In Defense Of The Selfish Parent

March 22, 2011

“Parenting is the most selfless institution in the world.” The words jumped out at me from the screen. Most selfless? In the world? I sipped my coffee and considered the ethical calculation that would rank me as more selfless than, say, Mother Teresa.

Maybe, I thought. I can see that. Mother Teresa, after all, never went four years without sleep, nor, I’m pretty sure, did she ever suffer mastitis and have to stuff cabbage leaves down her shirt just keep another human being properly fed.

I read on.

“And it’s the parents’ job to put their children’s interests before their own. Forever.” Ah. Wow. I put my coffee down and adjusted my self-regard. Always? Forever? Really? Maybe I’m not more selfless than Mother Teresa. Maybe I’m – wait for it – actually selfish. Because I don’t think that I should always and forever put my children’s interests before my own, always and forever, no exceptions. Which probably means that my form of parenthood is not the most selfless institution in the world. And that’s fine, really, because I don’t – having thought about it over all of four cups of coffee now – think that it should be.

This doesn’t mean that I think that parenthood is a selfish enterprise – except for the ways in which it is selfish (who among us had children for selfless reasons? Becoming a parent is, arguably, fundamentally selfish; it is, after all, an exercise in expanding and enriching our own lifeworlds) – it means that I think that a) the relationship between selflessness/selfishness in the practice of parenthood is complicated, and b) contrary to the assertion of John Cave Osborne in the post that I cite above, parenthood – my own experience of parenthood, anyway – is about me. Well, mostly, and in certain specific contexts, some of the time, which is enough to complicate matters sufficiently that I have to disagree with him.

I have, in the course of my parenthood thus far, practiced a certain degree of selflessness. I breastfed my children, even though breastfeeding was very difficult for me. I get up in the middle of the night if they cry out, even though I would much prefer to sleep through the night. I set aside my own activities when they need my care and attention, which is a lot of the time, because they are, after all, children, as opposed to plants, or even cats. But as selfless as these things might be, they are also, in certain important ways, fundamentally selfish, inasmuch as they feed my sense of self as a mother – I could not imagine, in my self-conception as a mother, not attempting to breastfeed my children, or not getting up to attend to them in the night – and as they provide me with a certain amount of complicated and exhausting happiness. I selflessly run to them in the night; I selfishly hold them close long after they’ve fallen back asleep.

But I am a selfish parent in certain less poetic ways, too. I weaned Jasper early, so that I could take better medication for depression, and so that I could get more sleep. I put them in daycare a few days a week, so that I can write. I put them in front of the television or stick an iPad in their hands so that I can have a few extra minutes to spend with their father or with a good book or with a nice glass of Cabernet in the bathtub. I leave them to travel. I do not put them first a thousand tiny ways that I could not even begin to summarize here. And although I can rationalize those me first moments as indulgences in selfishness that are necessary for my own well-being and for the well-being of my marriage – Mommy needs alone time to be happy; Mommy and Daddy need alone time to be happy; Mommy and Daddy both have non-parenting needs that need to be fulfilled if they are to be the happy, well-rounded people that they need to be in order to be happy, well-rounded parents – at the end of the day the primary reason for putting myself first is because, well, it feels good and sometimes even necessary to put myself first, even if it is not in the most complete best interest of my children. My rationale for pouring a glass of wine and taking it into the bathroom and closing the door is not that it is, all things considered, best for the children. It’s that it is best for me, full stop.

The same is true of my writing: I can say – and have said, on many an occasion – that I believe that my practice of writing about my experience as a mother makes me, in some ways, a better mother, inasmuch as it compels me to be to be all the more self-reflective about my motherhood and all the more attentive to my children, but I do not write in order to be a better mother. Being a better mother – if it does, in fact, make me a better mother, which is debatable – is incidental to the purpose of my writing, which is that I enjoy it. I enjoy it, in part, because I am fascinated by the experience of motherhood and am fascinated by my own children – and this fascination, I think, does correlate to a richer and more engaged personal experience of motherhood – but I enjoy it mostly because I love to write, and because I cannot imagine not writing, and, yes, this means that sometimes my children do come second to the writing, and that I do, sometimes, shut my door against them and leave them with their father or at the daycare in order to write and that, my friends, is entirely selfish.

