is indeed sacrifice of lazy mornings, restful sleep and navel gazing. There is a difference between selfish and selfLESS.

    Mrs. X: excellent distinction between selfish and selfless. I had not thought of that.

  6. I don’t think you are to selfish to be a mother.

    Some people are to selfish to be mothers… I had a very selfish mother. She had a child a day after her 16th birthday, and the rest of her life was spent focusing on herself and the time she lost. She used to tell me how different her life would be if she had never had us. She’d say, “I would have went to college. I would have been a singer. I would have become a nurse. But I had you guys… not that I regret it, but…” Yeah, not a very good mother. I remember having to wait up for her at night when she came home from the bar, making sure she came home at all. My mother spent most of my youth at bars, or at her various boy friend’s homes doing drugs. She always had money for pot and cigarettes, but never enough to buy me a winter coat. I went 3 years without a coat. She had 4 children, and not a single one of us finished their child hoods in her custody.

    There are plenty of woman out there that are to selfish to be mothers… you are not one of them. Trust me on that.

    Mrs. X: thanks for the much needed perspective.

  7. Woah. The things parents say without thinking. Mind-blowing. As if a ten-year-old misbehaving is any predictor of anything at all except the fact that once, at the age of ten, you misbehaved.

    I was having a freak-out last weekend about how what with working full time and commuting an hour each way, I had NO-WHERE NEAR enough ‘me-time’ and it was driving me mad (husband giving me calm, pitying, ‘yes dear’ looks). And yet I want a kid.

    But I think I see the kid as ‘me-time’ too – time taken to do something I really want to do, to nurture something special to me. Work and commuting, all not so much.

    Mrs. X: The other side of the coin is that when you do have a child, you may no longer care that you don’t have ‘me’ time because isn’t me time the time away from things that you hate and need to recharge after?

  8. I also remember my mom saying something similar to me about being too selfish to have kids. And I sometimes wonder if my infertility and failure of IVF so far is the universe’s way of telling me that it’s true. Then the rational part of my brain takes over.

    If you were too selfish to have a family – you wouldn’t be trying this hard to have one. And from what I understand, becoming a mom does change your life, but you are absolutely ready and willing for the change, and that counts for a lot. Someone told me once that having children ‘cures’ selfishness, I’m looking forward to one day being cured myself. Until then, I’m living it up.

    Mrs. X: I have wondered whether my years’-long struggle is a sign from the universe that he was right as well. I’m sorry that you had to hear it as well, but it’s nice to know that I’m not alone.

    I hadn’t thought that by trying so hard to have a family when the odds were not that kind is a form of not being selfish. But, I agree. Thanks.

  9. what a bizarre thing to say to a 10 year old…

    hard to even respond. I’ll just say I’d imagine that as a parent there must be a certain amount of self-preservation needed at times, which would be important to help someone be an even better mother. I think a signif. number of a whole generation of marriages failed because women were locked into roles of what they were “supposed” to be. is it selfish to need to be an individual person? I think not.

    Mrs. X: And, how many kids grew up in ‘broken homes’ because these women chaffed at this traditional role? In other words, if women were just allowed to pursue what they wanted to – whether that path was motherhood or not – I think the world would be a happier place.

  10. Plenty of selfish people have children. Most people are, when you get right down to it, very very selfish and have no trouble reproducing.

    It’s hard, though, to let go of the offhand, thoughtless comments our parents make that sink in and sting. I can think of a few zingers that my mom and dad later apologized for, not remembering that they had even said them.

    There are a million ways to be a good mother, and all of them involve self-care. Just as we are struggling to take good care of ourselves now. This has been construed as selfish, along with other attempts of women to create “rooms of their own” and cultivate their inner lives. Not that this was what your dad was getting at, but I think that women are far more easily judged as “selfish” than men.

    Mrs. X: It’s ironic that women are accused of being selfish so much because they are also held up as the paragons of selflessness. We are supposed to take care of everyone else, but ourselves. But, I agree that self-care is not a form of selfishness. I know that if I don’t get my requisite me-time, it shows. I’d like to think that I would be able to give that up once I have a baby. Thanks for your perspective. Very insightful.

  11. Fascinating post, Mrs X (and some gorgeous images), which has already generated some equally fascinating responses.

    It never ceases to amaze me how a seemingly throw-away remark made during childhood can continue to affect our perception of our adult selves.

    My parents brought me up to believe that selfishness was a bad thing. I was constantly told that I needed to be a good little girl, and should always think of other people’s needs before my own. The result is that, as an adult, I feel guilty and ‘selfish’ if do put myself first. I think this is a very common feeling among women – we are all too often made to feel guilty about making time for ourselves. In this respect, I found shinejil’s idea of ‘self-care’ extraordinarily helpful. We have to learn to take care of ourselves, before we can begin even to think about taking care of others.

    Mrs. X: I think that this is also the best lesson that I have learned from posting this particular story – self-care is not selfish, but what enables us to be better people. End fo story.

  12. My mother loved me but she was not a good mother to me. She was even a SAHM and she still wasn’t a good mother. Why? She was too involved in what she wanted to care what the child wanted, at least from an emotional perspective. Did she feed me? Yes. Did she do my laundry? Yes. Did she make sure I didn’t impale myself on sharp objects? Yes. There are plenty of people who would say that I am selfish for saying she was not a good mother. However, I think that being a good mother is akin to being a good spouse and requires a great deal of empathy – one must be able to put themselves in the shoes of the other, introspect honestly, and then have the self control to act accordingly. Based solely upon reading your blog, I do not perceive you will have a tremendous difficulty doing that.

    Mrs. X: another great perspective, thanks.

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