The selfishness started early. When my daughter Ana was only a few weeks old, I was desperate to teach her to sleep through the night. I thought this was what she needed, but it turns out it was what I needed to prove to myself that I was good mother (and to try and get some sleep).
In my quest to scale this first parenting mountain, I read a book — recommended with enthusiasm by a close relative — that promised to have my new baby sleeping through the night within a week or two.
The book instructed me to put the baby on a schedule that required an unwavering commitment to a strict routine. There would be no picking her up when she cried at bed or nap time. I would need to feed her at regular intervals whether she was hungry or not — no more “nibbling” at the breast throughout the day. It all made sense to my sleep-deprived (and clueless) new-mom brain.
Needless to say, I failed spectacularly, almost immediately, and nearly had a complete mental breakdown in the process. I was angry at myself, and my baby, for this failure.
I gave up after about a week, then did some digging online and discovered that the book that I’d been using for wisdom and guidance was widely criticized by parents and medical professionals as being potentially harmful to babies (particularly the feeding schedule). I tossed the book in the trash, wept, and apologized to my daughter.
Ana started sleeping through the night by seven weeks old. The problem had solved itself. The experience left me slightly wiser. I swore to myself that I would never force my daughter to conform to what were obviously my needs again. I had such good intentions.
One of the paradoxes of motherhood is that you can be completely selfless, yet maddeningly selfish at the same time. I think this is possible because it’s difficult for mothers to see our babies as separate from ourselves.
This is true throughout their childhood, even well into the teen years. I suspect it’ll be true when my daughter is a full-grown adult with her own life and family.
One of my favorite Pixar movies, Inside Out, provides as a good example of this paradox. Inside Out is about 11-year-old Riley, a girl we get to know through the personified emotions in her head: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger and Disgust.
The character of Joy (Riley’s foremost emotion when she’s very little) takes on the role of a mother to Riley. Joy’s predominant wish — her very purpose — is to keep Riley happy. This is fairly simple at first — a safe home, a loving family, and airplane noises at dinner pretty much do the trick. But as Riley grows older, keeping her happy becomes more difficult, particularly when her family moves from her childhood home in Minnesota to San Francisco.
Joy succeeds in keeping Riley smiling (at first) by stifling Riley’s other emotions, especially Sadness. However, this tactic quickly backfires. The more Joy tries to sideline Sadness, the more Riley shut downs and withdraws from her family and friends until, eventually, she is unable to access any of her emotions, including Joy.
Joy sabotages Riley’s happiness by trying to do what she thinks is best for the child that she loves, but it’s clear that Riley’s happiness is what’s best for Joy. Shutting down all negative emotions turns out to be bad for Riley. It takes the entire movie, and a near disaster, for Joy to figure this out and let Sadness take the lead.
I was like Joy. From the moment that Ana was born, all I wanted was for her to be happy. I thought I could achieve this by controlling Ana’s environment — being a good mother, a perfect mother, a patient, loving, and accessible mother.
My need for Ana to be happy wasn’t entirely selfless. It was a reflection on me, for one thing. It also made my life easier. When Ana was upset, I got stressed out and anxious. I lost my patience. I felt exasperated and like a failure. So, for the first two and a half years of Ana’s life, I kept trying to achieve the impossible — make her happy, be a perfect mother, have a perfect kid.
When I found out I was pregnant with my younger daughter Emily, I wanted her to be happy too. But I was about to get my very first lesson in the school of moms-can’t-fix-everything. A few days after my routine 20-week ultrasound, I got a call from my midwife.
“There’s a problem with the baby,” she’d said while I stood over Ana in the bathroom. I’d been trying, unsuccessfully, to potty train Ana and we were both near tears. I pulled Ana off the potty, guided her to the living room to where Blues Clues was playing, and sat down beside her while the midwife explained that my unborn baby appeared to have a cleft lip and palate.
In a hot second, that phone call fundamentally changed the way I approached parenting. After I hung up the phone, I hugged Ana tightly. “Don’t worry about the potty right now,” I said, genuinely baffled as to how upset I’d been (with her and myself) about our potty training failures. “You’ll learn when you’re ready.” And she did.