So it is that when Osborne says, of parenting, that it is not about me, it is selfless, it is the parents’ job to put their children’s interests before their own, forever, I have to pause. I agree in some limited principle, of course: my children are first, always, in my heart, and consideration – consideration – of their interests comes before anything and everything that I do. But my love for my children and my consideration of their interests does not override, entirely, my other loves and considerations. I would throw myself in front of a bus for my children – I would, no question, sacrifice my flesh-and-blood life for theirs, in an instant, without thought – but I will not sacrifice the full living of my life in the service of what might be their ‘best’ interests. It might be in their ‘best’ interests for me to devote myself full-time to their care and education and amusement – I’m not convinced that this is true, but for the sake of this argument let’s assume that it could be – but insofar as those interests don’t coincide with my own interest in living a rich and balanced life, I won’t do it. I cannot be a mother without being myself; I will not be myself if I sacrifice myself entirely on the altar of motherhood. I must, in other words, consider my own interests alongside those of my children in any decision that bears upon my motherhood if I am to be the kind of mother that I want to be – the happy mother, the fulfilled mother – if I am to be the only kind of mother that I can be.

Again, it is possible to argue – it is important, perhaps, to argue – that the happy, fulfilled parent is the best parent, and I believe that, firmly. But that argument is incidental here. I would make the choices that I do even if it could be demonstrated that the less-happy but more self-sacrificing parent were the better parent (whatever that means), that my children would be better off – by whatever measure – because my happiness and fulfillment are important to me, and because my own experience of parenthood is richer, I think, for the fact that I allow room for such considerations and that I refuse to be self-sacrificing. That this makes me, in my own opinion, a better parent is convenient for me, but it is not the primary consideration. The primary consideration is my own happiness. Full-borne selflessness would make me unhappy, and I don’t want to be unhappy. Full stop.

Which is not to say that I would pursue my own happiness if its pursuit were in any way harmful or detrimental to my children; the pursuit of my own happiness (by which I do not mean happiness qua pleasure, but happiness in the Aristotelean sense of eudaimonia, or wellness in spirit) does not and will not come at the cost of my children’s reasonable happiness. It might come at the cost of the best or highest happiness that I can provide to my children – my children might, for example, be happier in a fuller sense if we lived in the countryside and I kept them at home and stayed by their sides, always, reading them fairy tales in the original old German and baking them organic pies with apples that we plucked together from the trees in our very own orchard – but I think that that’s a reasonable trade-off. It is not my job to guarantee their best happiness, even if it were possible, which it’s not. It’s my job to facilitate their reasonable happiness, and to care for them, and to love them. I do these things very well, I think.

This is not, of course, what Osborne meant when he cautioned against parental selfishness. He was cautioning against forgetting ourselves as parents, against neglecting to be mindful of the interests of our children when we comport ourselves as our selfish and self-interested selves. He was reminding us that when we become parents, we can no longer make decisions or take action without giving consideration to the implications and consequences of those decisions and actions for our children, and he’s right. When we become parents, we lose the luxury of being mindlessly selfish, of forgetting any consideration of interests beyond our own. We must always consider what impact will this have upon my children? and will this undermine their happiness in a way that I cannot or should not tolerate? We must always make our choices with their well-being at front of mind. We must always take each step, around them or toward them or away from them, in love.

But that doesn’t mean that we must be all be Mother Teresa. God forbid.

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    Penbleth March 22, 2011 at 2:03 pm

    It is a balance, as are most things in life, depending on our kids’ ages and needs but we shouldn’t just subsume ourselves in to parenthood. We are people too, we have something beside being a parent to contribute and other interests. We will be much better parents and set a much better example to our kids if we have full and fulfilled lives and yes, kids also need to learn they can’t always be first. Life isn’t like that, the World won’t always put them first. Balance in all things.

    Now I just have to learn to practice what I preach.

    Karen L March 22, 2011 at 2:08 pm

    I just discovered Meagan Francis’ blog last night. Two of the gems I read:
    are a refreshing take on motherhood and selflessness/selfishness.

    Meagan @ The Happiest Mom March 23, 2011 at 7:44 pm

    Thank you so much for the shout-out, @Karen L!

    Tracie March 22, 2011 at 2:12 pm

    I would have to agree with you that parenting is more complicated than any label put on it. It is an ongoing struggle to keep the kids happy, myself happy and the marriage strong. And one of those wins each day but not every day.
    Great post!

