Whenever my mother wanted to hurt me, she would tell me I was selfish. Let me just say, it stung. Because it’s true.
We are all born selfish, after all. I look at my baby and I see this so clearly. He knows only his own needs and does not hesitate to let me know – loudly – when those needs are not being met. He’s too young for empathy and he doesn’t care if I’m tired or trying to pee because when he needs me, he needs me. It doesn’t occur to him to care about my needs.
I can see the buds of empathy starting in my older kids, especially in my oldest: a sensitive boy who often gets stuck in the middle of wanting to beat the crap out of his sisters and feeling tremendously guilty for even entertaining the thought. I have no doubt that someday he will make a life out of serving others, but now he chooses to swing just as often as he chooses not to.
It’s a process.
I see the struggle in my husband and I as we both try to make peace with the fact that we now come dead last in a long list of people whose incessant needs must always be met.
When I was pregnant for the first time, I felt many things, and mixed up in there was relief. This was it, the end of me-and-only-me. No longer would it matter what I looked like, what my house looked like, or how successful my career was. It didn’t matter what I weighed or what pants size I wore or whether or not people liked me or if I had remembered to pluck my chin hairs because: BABY.
I didn’t know at all what motherhood looked like but I’d read all of the books and seen all of the Hallmark commercials. I knew that once that baby came out I was going to be so consumed with love and maternal-ness that there wouldn’t be any room anymore for self-doubt or self-love or selfishness or even self. I was pretty damn sick of worrying about myself all of the time, I was so ready to worry about someone else.
Except it didn’t happen like that. My firstborn came out and oh God the love but still, right behind that, was me. I still found the time in between diaper changes and nursing sessions to worry about how big my butt had gotten, and whether or not they would still like me at my job once my maternity leave was over. I worried that my friends wouldn’t like me anymore because I always had to say no to hanging out, and I worried that my baby wouldn’t like me anymore the few times I actually said yes and did hang out. Of course, incessantly and overwhelmingly, I worried about my baby. Yet, somehow, I also still worried about me.
This was disconcerting to say the least, because I was sure it meant I was doing it all wrong. So we had another kid, and then, for good measure, we had two more.
Today there are four separate entities that somehow happen to each simultaneously have the entirety of my heart. Miraculously, there is still a husband, and there is also the love I feel for each one of their relationships with the others. I’m not a mathematician but I’m pretty sure that means that there are like a quintillion things that I am worried about before I’m even allowed to entertain the idea of worrying about myself.
Yet I still worry about myself. I have four children and my heart is swollen to bursting with how much they matter, but I am still there too. I still worry about my butt and my job and my friends and the fact that I am yelling at my husband all of the time and what if he doesn’t love me anymore and holy crap what did we do.
Most nights I have this ritual after everyone goes to bed and the house finally falls quiet. I go around and do all of the stupid little stuff like straighten the pillows and pick up the toys and wipe away the fingerprints from the glass and the whole time, as I am moving around the house like a zombie (because I should have gone to bed myself two hours ago), I am saying in my head, “Wine, TV, couch, wine, TV, couch,” like it’s a mantra. I am telling myself if I just do everything – if I just make sure everything is safely in its place – then I have earned an hour of TV, a glass of wine, and the right to plant my butt on the couch.
As if, at the end of a long day, this is still a thing that must be earned. As if keeping four little people alive wasn’t an accomplishment. As if staying married for 10 years wasn’t an accomplishment. As if paying the mortgage wasn’t an accomplishment. As if none of it even counts until I have lined up the shoes and wiped off the cooktop and gotten the coffee ready for tomorrow.
I love my hour. Sometimes I even let it stretch out into two hours. Sometimes I even let it stretch into two glasses or a bowl of ice cream or, if I am feeling especially indulgent, both.
Sometimes I turn off the TV and I do nothing but breathe in the silence.
Sometimes I feel guilty for this. There are so many things I could be doing that would better serve my family. I could fold laundry or dust or learn how to bake. I could choose sleep and maybe not wake up a monster in the morning. I could sacrifice myself and my hour and I could choose my family, but I don’t.
You know why? I am selfish.
When I don’t take that hour or anything else for myself – when I blink and entire weekends have gone by and I didn’t even shower and there’s baby puke crusted to my shirt but the laundry is done and everyone is fed and at least I am accomplished and whole – THAT is when I look around at my family and I know that they appreciate that I’ve sacrificed myself and my time in order to serve them.
That’s the thing, isn’t it? No. One. Cares. There’s no medal ceremony for the martyr moms who don’t find the time to take care of themselves. I get no crown. Trust me when I say that no one will be impressed when you drag yourself out of bed the morning after giving birth and start the laundry. Some might even say you’re being stubborn and ridiculous, and you know what? They’d be right.
I know all too well that time moves dangerously fast and these babies will soon not even be babies anymore. There will not be a perpetual ring of greasy fingerprints around my house at baby height to ritually wipe up night after night after night. I know someday, if I do a halfway decent job and we are extraordinarily lucky, these babies will grow into functional adults. Then I’ll be left lonely on my couch with a glass of wine and the remote. I know that if I don’t take a little time for myself now I will surely inherit a mess then.
Now I hear myself saying to my kids as they struggle to learn to sympathize, empathize, feel all the feelings, and still survive, “If you don’t love yourself, you can’t really love anyone else.”
This is why I get my hour.
Again, I am no mathematician, but 23 out of 24 ain’t bad.
This post was originally published here.