One evening a few weeks ago, I checked in to see what reflections the mamas in the Mindful Return course had shared that day. I was a bit startled to see the word “selfish” appear in one mother’s description of how she felt when she did something as simple as take a shower. My first thought: how can performing a basic human need like showering merit an incredibly harsh label like “selfish”?
But my next thought was: I get it. I’ve felt that way too. And I’ve sometimes used the word “selfish” (perhaps an even worse self-criticism than “guilty”) to label how I feel when I do something that is purportedly “for myself.”
As I’ve thought more about this word choice, I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s a HUGE gulf between being selfish, self-absorbed, or narcissistic, and what the average mother today is trying to do in daily life.
The Miriam Webster dictionary defines “selfish” as: “having or showing concern only for yourself and not for the needs or feelings of other people.” (Emphasis added.) Hmm…it strikes me that taking a shower, or carving out time to exercise, or spending a night out with friends cannot possibly cross the line into caring “only” for yourself. You haven’t given up caring about the needs and feelings of your loved ones, simply because you also take the time to care about your own needs and feelings. Have you?
In new motherhood, the scales tend to tip heavily in favor of caring only for our loved ones. And spending very little time and energy on care for ourselves. We are, after all, working around the clock to keep a new and fragile human being alive.
It strikes me that beating ourselves up with mean words like “selfish,” can only do more harm than good. What word to use instead? Inspired by a course I took this summer called Thrive (check it out here), in which our teacher, Pleasance Silicki, invited us to try out the phrase “A healthy person does ___”. I propose “healthy” as a far-better substitute.
Back to Miriam Webster: the definition of “healthy” is “enjoying health and vigor of body, mind, or spirit.” “Health” is defined as “the condition of being well or free from disease.” Now THAT sounds like a description I’d feel much happier applying to myself.
My next mission? To put the word swap into action. Today, I sat down and challenged myself to take a close look at my own thoughts. To think about instances where I should work to replace “selfish” with “healthy.” Here’s what I came up with:
Taking ten minutes for yoga or meditation in the morning before making my children breakfast is healthy.
Disconnecting from electronic devices (and work e-mail) to connect and play with my husband and kiddos in the evening and do the bath/bed routine with them is healthy.
It is healthy for my partner to put our son to sleep.
Making time to see my friends is healthy.
Choosing not to spend time in unsupportive relationships is healthy.
Using my commute to read a book that interests or inspires me is healthy.
YES of course, our families are and indeed should be our highest priority. AND, for our families to be healthy and thriving, we need to be healthy too. There’s nothing selfish about that.
Heading back to work after maternity leave? Get help and join a supportive community of new mamas in the Mindful Return course. Next session starts soon.