    Julie Pippert March 22, 2011 at 2:25 pm


    And what I found as my girls got older? My Choosing Me sometimes, in a decent balance of their needs being met, actually makes them really happy. They have actually expressed pride about my career and all that I do and who I am. It’s something, I tell you, to be in this stage with them (between the tantruming I hate You and moody tweens) when they don’t gaze at me with that autorespond adoration but look at me and think I am cool.

    It makes them tell me they want to do interesting things with their lives, too, such as have fulfilling work, a good marriage, kids and fun, too.

    So yes, I am always mindful of my children and sometimes I will choose differently than I might if I did not have children. I often do things that aren’t per se what I’d most like to do (in and of myself only) — such as live in a suburb in a small Texas town — but it is Good because the kids thrive and are happy and so, I am too. If that makes any sense lol.

    Deb March 22, 2011 at 2:40 pm

    Well put. I have always thought that one of our chief jobs as parents is to set an example for our kids of a well-lived life. That means living well. Being well-rounded. Finding joy in many things. One of those things is taking abundantly good care of them, and it is right up at the top of the list, but it is still only one thing. I am not at all sure that treating them like the center of your universe is healthy for them, nor that teaching them that adults must always sacrifice everything for children will help them lead a happy, fulfilled life. I want my kids to see me enjoying time with their father. I want them to see me writing and reading. I want them to see me working. I want them to see me with friends. Those are things I hope they will always have to enrich their own lives, and who is going to show them how to do that if not me?

    red pen mama March 22, 2011 at 2:50 pm

    Um, yep. I like the comments so far, too, especially the idea that our children need to see us as people, not just as parents. It’s healthy for them, to learn that a person is more than “just one” thing: mother, writer, reader, worker, wife. And so on. Teacher, co worker, boss…

    Sara D March 22, 2011 at 4:06 pm

    I would like to pick apples with you and make a pie. That would make ME happy :) But this isn’t about ME, unfortunately :(

    Thanks for the musings. I am trying to find this balance as we speak, and while I feel like I know which roads to take, my husbands doesn’t quite get it. So alone I shall clear my own way to Happiness With Children, Present Or Not!

    Her Bad Mother March 22, 2011 at 8:39 pm

    You do not want to bake a pie with me. I cannot bake to save my life. Apple-picking would be fine, though :)

    john cave osborne March 22, 2011 at 4:09 pm

    my dander was up a bit in that i was writing about something that i truly don’t think a parent should do — namely, write a post about loving one child more than another.

    to put the interest of getting a shocking secret off your chest before the interest of little susie who just might be heartbroken at the notion of having the whole world learn that Mommy loves her brother “just a little bit more” than her seems a little… selfish to me.

    so given that my dander was up a bit, i think i used sensationalistic language that i could have (and probably should have) toned down a bit. perhaps “among the most selfless institutions,” would have been more appropriate. and “it’s the parents’ job to put their children’s interests before their own *the majority of the time*,” instead of the inference of “always” and the literal description of “forever.”

    my experience of parenthood has been about me in that i’m the one experiencing it. but i’d also say that the experience has centered around putting the kids first. that might be b/c i went from having 0 kids to having 4 kids in 13 months after marrying a single mom then quickly conceiving triplets.

    that also might be b/c our trio is only 3 years old and, really and truly, it’s pretty chaotic about the house — not a lot of “me” time since my wife and i tied the knot. one of your commenters used the phrase “as my girls got older,” something that’s not lost on me. i’m sure as my kids get older, my experience of parenthood will shift a bit, and will probably be a bit more about me and a bit less about them.

    but now, it is what it is. a 9yo, three 3yos and another baby on the way. and it’s that experience i drew upon to make my larger point. and that point wasn’t meant to spark a debate on whether or not parenthood is selfless or selfish.

    i meant for the takeaway to be for the reader to learn 5 reasons why i’d never publicly compare and contrast my children.

    even so, i’m so glad that you chose to take issue with me. your post was very well written and i really enjoyed it. you made some fantastic points.

    Her Bad Mother March 22, 2011 at 8:38 pm

    I actually agreed with pretty much all of your post, and as I said at the end, I got the general meaning of what you were saying – and agreed with it, mostly, especially as it pertains to how we decide what to write about, as parents (I said as much on my post on the same topic, here – )

    But the ‘selfless’ assertion provoked and inspired me, because it made me stop and think about the nature of that selflessness. I certainly do think of myself as a selfless parent, in many respects – and certainly in response to the earlier post in question, which pushed my buttons in the worst way (‘we simply just should not say things like that, we must TEMPER our urges – if, horrors, we have them – to say things that might ever hurt our children,’ I gasped to myself, clutching my pearls). I said in my earlier response (the post linked above) that I am a mother first and a writer second, always. But when I saw your words about selflessness, and thought through them, it occurred to me that there are moments when I am *just* writer (and *just* woman, *just* Catherine) and when MOTHER is well in the background and that I like things that way. And then I had to think through that, too.

