Dear Mom, I Wish You Had Been More Selfish

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Growing up, I was in every single after-school activity. Every. Single. One of them. All I had to do was mention that something intrigued me, and my mother would immediately enroll me in the corresponding extracurricular. I was in karate, cooking classes, swimming classes, soccer, ballet, tap, jazz, gymnastics, Brownies and 4-H. My mother let me taste the world. She shepherded me to and from these activities, and she did it all alone. My dad went to work, and she took care of all the rest.

I became a highly social person. I fed off group energy. I loved being part of a million different activities. I never questioned, however, whether my mother had done all these things too when she was growing up. Or had she not been able to do much of anything? We don't usually ask ourselves these questions until we are much older: What kind of woman was my mother before she became a mom?, we wonder.What happened in her life that motivated her to invest so much time and energy into mine? And how did she feel while she was giving so much of her life to me?

The truth is, while my mother was very present for her children, she wasn't very present for herself. We learn how to practice self-care from being taught that we are valuable, and it is worthwhile to take care of ourselves. Her mother didn’t teach her this. So she could not teach me.

Courtesy of Kelly Green

My mom had four children, and she took care of them all essentially on her own. She was able to do this because she had taken care of herself when she was young, too. From what I can gather, my grandma was a highly selfish person. She had few friends, so she taught my mom one life lesson: Depend on no one. Do nothing for anyone else. They would not do the same for you.

I watched my mother shrink while I soared.

In turn, my mother changed course. She made sure to give all she could of herself. To give, give, and give. She skipped doctor appointments and medication. She bypassed therapy when she desperately needed it. She didn't make time to see friends. She neglected every need and pleasure so she could cater to ours. For years, I watched my mother shrink while I soared.

The shrinking is still happening. Her bones are weak, her joints inflamed. She can barely walk, and she has few healthy teeth. She has essentially crippled herself in the process of taking care of her children. She is still giving to us. To our family. To any one in her vicinity who demonstrates a need.

Courtesy of Kelly Green

While my gratitude toward her is huge, it is muddled with resentment. Why didn’t you love yourself more?, I sometimes want to ask her, scolding her like a child. Why didn't you push harder for your own rights — your own life? You could have done less for us. You could have followed a dream. You could have told me who you were and what you wanted, because when you taught me you didn’t love yourself, I didn’t realize it was my own job to love me. I want to ask her why she struggled so much to see her own worth. I want to tell her I didn’t need all of the classes, the extracurriculars. Maybe just one or two. I want to tell her I’m sorry. That her mother was wrong. That she confused her.

I don’t treat her as I should. I don’t treat her as I would want to be treated. Because when she taught me she didn't value herself, she also taught me not to value her.

But I don’t tell her any of these things. Instead, I lash out at her when I’m struggling, because it’s easy. I call her when I'm hurting, and I hang up on her when she sounds weak. I lash out at her because I know she’ll still love me. I don’t treat her as I should. I don’t treat her as I would want to be treated. Because when she taught me she didn't value herself, she also taught me not to value her. The lines got blurred. I got confused. And I feel so terrible about that.

Courtesy of Kelly Green

Now I am a mother and I’m trying to change course, yet again. I try to be more selfish, to focus on my own needs more than she focused on hers. I leave my son at daycare for an hour longer than I have to. Sometimes I leave for the night. Sometimes I leave for the weekend. I take walks alone with my dog and I hide out, eating ice cream upstairs while my baby throws his broccoli on the floor.

I carve space for myself every chance I get. Some of it is necessary. Some is not. But making space for myself is an act of retribution. I am making up for her lost time, for what she gave up. I can’t give her back her life, but I can give myself mine. And then some.

Because I cannot change the past, I will compose the future. I will always carve out space for me. I will teach my baby my worth so that he writes it on the inside of his soul. I will try my hardest to teach him to fly, by allowing him to watch the person closest to him who is already flying.

Behind my anger, of course, is a crushing sadness that threatens to defeat me. I am sad that my mother gave up on herself while she was mothering, that she chose me. But I needed her to choose both herself and me.

She’s aging. And I’m stubborn. And hurt and angry and sad. We can’t seem to talk to each other on an honest level. Instead, I send pictures of my baby and I lecture her on taking her meds. We fit each other in where we can, but I wish that weren't the case.

Because I cannot change the past, I will compose the future. I will always carve out space for me. I will teach my baby my worth so that he writes it on the inside of his soul. I will try my hardest to teach him to fly, by allowing him to watch the person closest to him who is already flying.

ME.