The Worst Thing You Can Call a Mom

Photograph by Twenty20

A vicious stomach bug made its way through our house last month, hitting me especially hard. I was still feeling the after effects of exhaustion even after my kids bounced back and were ready to return to school. I dropped them off one morning and told one of the teachers I was going home to take a nap.

"Oh, isn't it nice that you can do that," she said.

It was a harmless comment and I have no doubt it was meant with the most innocent and kindest intentions. But I felt an ugly, hard knot in my stomach at her words.

Selfish, a little voice whispered in my head. You're selfish.

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That word slithers through my brain like a venomous serpent, poisoning me with its bite. I first heard it from my mother when I was a teenager, long before I ever considered having my own children. In retrospect, I wonder if there is any teenager who isn't selfish? I've heard it again over the years, tossed out as a joke by "friends" who maybe didn't approve of some of my life choices. I've had it directed at me a few dozen times in Facebook comments since I became a blogger for Mom.me, in response to everything from delaying motherhood to formula feeding to wanting parenting equality with my husband.

It is ingrained in us and in our culture that mothers are supposed to be selfless. Giving, giving, giving of ourselves until the well runs dry.

It's the one word that cuts through me like a knife—a word that I have probably used thoughtlessly, carelessly in the past but that I have all but banned from my vocabulary now, especially when it comes to other moms. It's the one word most moms have heard (or at least thought to themselves) and the one word you should never, ever call a mother who is doing her damnedest day in and day out to give her children the best possible life she can.

Selfish.

Words are powerful. The word self seems harmless enough. But follow the path down a slippery slope to self-loathing and you reach: Myself. Self-awareness. Self-focused. Self-absorbed. Self-centered. Selfish. It is ingrained in us and in our culture that mothers are supposed to be selfless. Giving, giving, giving of ourselves until the well runs dry. We pay lip service to the idea of self-care—and treat it as a special occasion when we do things that keep us healthy, balanced and sane. And we have to always be mindful lest we take our self-care too far and become self-indulgent and selfish.

Think I'm exaggerating? When was the last time you heard a man—a father—referred to as selfish? A man's interests, whether it's football or video games or wood working, are seen as an extension of his identity. His hobbies and his personal space, whether it's a garage, a man cave or just a leather recliner in the den, are accepted and even encouraged. Even if there is equity in your household (and in mine, there is), mothers are judged by everyone from our kid's teacher to our friends to the media. But all that noise aside, we're judged by the most important person of all: ourselves.

I don't know a single mother who has never had a moment's guilt over time spent focused on herself. I try to make a conscious effort to remember that my interests, my health and my needs are as important as every other family member in my house. But it's so damned hard sometimes. I'm constantly being reminded—by myself, by magazines, by social media, by well-meaning friends—that I'm not doing enough, that I could be doing more, giving more, Pinteresting more. I could be volunteering more at my kids' school instead of spending those precious school hours writing. I could be staying up later, making sure the house is clean and the laundry is done and the school lunches are not only packed, but beautifully presented. There is so much more I could be doing as a mother, instead of taking a nap after a stomach bug has flattened me.

Selfish, selfish, selfish.

it's never enough. No matter how much we do as mothers, there is always some mother, somewhere, who is doing it bigger and better.

And it's never enough. No matter how much we do as mothers, there is always some mother, somewhere, who is doing it bigger and better. And don't we make it worse by comparing ourselves and judging ourselves for falling short? Even if we're smart (and self-aware) and we don't compare ourselves, someone else will. Someone somewhere will say, "Oh yeah, she's nice, but she brought a store-bought cake to the potluck and she's kind of selfish, don't you think?" And we'll laugh at the joke, and laugh at ourselves for being so sensitive, and that word will echo in our heads.

I would never call another mother selfish, but I don't extend the same courtesy to myself. Even writing about my complicated feelings about the word selfish makes me feel, well, selfish. I'm the only one who feels like this, I tell myself even as I write the words. Other mothers, well, they don't feel selfish because they aren't selfish. They're fulfilled by motherhood in a way I just can't seem to be. They don't want or need more, they always have it together and they have boundless energy to do more than I can even imagine. That kind of thinking will drive you mad, trust me.

Taking care of ourselves when we're used to focusing all of our energy outward can feel wildly self-indulgent. Denying ourselves that self-care is a lesson in building resentment towards our spouses, our children and ourselves. And here's the thing I'm learning ever so slowly: Sometimes it's OK to be selfish. Sometimes, when the well has run dry and you have no resources left to tap, it's OK to turn your focus inward and take a nap or have a good cry or simply rage at the world. It's OK. But the best thing to do would be to take care of yourself before you reach the point of rage and resentment. And we can tell ourselves—and each other—that it's OK over and over and over until we believe it.

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Sometimes being selfish is a matter of self-preservation after a too-long period of neglecting self-care. But no mom should ever feel guilty for taking care of herself, in whatever form that may take. No mom should ever feel selfish for putting her needs first once in awhile. And maybe if I say that enough to other moms, I'll start to believe it about myself, too.

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