    So, yes. You made me think, in the best possible way. That last paragraph was meant to underscore that, to demonstrate that I understood, well, what you meant, and that I respected it, even as I found myself tilting in a different direction.

    Thanks for inspiring this post, John.

    john cave osborne March 23, 2011 at 8:51 am

    @Her Bad Mother, i realized that my initial (and lengthy) comment failed to do one thing: acknowledge that it was clear to me that you understood the gist of my post — hence my follow up comment to Lisa.

    and, no, no no… thank you, my friend. we have a few people in common, you know. and they all speak so very highly of you.

    Elizabeth Esther March 22, 2011 at 10:18 pm

    @john cave osborne, I was really thankful for your post, John. As a mother of five, I am VERY careful about not comparing–especially because two of my children are twins. It would be so easy to compare and contrast my twins but that would undermine their wholeness and sanctity as individual persons. To go even further than that–to say that I love one more than the other (and on a public forum?)–is, quite simply, cruel.

    Lastly, I truly question this whole idea of Kate’s post being “honest.” I’m really distressed by this current trend of bloggers claiming that their cruel “confessions” are somehow justified because they’re “just being honest!” Is that kind of “honesty” the preeminent virtue nowadays? I thought the Golden Rule was ‘do unto others as you’d have them to do you.’ And whatever happened to discretion and protecting our children? Has that just entirely disappeared in the grabby, never-ending bid for ever-higher pageviews?

    What will this do to our children?

    john cave osborne March 23, 2011 at 8:54 am

    @Elizabeth Esther, first off, serious props for having 5 kids! not to mention multiples. you and i are, um, twins in that way. i will soon have 5 and we, too, have multiples.

    simply put, i couldn’t agree with the points you made in this comment any more!

    Lisa March 22, 2011 at 5:13 pm

    Another well-thought out post. I really enjoyed reading John’s reply, as well. I wholeheartedly agree with both points (didn’t read his original piece but totally see where he’s coming from and how one might get a little carried away.) Civil discussion – on the internet?!!? What is this world coming to? :-)

    john cave osborne March 22, 2011 at 5:55 pm


    civil, indeed.

    after all, i have tons of respect for Her Bad Mother. and this post is a great example why. though i could tell from her last paragraph that she knew where i was coming from, i still wanted to clarify why i used language that sounded (and, in fact, was) so sensational.

    and i also wanted to address the one thing that i really do think is different between my parenthood experience and hers: namely that mine has been virtually all about my children. but, again, that’s kinda what happens when you have so many so quickly. and when so many are so young.

    but civil, absolutely. just happy to have written words which sparked such a great train of well expressed thoughts.

    Her Bad Mother March 22, 2011 at 8:38 pm

    Civil discussion always wins :)

    Heather Meyers March 22, 2011 at 5:17 pm

    I have been thinking a lot lately about my mother’s anxiety and how I’m not responsible for it. Yet she holds me responsible for it. And I’ve watched my own daughter and felt that same anxiety, and while my daughter may disagree with me, I don’t hold her responsible for it. It seems like parents often expect something in return for all they do and that is the worst kind of selfishness to me. I also feel like the two words selfish and selfless get intertwined. What other people seem to think of as selfless seems selfish to me. I don’t know if that makes sense. I’m sure my mother would say she is a selfless mother. I know that I am a selfish mother because I had a child I wasn’t ready to have. I am raising her the way I want to raise her without regard to what others think, because that is what I want. I try to lead by example. I will not sacrifice myself because I do not want her to sacrifice herself someday. Because that’s what I want for her. I suppose she will have to figure out the rest for herself, but that is also what I want for her. I don’t want a mini-me, I want her to be who she wants to be. Because that is what I want. I want to be the best mother I can be, and that really is open for interpretation, so I’m just going to do what I want. I’ll stop rambling now. :0)

    Issa March 22, 2011 at 5:26 pm

    @Heather Meyers, I love this line: “It seems like parents often expect something in return for all they do and that is the worst kind of selfishness to me.”

