Let’s talk about selflessness because there’s a lot going on with the idea motherhood and self-sacrifice. I do specify motherhood because fathers are not held to nearly the same standards as women when it comes to a socially imposed obligation to live in total service to your children. (We could get into the infinite double standards for men and women in parenting roles, but that very much is – and will be – a whole separate article.) So selflessness: as it turns out, it sucks ass. I mean, granted, selflessness makes the world somewhat less of a war-torn nightmare, and we become better-ish people as a result, but who enjoys becoming a better person? When does that process ever feel actively pleasurable? It’s not, ever. It might be worthwhile, but it’s like exercise – it doesn’t start to feel good for a while. For a while, it’s forcing yourself to act in ways that go against what you’ve been doing, and what you were doing was comfortable and nice, and this new thing takes so much effort.
What’s easy and pleasurable is being selfish. Being selfish is the beessssst. I could basically masturbate to the idea of telling everyone to handle their own business for once and locking myself away for a week to just do me for a while. I just don’t think that feeling goes away for sane people, no matter how long you’ve been a parent, nor how much you love your kid. I love my kid to the point where I’m basically his fangirl. After he goes to bed, I look at videos I made of him throughout the day and my chest swells every time. It’s disgusting how much I like that guy. Does it mean that I don’t sometimes think about locking him in his room (ya know, so he’s safe and contained; I’m not a monster) and going on a little “me spree” at Anthropologie? Nope. Doesn’t mean that at all.
Don’t get me wrong – becoming selfless and doing things for your helpless babyfriend does nurture certain traits that are valuable. I think spending a significant window of time focused on something other than your own life is inherently good for everyone, and does make people better. But that’s not to say it’s ever easy, or that we should ever necessarily want to do it. It’s not natural to desire selflessness, so it’s an extra thick layer of fuckery that we live in a society where women are repeatedly told that not only should they surrender their entire existence to focus solely on being a mother, but that if you don’t – and furthermore if you won’t want to – then you’re broken.
The problem with pushing this kind of thinking on women, and telling them that having a baby merely makes them feel “love” is not just that it fails to recognize and validate the many other emotions that come into play, thus making women everywhere doubt or even hate themselves for what they perceive to be “wrong” feelings about their babies/being a new mom. The label “love” also gives a drastically unrealistic idea of how this person will fit into your life, and how this new relationship will function in your life.
The confusion comes because you’ve loved people before. You think you understand what it means to love someone in a healthy, positive way. So when people say, “you’re going to love your baby so much as soon as he’s born!”, you think you have at least some idea of how to do that; you think you’ll know the “right” way to love this person, because you’ve loved before and you’ve gotten awesome at it by now.
Here’s how it’s very different: In every other relationship where you’ve loved someone, your primary obligation has always been ultimately to yourself. I really don’t think it’s until you have a child that you actually love someone more than yourself, in a literal way. And people commonly say that like it’s a good thing, like loving someone more than ourselves is a thing we should want. What in the actual fuck is that? That’s dangerous. Your own survival is immediately at risk the minute you literally begin to care about someone more than yourself. In fact, in every other relationship except those with our children, we’re repeatedly told how unhealthy it is to love someone else more than your self. We’re always told to put ourselves first, so we practice and strive to do exactly that. We spend years learning how to establish limits and boundaries to how much we’re willing to give, sacrifice, and compromise in a relationship.
And then…a person falls out of our body. Suddenly, we’re told we cannot give enough.
It not only becomes acceptable to love someone else more than yourself, you’re told that you must by society and your parents and nurses who you don’t even know and really who the fuck even asked them. And if you don’t throw out everything you’ve put so much effort into learning about how to love yourself first, then you’re a bad parent. Already! I mean, you obviously figured you would totally fail at being a mom, but fuck, even you didn’t think you could do it on your first day. Overachieving!
Clearly, this is all thoroughly insane to believe, and damaging to tell women. Get used to that. This is the first of about a billion arbitrary, illogical, entirely useless parenting barometers that stupid assholes will try to use to measure your worth as a parent, and by extension, as a human.
For many of us, this is the first time we actually understand what selflessness is. What we thought was selflessness before was really just us doing things for others either because of what we anticipated or hoped they might do for us in return, or at least for the good, self-satisfied feeling of having done the “selfless” thing. In the first days and weeks of having a baby, you often don’t even get the good feeling. You’re putting every bit of yourself into the sustenance of this tiny beast, and he or she is certainly not going to get you back in any literal way (at least not until they’re grown, and you’re old, and then it’s cashing in time for all the night feedings.), and there are a great many moments when you’re too exhausted, frustrated, or busy wrangling with any of the other hundred thousand emotions you feel on any given day to really experience anything like satisfaction at having successfully done something for your child. But there are also times, even if the whirlwind of the first days, when joy is not only detectable, it’s all-consuming.
Please don’t mistake this as a broad generalization that the entire experience of caring for a newborn is a drag. It’s many things, and you will feel many ways, and often you will feel nothing at all because the “giving a shit” part of your brain requires sleep and food to function, and you are likely not getting enough of that – and it’s all normal, and awesome, and intense, and complex, and delicious, you have hereby officially been told that however you feel as you’re immersing yourself in this new role for the first time is completely legit. Feeling something lovely and light one minute doesn’t mean you have to feel guilty about the self-doubt, loneliness and exhaustion you felt an hour ago. Do the best you can as each new task or emotion comes up, be kind to yourself, and don’t get hung up on the imperfect moments. You can expect to feel everything you’ve ever felt, at least once in the first few weeks, and probably some new things too, and if you think about it, that’s rad as fuck.
It would be so much more productive if, instead of bullshitting women that having a baby is going to instantly fill the familiar need to love and be loved, we told the truth: the minutes, hours, and days after squeezing out a babyfriend will introduce to you brand new needs that cannot be compared to anything else you’ve ever known. Your emotional range grows. Sure, you feel things you’ve felt before (“tired”, “self-satisfied”, “relieved”, “skinny compared to being pregnant”), but more than any of that, you’re suddenly driven by this biological compulsion to be near your baby and generally give it what it needs. And that’s brand new and completely not like anything else that exists at any other time. I wish we would stop calling it love because that’s offensively reductive. It’s such a big, mighty emotion and through feeling it during those first few days after my kid was born, I was confronted with more awareness of my own existence than the rest of my life experiences combined taught me. It took months to fully understand it all. Actually, I’m not sure I’ll ever be finished trying to understand it.