Emily was fine, but the first year of her life was hard. She needed six months of orthodontic treatment followed by two surgeries by the age of one. Ana had just turned three and I had to leave her alone once a week to take the baby into NYC for the orthodontic treatment which involved placing a molding device into her tiny mouth which would help her eat from a special bottle and begin to move her gums into place prior to surgery.
It wasn’t an ideal situation, of course, but we all made the best of it. I could no longer create the perfect environment for Ana (or even try to). She would have to miss me one day a week and sometimes she would have to take the long trip into the clinic with us.
The baby would have to endure her treatment and I would have to drag my tired, postpartum body out on an all-day road trip once (sometimes twice) a week until the her first surgery.
As with the crying-it-out debacle, this experience fundamentally changed the way I approached parenting, particularly regarding selfishness versus selflessness. You see, Emily didn’t need to get a procedure that required so much travel and work.
We could’ve taken her to a local plastic surgeon a few weeks after she was born and avoided six months of presurgical molding. But the cosmetic outcome would’ve been much worse for her and she would’ve likely needed more surgeries to achieve the same (or worse) results. I was scared to travel into the city with a newborn all by myself (my husband stayed home with Ana in the earliest months). I did it anyway because it was what I believed was best for Emily.
The six months that I spent going into the city each week with Emily was transformative. I wore her strapped to my body in a sling and mainly took the train in (requiring a 30 minute drive to the train station, then another 2 hours on the train). I had a singular goal —to make my daughter better. Emily seemed to love the days we traveled into the city. She was a calm, loving, and social baby. She taught me how to go with the flow for the first time since I’d become a mother.
What I couldn’t have known during that first hectic year of Emily’s life was how the experience of relinquishing control, of letting go of what I wanted or expected from my baby, was something I would need to draw on eight years in the future, when Ana was diagnosed with cancer.
My children are (and were) profoundly gifted and profoundly unlucky. Ana was an incredible musician — a singer and guitar player. She was also wickedly smart and funny. When she was little, she loved to collect tiny things and create entire worlds out of them. Despite these gifts and all my love and pride, Ana was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 11 and did not live to see her 16th birthday.
Emily will need to deal with issues related to her cleft for her entire life. She had two surgeries by the age of one, a third surgery at the age of 7 and is scheduled for a fourth surgery this summer after she turns 16.
Emily is also a gifted singer and, as she’s grown into a teenager, has become an astounding artist. Think I’m just mom-bragging? Here’s an oil painting she did about a month ago.
It’s probably selfish of me to share this painting of Emily’s, but I can’t help myself. I’m so proud of her that I want (need) to show her off. My pride is wrapped up in other aspects of maternal selfishness that I now recognize may not always be in Emily’s best interest. I have expectations for how Emily should use her artistic gift. I have expectations for the promise of her life and her future, just as I did for Ana.
After Ana died, there was — and continues to be — a selfishness to my grief. I wept for everything that she lost, but I also mourned my loss — the future I would no longer have with Ana, the grandchildren that would never be born, and the fully realized life she didn’t survive to experience.
As with parental love, there is selfishness to parental grief, a desperation that comes with holding onto a dream that was never really mine. After all, it was Ana who was cheated out of growing up, not me. This realization has made me more aware of how my needs and expectations impact Emily, starting with her art and extending into her future which will be shaped by a mixture of luck, determination, talent, and circumstance.
I am not the same mother I was when I tried, so desperately, to get my four-week-old daughter to sleep through the night. I now understand, with tragic certainty, that I can’t control Emily’s happiness. She was born with a problem that I couldn’t entirely fix, though I worked with her doctors to mitigate it as much as possible. Then, she lost her big sister.
I want her to be happy because when she’s happy, I’m happy, but I also want her to be resilient, so I must let go of any selfish expectations I have for her life and her future. I must learn, simply, to be with her. This probably means losing her, to some extent, to the world she is excited to explore. As for me, I’m learning how to separate my needs from Emily’s. This is not an easy task because I still want so much for her.
The hardest work of mothering involves letting go. All I can do is support my daughter, listen when she needs me to listen, and provide guidance when she asks (and sometimes when she doesn’t). This is an act of selfless selfishness because it enables me to be present for my daughter while also preparing her (hopefully) for a life that she finds fulfilling, even if that means she’s not always happy.