    So very true.

    Lisa March 22, 2011 at 5:18 pm

    Here’s what I never understood about the whole Martyr Motherhood Syndrome: Why on earth do we want to teach our children that their adult life is all about drudgery and sacrifice? Why wouldn’t we want to teach our children that adulthood is where the enjoyment is? For heaven’s sake we are adults for the vast majority of our lives.

    Maybe this is why kids are taking so much longer to grow up, why they’re “boomeranging” back to the nest. They go from being coddled and swaddled and taxied and fawned over (trophies for everyone!) to the cold, hard reality where you have to earn praise, you have to prove your worth. I think that would be enough to send me back to the warm bosom of home, too.

    Coddling & swaddling is fine for babies.

    Taxidermy Worms March 23, 2011 at 11:07 am

    @Lisa, AMEN!

    Issa March 22, 2011 at 5:25 pm

    There is an attitude that some people have that when they become a parent, they cease to be themselves. They are now “mommy” or “daddy”. I never would have believed it to be true, except that I have seen it. (oh god, you should meet my neighbor.) People whose sole thought in life is their kids. They are completely wrapped up in their kids every waking second. Somehow I think they lose themselves. What happens when all the kids are gone? If you’ve spent say 20 something years only paying attention to what they need, what do you do when they don’t need you? Also who pays attention to what you need?

    I put my children first. I promise you I do. However? I still put me first too. I believe you can do both. Pay attention to yourself and be a good mother. There can be a balance. I’d like to think that my kids see a more complete mother because of it.

    Great thought provoking post Catherine.

    Christine March 23, 2011 at 9:34 am

    @Issa, I really agree with you. I parented in a very self-sacrificing way, couldn’t keep it up, shifted slightly and I think we are all much happier now. There are a lot of very loud voices out there telling us that we should put ourselves last.I enjoy and appreciate reading posts like this one that counter that notion.

    kelly @kellynaturally March 22, 2011 at 6:01 pm

    Parenting is the most selfless institution in the world? Bah. Pbbbbth. Bulls*it. Nor SHOULD it be. NO ONE should be the complete focus and center of another’s entire universe. We are – all of us – even tiny babies – individuals, with our own lives to create. Believing that your entire self as a parent needs to be devoted to another person – another SELF – is a recipe for… well, all sorts of problems, mostly related to not knowing or loving or believing in one’s self.

    Your whole response to his article is so fabulously true and spoken from a perspective to which I very much relate.

    “…at the end of the day the primary reason for putting myself first is because, well, it feels good and sometimes even necessary to put myself first, even if it is not in the most complete best interest of my children.”

    Yes. As well you should. As you need it, and your children need to see that you are important to you. Because afterall, YOU are who you are going to be living with – until you’re no longer living. And as they see you caring for yourself, they learn that they too should care about themselves. And I’m not (nor were you) talking about caring entirely and only about onesself – as, of course, utter selfISHness is a whole OTHER problem. Neither pole should we strive for – the LESS or the ISH of self. A good middle ground is best.

    Also, when you write like this, Catherine, I remember why I started following you in the first place.

    kelly @kellynaturally March 22, 2011 at 6:02 pm

    @kelly @kellynaturally,
    Yikes, I meant that in the least stalkerish way possible. Following your BLOG.

    Julia's Child March 22, 2011 at 6:55 pm

    Amen! Very well put.

    And I love the name Jasper. I love it so much, I named the little boy in my novel Jasper.

    the mama bird diaries March 22, 2011 at 7:02 pm

    How much happiness do children bring? I would be devastated if something happened to them but the days with young kids can be so grueling minute by minute. The needs, the wants, the whining. You said it best. They bring a “certain amount of complicated and exhausting happiness.”

    Mary Frances March 22, 2011 at 7:33 pm

    I’m currently 8 months pregnant with our first child, and I cannot tell you what a relief it is to read this piece. Thank you for your reassurance, and for your beautiful writing.

