The idea of being “selfish” isn’t exactly something I usually aspire to. In fact, I don’t know anyone who does.
Nobody wants to raise a selfish child, and it’s doubtful that “selfishness” will make anyone’s list of ideal virtues. The reason why I’ve fallen in love with the Harry Potter books and wish that every child could read them is because J.K. Rowling so brilliantly wrote a series about the immense, ultimately triumphant, power of self-sacrificing love. Selfishness is usually reserved for the villains, not the protagonists.
But being a mom has made me realize that we might need a bigger vocabulary when it comes to this topic. A few months ago, we talked in our little church community about the idea of two different kinds of “selfishness.”
Apparently the Chinese have a better sense of this and have two words for our “selfish.” One word connotes the typical sense of being greedy and self-absorbed to the detriment of others. The other one is a word that we don’t really have though. It’s about self-care, about filling your well so you have water to share with other thirsty travelers.
The more I think of it, the more I like the well analogy. I haven’t encountered anything else as demanding as mothering. My mama well is constantly being dipped into—and at this age, there is often nobody else who can satisfy Lily’s needs in the same way (I am still nursing her, after all!).
If I’m not careful, I let everyone dip, dip, dip their buckets into those cool, comforting depths all day and all night without checking to see where my water line is. Typically, I don’t stop to replenish my own water source until the well is totally dry and alarm bells are blaring loudly. (This usually comes in the form of a dramatic meltdown of some sort and a subtle but distinct shrill edge to my voice that my husband is exquisitely sensitive to.)
I know I’m not the only woman—mom or not—with this problem. Our culture values productivity and busyness. Microsoft’s new Hotmail campaign is actually called “The New Busy,” and, according to the ad campaign’s creator, it’s about rethinking busy, embracing it. It features lines like, "The New Busy think that 9 to 5 is a cute idea," "The New Busy like to play Fill the Calendar," and "The New Busy would be open to taking a class in their sleep."
The TimesOnline says that the “’New busy’ make beavers look lazy. When you can take your desk with you, the world is your workspace. Perpetual busyness is becoming a badge of pride.” I gotta admit that this formal hero-worship of busyness and The Very Busy makes me uneasy.
I think mothers (dads too, but especially moms) are vulnerable to succumbing to the idea that our self-worth and value comes from a long, never-ending to-do list because we don’t see monetary compensation for our efforts. Of course we know deep down that our work is hugely important—we’re growing an entire human being, after all—but it’s slow, often invisible work. And, if my daughter is anything like me, she probably won’t start really appreciating what I’m doing until she has her own children. Like I said, it’s a long-term project!
On this Mother’s Day, I leaned into the idea of being “selfish” in the Chinese, self-care sense of the word. We were supposed to drive to St. Helena for a big family gathering. But I woke up exhausted and with a touch of a cold. Stephen, beautiful man, convinced me that I should stay home (and this was after letting me sleep and making me breakfast in bed).
And so I did. The vision of a full day in my own house all by myself was completely seductive and irresistible.
I packed Lily up with lots of snacks, toys, and kisses, and then I said good-bye and closed the door.
I turned off my phone.
I sipped a cup of tea very slowly.
I read a chapter in a book about the revolutionary idea of Sabbathing and saying “no,” (and I didn’t even hunt for this—it was the next chapter in Barbara Brown Taylor’s incredible An Altar in the World).
I took a three-hour nap!
I ate an avocado sandwich at my favorite neighborhood café.
I took Pali on a long walk.
I watched the clouds drift overhead from my favorite bench in the Presidio forest.
I resisted the urge to do any housework.
I was still. And in that stillness I felt my well start to fill.
Now, I get that this can't happen every day. Modern life is demanding; it is busy. Just basic survival takes a lot of time and energy. And I have things I want to do to enrich our lives beyond survival—for me, for Lily, for our family, for those around us. I will continue to strive to instill in Lily the belief that unselfish love is the most powerful force in the universe.
But in order to do all of those good things, all of those unselfish things, I need to find a way to regularly practice selfishness like I did today. It was a very good Mother's day.