By Jessie Bohnenkamp
Am I too selfish? This is my constant fear and source of guilt as a mom, friend, and spouse.
Even before having children, I always worried that I couldn’t be selfless enough to be a good mom.
After making it through the round-the-clock-nursing, what-the-hell-am-I-doing, sleep-deprived newborn days, I know that I am capable of putting my son’s needs before my own. I’m not always happy about it, but for this tiny human who depends completely upon me, I can do it.
For other people… not always.
While I’ve discovered how deeply my reserves of utter selflessness go for my child’s sake, I’ve also become approximately 40% more selfish in the rest of my life. My empathy and compassion have developed a laser focus, and outside of a few select individuals, I couldn’t give two shits these days (I could perhaps give one shit, but definitely not two).
At first, I thought it was lingering pregnancy brain or lack of sleep or the crazy hormones surging through my body, but now that my son is a toddler, I don’t think I can blame any of those factors. It’s almost like I have a finite amount of caring available, and nearly all of it gets claimed by my son now. I know I used to care about a lot of people because I was a mental health counselor: I basically got paid for my ability to care!
Before you reject me as some cold, sociopathic Ice Queen, rest assured – if I talked with you personally, I would listen to you, validate your feelings, and express genuine empathy. It’s just that other people’s problems don’t affect me as deeply as they once did. My compassion tree has been pruned of all the dead branches and weak connections – if I’m going to divert brain energy to care about someone aside from my baby, that relationship better be damn meaningful.
Maintaining relationships takes more work now; I even find myself sometimes holding back when my husband complains about some issue that’s bugging him at work. My brain wants to automatically shut down to protect itself – ALERT, COMPASSION LEVELS LOW. MUST RESERVE ENERGY IN CASE OF BABY EMERGENCY. “What if our son suddenly needs me and I’ve wasted all my empathy on some HR issue at your office, honey? I’m running low – can’t spare any caring for you right now!”
Fortunately, I did learn some tricks in my time as a counselor to help me through these struggles. The answer is a different S-word: self-care. One of my favorite quotes says, “It is not selfish to refill your own cup so that you can pour into others’. It’s not just a luxury, it is essential.” Another version says plainly, “You can’t pour from an empty cup. Take care of yourself first.”
I do believe that we have a finite amount of emotional energy available each day – I am not a bottomless pit of caring. However, the good news is that this resource is renewable. One of my favorite ways to refill my cup is to take a few minutes to recharge when my husband gets home from work. He takes over with the baby, and I do something for me, whether that’s baking some cookies, going to the gym, running some quick errands on my own, or even sitting down to read a book while they’re occupied elsewhere. This little reset helps refill my compassion tank so that I can show up and be emotionally present for the other vital relationship in our little family.
Small practices like this throughout the week enable me to continue pouring into other family and friends when needed. Some weeks are harder than others, and I give myself permission during rough days to pull back and protect myself. I’m not inherently selfless or selfish; it’s all a matter of how much energy is available and where I choose to put it.
Having a baby taught me that I am capable of great selflessness, but I am also capable of running myself into the ground and rendering myself emotionally useless. If I want to be a good mom, wife, sister, daughter, friend, and person, I have to take care of myself first whenever possible. That isn’t selfish at all – it’s just plain smart.
About the Author
Jessie is a wife and mother with a Master’s degree in Marriage and Family Counseling. She is a lifelong Texan who currently lives in Virginia, and she spends her days writing, mediating territory disputes between the baby and dog, reading (mostly Dr. Seuss), and daydreaming about her next meal. Jessie’s work has been featured on Parent.co, Becoming Unbusy, Red Tricycle, and Motherly, and she is a regular contributor at www.motherhoodcollective.blog.