    Robin March 22, 2011 at 10:05 pm

    Thanks for this fantastic post. I did a mental “YES-with-pointed-forefinger of agreement gesture” when you refused to hide behind the “happier mommy better mommy” argument. I have seen that one often, and taken some measure of relief from it, but it doesn’t really cover the whole gamut of those choices that are actually about me and my own desires. At the end of the day, I just don’t buy into the view that we as parents should slavishly devote ourselves to fulfilling our child’s every desire at the expense of our own (or beat ourselves up for not doing so, since we of course can’t). I’m guessing that parents a hundred…or seventy? years ago knew this, but we’ve forgotten it…

    drhoctor2 March 23, 2011 at 12:48 am

    Most of your points on parenting are subjective and opinions so I won’t argue that. I will say that your opening paragraph detracts from the rest of this post.
    Is semi offputting also as ya know, Mother Theresa literally picked up dying filthy unclean people out of the gutters and bathed them…fed them…laid them in a bed and stayed until with them as they died. It feels like you are falling into that “oh,so shocking ” thing.

    CHattin March 23, 2011 at 3:15 am

    I’m glad someone finally put this out on the net – that parents don’t have to be completely selfless when it comes to their children. As a parent, I often feel very guilty about putting my son into creche, going back to work, going out on weekends (very seldom) and leaving him with Grannies to spend some time with my friends. It feels as though, according to society, I should spend every waking minute with him. But I need all of these things for myself – he needed to go to creche because I couldn’t handle him at home alone, he was just too busy (still is) – I needed to go back to work because that is who I am, I need to work to feel normal – and I go out without him over weekends because I need time to connect with my friends/family/whoever alone, without having to worry about his needs or if the place we go to is safe for him.
    However. When I am with him, he is my world. As I sit here writing this, I am teary at the thought that he is not with me. I miss him terribly, and I know that even though he is not with me and I’m doing something entirely selfish and to make me happy, I also know that everything I do, since the day he was conceived, I do for him.

    Ashleigh March 23, 2011 at 9:31 am

    Wow. Excellent post. I especially appreciate your distinction between putting your children first in all things, and the responsibility to consider your children first in all things.

    After reading your post, though, I do wonder whether the selfish/selfless meme is simply ill-suited to relationships as intertwined as motherhood/fatherhood. As you point out, things we do to benefit our children benefit us, too, insofar as they support our sense of “self” as mothers. So I guess I’m just wondering if we should retire the “selfish mother”/”selfless mother” syntax in favor of something that actually captures the complexity of these relationships.

    WestendMom March 23, 2011 at 10:41 am

    I don’t believe anyone can be devoted to the service of another all of the time and never feel put out, pissed off, tired, zapped, done, over it, and exhausted. I would bet that even the wonderful Mother Theresa had moments of selfishness, when she though “dear lord I cannot do it today, I cannot go our into the streets and help humanity, I would prefer to stay in bed and praise you from my pillow”, but she got up and went out and that is why she is a Saint. I am not a Saint. My children tucker me out, they use me up and they spit me out. I love them to bits and pieces, but if I didn’t take time for me, or if my husband and I didn’t flick on the cartoons on Friday nights so that we could have a conversation, I think I would be a worn out nub of a mommy.

    I am in the middle of my glorious all too short life. I chose to have two beautiful children who give me so much happiness. But my life is still my life. Theirs is theirs. In the words of Kahil Gibran: Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.

    In the not so distant future they will leave this house and go create their own destinies. My job is to get them there and to ensure that once they have taken flight, I have my own rich, full satisfying life to fall back into.

    Meagan @ The Happiest Mom March 23, 2011 at 11:01 am

    Catherine, looks like our minds are in the same place right now! My blog theme this week is, essentially, selfishness. And how by being a little bit selfish, we give our kids a great gift–the knowledge, early on, that they are NOT the only people whose needs matter, and no matter how wonderful they are, they aren’t the center of the universe. My philosophy is that’s one of the most unselfish things we can do for them.

    Taxidermy Worms March 23, 2011 at 11:05 am

    There are so many great points laid out in this post that I would love to comment on, but as I feel they were already pointed out by so many of the really thoughtful comments above mine, I thought I would simply say that I am so happy to see that you emphasized this distinction:
    “by which I do not mean happiness qua pleasure, but happiness in the Aristotelean sense of eudaimonia, or wellness in spirit”

    I think that there are so many people out there right now with extremist views on parenting that it’s all too easy to get lumped in with one or the other if we don’t clarify this point. I don’t feel that giving up all our own interests or desires as people makes us better parents, nor is in the best interest of our children. It is also sad and unfortunate to see the unhealthy backlash against that ideal when people refuse to change their priorities to include their children when they become parents… because all too often what they are seeking is pleasure which they have confused to mean happiness.

