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22 Mar

In Defense Of The Selfish Parent

“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.