If there’s one thing moms are never, ever supposed to be, it’s selfish. Think about the tributes you see splashed across your Facebook newsfeed on Mother’s Day or anytime someone’s mom has a birthday: “Thank you for everything you’ve sacrificed, Mom. Thank you for all the things you’ve given up to make me who I am.” Mothers — if we’re doing our jobs right — are supposed to be selfless creatures, ceaseless stewards of our children and families, tirelessly giving of our time, energy, and selves.
To be honest, I’ve never been very good at that.
I was talking to a friend recently when the selfless-versus-selfish mother debate reared its ugly head. I was having a rough time at work. Earlier in the year, I’d accepted a lucrative new job. But instead of feeling like I was kicking ass and taking names, I felt like I was drowning.
The position wasn’t a fit for me, and every day I struggled to get through the eight-hour workday so I could go home and spend the evening dreading the next morning. On weekends, I spent my time worrying about work on Monday, too stressed to enjoy my family and too paralyzed by anxiety to accomplish anything on my to-do list. My eyes were ringed with dark circles from being too upset to sleep, and I was starting to binge eat — an illness I’ve struggled with for most of my life and only return to in times of real turmoil — to cope with my feelings.
As parents, we don’t always have the means to do everything we’d like to do. But that doesn’t mean we have to lie down and quit living.
“I think I’m going to quit,” I told my friend over coffee. “I’ve been thinking about it. I can go back to freelancing and still make a decent income while I figure out what to do next. It’ll mean giving up some stability and taking a pretty big pay cut. Things may be hectic for a while, but I’ll be so much happier. I think I’ll be able to make it work.”
I expected her to say that sounds great, I believe in you, and I think you can totally do this. Instead, she shrugged slightly and said, “Yeah, I guess, but don’t you think you’re being a little bit selfish? I mean, what about the kids? Surely you can just stick it out for a while.”
Selfish. The kids. Suck it up. Of course.
My immediate instinct was to respond in protest. Didn't she comprehend how unhappy I was? How I wasn't sleeping? How I was barely functioning in survival mode?
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But the more I thought about it, the more I could see her point. I was talking about making a choice that would feel great for me but would mean a lot less money and stability for my family. I have two kids and a mortgage and $30,000 in student loan debt. I’m lucky to have a partner who also works and can help support our family, and I’m privileged even to be able to consider quitting a stable job or taking a pay cut and still being able to survive. But the move I was talking about making meant things would change significantly for my whole family.
Yes, I was being selfish, I told her. But that didn’t make me wrong.
As a mom, people are constantly telling me to sacrifice my wellbeing and professional growth for the sake of my kids. It started when I was pregnant, and people would sneer at me for drinking the occasional Diet Coke. It continued once my children were born. My daughter had an undiagnosed tongue tie that made breastfeeding torturous, and people told me to “just fight through it.” I had postpartum depression, and a stranger online told me I was “making excuses” for why I was such a “crappy mom.” When I went back to work, people asked me why I wasn’t at home with my babies. And when my kids started daycare, people wondered how I could leave them so long or “let someone else raise them.”
To have children is to make a million sacrifices, big and small, every single day for the rest of your life. You give up sleep to usher them through infancy, soothe them after toddler nightmares, and get them cup after cup of water. You give up any semblance of free time as they pounce on you at 6:30 on Saturday morning and get up every ten minutes after you finally put them down to sleep at night. You give up the body you lived in before you had them, your new one stretched and sagging and unfamiliar. You give up ever being alone in your mind ever again because you can’t take a breath without thinking about what they need and how you could be doing it better.
I sacrifice, and I do it willingly. It was a sacrifice to be this unhappy at work for this long in the name of keeping everything steady for the people who depend on me. But I’m still a person. Inside this 31-year-old mother of two is a determined woman whose heart is still beating — and not just for other people.
I still want to write a novel and get a sleeve of wildflowers tattooed down my left arm. I still want to backpack through Europe and go to karaoke night with my friends and learn how to play the guitar. I still want success and fulfillment and to not feel like I have to keep my head down and stay in line until my kids are grown adults because it makes it easier on everyone else.
What kind of message am I sending to my children if they only see me dutifully existing instead of trying, in any way I can, to live the kind of life I want to live?
As parents, we don’t always have the means to do everything we’d like to do. But that doesn’t mean we have to lie down and quit living. It doesn’t serve anyone in my family to have a miserable mom or partner. And I’ve decided that quiet misery doesn’t serve me either.
A few days after I met my friend for coffee, I tendered my resignation. Within a week, I was freelancing full-time for a handful of clients, and I think it’s only going to get better from here. I’m still hustling to make enough money, and I’m still worried about the future. But what matters the most is that I’m sleeping again. And I’m playing games with my kids and reading bedtime stories and going on evening walks to the park. It feels like taking a deep breath. My partner told me I seem like myself again for the first time that he can remember in maybe a year. It turns out my selfishness is exactly what we all needed.