    If pleasure is the goal (as mainstream media would have us believe) then even if it’s our children’s pleasure we put first all of the time without fail, we are still selfish people raising selfish children. On the flip side if it’s true happiness we seek in life, and we regularly do so at the expense of our kids true happiness (which I don’t condone, but am stating for examples sake) then at the very least they learn how to go about doing that for themselves when they are able, even if they weren’t fully nurtured by us.

    Trippeduplife March 23, 2011 at 11:29 am

    I agree wholeheartedly with your article and as always you say it so well. Thank you.

    Debbie @ Better Than The Bully March 23, 2011 at 11:42 am

    Very well said. At the end of the day, we’re all just people.

    roo March 23, 2011 at 12:39 pm

    You could argue that the least selfish people are the ones who defy inherent evolutionary drives to perpetuate themselves via offspring. I’m choosing to bear a child, regardless of world population woes, and the fact that there are already countless children in the world who desperately need parents to care for them.

    Why am I having a child? Well, ultimately, because I want to. I’ve always wanted to. And the many reasons it might be better not to have failed to dissuade me.

    What’s more selfish than that?

    Her Bad Mother March 23, 2011 at 3:10 pm

    @roo, I had children because I wanted children, full stop. SELFISH.

    Dana Udall-Weiner March 23, 2011 at 12:52 pm

    Great post. It is rare that parents–women in particular–are encouraged to be selfish. Or even self-aware, because we’re so often pushed to do everything in the service of our children. Yet it’s essential that we don’t lose ourselves in the process, as this is obviously a disservice to ourselves, but also to our children. The selfless-mother argument is always rooted in patriarchy, even with it’s cloaked in reasons scientific or merely pragmatic.

    Josette at Halushki March 23, 2011 at 1:52 pm

    Parenting is not just a job: it’s a relationship. And it’s a guardian relationship with a human who is vulnerable and who is dependent upon both the parent’s work and the relationship with the parent in order to thrive and survive physically, emotionally, intellectually, and intellectually.

    I would say that “selfishness” on the part of the parent can only be indulged in as long as acting upon that selfishness does not impede or interfere in the child’s well-being.

    What is defined as being “selfish” is, of course, particular to any one parent and their relationship with any one child, and more than just a rhetorical device for the sake of a discussion. And, of course, the closer a parent and child is living to survival level, the less room for any discussion of selfishness at all; the discussion in and of itself becomes a luxury and an indulgence.

    I think the author of whatever article you were reading in saying that parents need to put their kids first “forever” was basically yanking a chain to get a response. Selflessness with any other human is a philosophical, ethical, even spiritual question to be rolled around when any one human’s “need” to be “selfish” necessarily harms any other human being on the planet, kid or not.

    Josette at Halushki March 23, 2011 at 2:11 pm

    IOW, the point at which any selfishness actually causes a child real harm, as defined by “neglect”, or in permanently damaging the parent-child relationship, then all the excuses in the world are just that.

    Anyone who excuses their seriously harmful selfishness as “needing me time” or “it makes me a better parent” is, really, just being a bad parent. There’s just no way to sugar coat it.

    But, you know, our upper middle-class definitions of “selfish” are fairly benign other than when looked at by extremists.

    If anyone was really taking yoga while leaving their kids to be taken care of by heroin addicts or spending money having their nails done while their kids don’t have pencils for school or writing a Mommyblog when their kids see so little of them that they call the cleaning lady “Mommy” instead, well then, yes, those parents surely should be tarred and feathered.

    Her Bad Mother March 23, 2011 at 2:51 pm

    @Josette at Halushki, John, the author of the original article, commented above to explain. He wasn’t controversy-baiting – his overall argument was actually a cry against it (it was about parents as writers). Anyway, if you look for his comment, you’ll see that he has a very cogent explanation of where he was coming from. (And, my final paragraph nods to that explanation, before the fact – I got his meaning in the original article; I used his opening assertions as my jumping off point.)

    Her Bad Mother March 23, 2011 at 2:52 pm

    and, also, this? “And, of course, the closer a parent and child is living to survival level, the less room for any discussion of selfishness at all; the discussion in and of itself becomes a luxury and an indulgence. ” YES. Abso-freaking-lutely YES. I might have to post about this as a follow-up.

    Josette at Halushki March 23, 2011 at 2:30 pm

    Final comment: I don’t think that “happiness” – as a fleeting emotion – should be a goal in parenting, either in the work of parenting or in the relationship.

