I’m not sure if its coincidence, the Law of Attraction, or a statement on women in society, but I find myself more often than not surrounded by the type of women who would do anything to help pretty much anyone.
They would stay hours late at work, even if they had something else planned. They would gladly take your children for the day even though they more than have their hands full with children or work or LIFE already. They would throw you a birthday party, bachelorette, baby shower even if they were super busy and money was low. They would make time to see you even if they hadn’t had a single hour to themselves in weeks. They would volunteer to bring food to someone in need when they haven’t had a hot meal themselves in a month.
At times I am genuinely afraid that I am missing some special “good mother/friend/person” gene, the one that allows me to absolutely give and give and give and give and give and give and then thirty-five more gives. I feel like I missed out on the Mother Teresa gene, the one that allows me to put everyone else before myself and feel grateful for the ability to do so.
I have been assured many times by women that they WANT to help. That helping makes their hearts happy. So I examine my heart, my desire to work overtime, offer babysitting, throw parties, and generally just GIVE these things that others are professing to be happy to do – and do you know what I find? Often times an utter lack of anything that could be labeled joy. I am often not happy, resentful, overwhelmed, and consumed with stress. That joyful heart is missing. What am I doing wrong?
Since I began writing, I have been called many things – and quite often when my words are shared further than my lovely, cozy base group of readers, I am called “Everything That Is Wrong With This Generation.” I am called a bad mother, selfish, ungrateful. I am told the things I write about should be worked out quietly on my own and not shared with the world. Keep that shame covered up, girl, its making me uncomfortable. Anytime I write about my struggle against what the world tells me a woman should feel, look, and act like, I am often met with a sharp, angry resistance.
What is that about? What is so damn threatening about a woman speaking her mind?
The message is clear – as a woman it is unbecoming to think so much about myself. Stop being so SELFISH! You should be thinking about someone other than yourself! What about your husband? Your children? What would God think? Mothers and women and wives, we are told by religion, should blindly follow their husbands, don’t dare disrespect him, maintain modesty at all times, and serve. Serve, serve, serve, serve, serve. Serve. And serve some more. If in doubt, serve. And serve. And serve.
I don’t belong to any church and don’t plan to anytime soon. As you can imagine, my beliefs about things like yoga pants and modesty and marriage equality and human sexuality don’t endear me to many congregations. However, despite my unwillingness to devote myself to a specific religious title, these beliefs have snuck right up under my skin and permeated my heart, soul, and mind. I sit with the guilt of “not giving enough” just like a sinner in church, listening to a sermon telling him the error of his ways. I constantly wonder if I am doing “enough” for everyone in my life. Am I buying (nice) enough gifts? Spending enough quality time with my girlfriends, husband, and daughter? Am I making sure to check in with everyone to make sure they are doing ok? Never forgetting a birthday or special occasion? What can I bring/do to help? Did we donate enough money to this cause? How can I show this person I care? Am I burdening anyone? Never ask for help – they have enough going on. Figure it out yourself. Stop being so SELFISH.
I recently spent some time with my counselor talking about what a terrible woman/mom/person I felt I was because of something I didn’t want to do to help a friend. Even typing that right now gives me shame shivers because it just feels *awful* to admit it. Especially when it seems like everyone around me so generously and easily offers to do these things. I cling to “I should WANT to do this” and because I don’t want to, I must be a terrible person. And even if I don’t WANT to, I should still offer, right? Isn’t that what a good friend/person/mother does? Sacrifices their own mental/emotional/physical health for others?
That is actually not what a “good” person does. That’s what a martyr does. And I think we have established many times on this blog, I am certainly not a martyr. Nor do I have any desire whatsoever to be one.
So I ask you – women, mothers, friends: Do your wants, needs, dreams, hopes, limitations, strengths, weaknesses, gifts, and challenges really matter?
Or do they only matter to a point? Some cut-off line arbitrarily determined by our culture or the people around you where a woman’s self stops being important and everyone agrees its time she stops being so “selfish?”
Do I matter, but with qualifications? Rules like:
Your dreams are important, as long as they don’t interfere with being a good mom.
Your family is important, as long as it doesn’t interfere with being a good employee who goes above and beyond and never has to stay home with a sick child and is always available to stay late whenever needed.
It is important for you to love yourself, but not if you are overweight, or transgendered, or unattractive.
It is important for you to speak your mind, as long as you are gentle and non-confrontational, and frame your criticism artfully between stacks of compliments and then say you really don’t even know what you are talking about, really. Sorry I said that. So sorry.
It is important for you to take care of yourself, as long as you take care of everyone else in your family first.
Yes, sometimes I worry I am missing the “selfless” gene. But other times I think – NO. I am the one who is actually awake. I am the one standing up and asking questions, like why is it that we aren’t allowed to complain about motherhood? Why is it that my husband is never constantly bombarded with “well-wishers” chastising him to “enjoy every second” of being a dad? Why is it that nobody is marketing him magazine covers on how to get the perfect beach body or how to drop 10 lbs in a weekend to assure he looks good in his friend’s wedding pictures? Why is it that not a single solitary person asked him if he was “going back to work” after our daughter was born? Why is it that nobody is expecting him to work, raise a child, look sexy at all times, volunteer, chase his dreams, always offer to help anyone in need, and do so cheerfully and without ever getting tired or needing a break and then shaming him if he falls short in ANY of the above areas? Why are all the parenting studies focused on the role of the mother and not the father – i.e. mothers SHOULD work – it leads to better outcomes for children. Or – mothers SHOULD stay home – it leads to better outcomes for children.
I’ve come to the disheartening conclusion that I won’t be able to change society with the snap of my fingers. In fact, I can’t even change my own thinking with the snap of my fingers. But I do have the power to change myself with time.
There’s a wildly radical idea floating around my brain, encouraged by some deep thinking women. The idea that I could accept about myself the things that make me uncomfortable, the things that are less shiny and happy and Mother Teresa-esq. That I could say, “throwing parties/babysitting/cooking/running/camping/sports are not my thing” and instead of feeling the overwhelming guilt of “well you SHOULD….” I could instead sit with peaceful quietness and acceptance. That I could not feel the need to endlessly apologize for, rationalize, and explain away my “flaws”. That I could give away my gifts and the things I enjoy doing with a truly joyful heart, instead of one masquerading as happy to help. That I could take care of myself and not listen to the voice chastising me “you SHOULD be doing XYZ right now”.
I am not Mother Teresa. I am attempting to find the holy ground of unapologetic self-acceptance. I am attempting to make peace with my need to take care of myself without labeling that selfish or bad. I am continuing to stand up and make a little noise when I feel suffocated, and with each word I set free from my brain to my fingertips, onto the screen, I feel a little lighter. I feel a little more me, a little more joyful. A little more like I am finally coming home. Like I matter.