    If it were, my kids would never have to eat their greens or do their homework (as a metaphor).

    So for me, “best” happiness or “highest” happiness have nothing to do with mercurial emotions or the fleeting years of infancy, preschool or even elementary years. I’m the adult. I have the big picture in mind. And again, if I’m not making decisions with the “happy” big picture in mind – doing my best job to raise children with a strong work, moral, community ethic and who can function somehow in society – if any of my selfishness is preventing that, again, bad parent.

    Her Bad Mother March 23, 2011 at 2:48 pm

    @Josette at Halushki, I agree that happiness ‘as a fleeting emotion’ should never be the goal in parenting – or anything, for that matter – which is why I made a distinction between happiness-as-pleasure and happiness in the Aristotelian sense of eudaimonia, which can only be measured in much broader – and deeper – terms. The happy ‘big picture’, as you say.

    Tway March 23, 2011 at 10:43 pm

    Selfish and selfless are totally personal definitions.

    I think most parents would define themselves as selfless, and view other, less connected parents as selfish.

    I think I’m selfless because I breastfeed my baby, cosleep, attend to her when she cries, quit my job to freelance so I could spend more time with her, rarely go out at night, make her food from scratch, touch her as often as possible, and respond when she speaks.

    I think one of my friends is selfish because she doesn’t breastfeed, spent only an hour or so a day with her newborn when he was in the NICU, keeps baby in the swing/carseat/crib a lot of the day, goes out a few times a week alone with friends, and trusts books over her instincts.

    Does that make me selfless? And her selfish? Both babies are clean, cared for, fed, loved, and protected.

    Sure, my friend’s choices annoy me and I find it hard to relate to her as a mother. But another friend tells the story of her cousins, who were kept in cages when they were kids while their parents went off to work. That’s a whole different definition of selfish.

    Esmie March 24, 2011 at 2:15 am

    Nice multi-paragraph diatribe listing your reasoning and excuses as to why it’s ok not to actually parent your children. We all have choices to make, and your choices seemingly include preferring to be someplace other than co-located with your offspring. If that works for you, great, but don’t say “Her Bad Mother” is tongue-in-cheek. It seems pretty fitting from where I’m sitting.

    Emma March 24, 2011 at 7:16 am

    @Esmie, so, you think that by not being with her children every second of the day, by putting her kids in the care of responsible people, by sometimes preferring to not be with her children, HBM is not parenting her children? Really? Then you’re accusing me and my husband of the same thing, and I take issue with it.

    Not only do I think I do parent my children even if I’m not with them all the time, I also think it’s necessary for them to be away from me and not always be my focus… to start forming their own life, to expand their experiences, to have behavioural and other norms reinforced by other adults, to learn how to make their own entertainment and happiness, to see that adults have a variety of obligations and interests, to learn by example that work comes before play and that a promise must be kept (both to my clients and to my children), to name a few. And actually, I think this is part of parenting, to provide such opportunities and examples. If we only do what our children want us to do, how does that develop functioning adults? Or even let us be functioning adults??

    Plus, the whole having choices thing is already such a good position to be in that I can’t believe the exercising of these choices combined with good alternative child care is really going to hugely damage a child.

    Please, can we keep the accusation of “not parenting” for the people who really do not look after their kids properly, and not use it for people whose kids are clearly loved and thriving, and who by all appearances will – even if through parental choices different from ones own – grow up into well-adjusted and capable adults.

    Her Bad Mother March 24, 2011 at 10:10 am

    @Esmie, so how does that work for you, never bathing, never having alone time with your partner, never going to work?

    Katypk March 25, 2011 at 2:47 pm

    @Esmie, I think you need to get out more. You sound cranky ;o)

    chezmonchichi March 24, 2011 at 2:38 pm

    I’ve read your post three times now because I love how you delicately weaved the concepts of selfish and selfless to ultimately reach the real state of selfless/selfish that good parents must achieve, which isn’t easy. As a relatively new mother (a 2.5 yr old girl) your words were a good reminder to honor ourselves and partners. Not only does it serve to make us better parents, but it serves as a role model for our kids to see us foster that relationship with our spouse, to self-care, and it gives kids space to grow themselves without us constantly hovering.

    Lauren April 10, 2011 at 3:36 pm

    As I blogged earlier, motherhood is the only job you won’t quit for being overworked and underpaid. To each the changes you need to make to make it work for you.

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