Selfish

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Art by Sonia Chintha

by Katharine Reynolds

I’m selfish, and I hope you are, too. 

At some point in every girl’s life, before preschool, and maybe even before potty-training, she will perceive herself as “selfish.” Perhaps it will be due to desperate possession of a toy, or a desire to be held or fed, expressed in shrill vibration. The tone in which the epithet is applied might be mocking, but always with dark undertones.

Selfish.

As girls, we face the Selfish label when we dare crave leadership or voice. How else to explain the expectation that—even before puberty—we will be quiet in classrooms, church pews, and other public spaces?

As teenagers, Selfishness binds itself to feminine sexuality. Forced in the false dichotomy of prude or slut, you’re damned regardless. Your desires do not matter; they do not belong to you.

I let myself feel bad when others — friends and relatives– told me (or told my husband because they couldn’t say it to me) that I was selfish for wanting to move to California after college. That I was selfish to want to go back to school to get a degree that might not be economically viable. That even though career options are limited for me, my husband has great opportunities and it would be selfish to make him leave those for my “dream”.

If your dreams or aspirations soar above serving your community by devoting yourself to family, you are selfish. Going to college is fine, but the education is secondary. Getting a job is fine, depending on the skills you acquire (how useful are they? how useful are you?)

If you want something for yourself, if you won’t sublimate your own needs for the needs of the group, you are a Selfish person.

As a teacher, I see this within service professions that just happen to be dominated by women. We are expected to give 100% of ourselves, and expect nothing in return, until there’s nothing left to give and we can retire to sacrificing for our families.

We are expected to work for at least 50 hours a week, while being paid for 35. We are at school early, and stay late. We take work home, along with all of the emotional labor. We take on coaching duties that are unpaid or paid at a fraction of what male coaches earn. And when we dare suggest that we should earn more money, we’re told we’re being selfish. We get “summers off”, after all. We’re doing “God’s work” (I’ve been told this many times), for which payment cannot be remitted until after death.

More? You want more money? Better working conditions? How selfish of you!

Selfishness is the vice, sacrifice the virtue.

Sacrifice.

Every now and then the media will call for a sacrifice to the altar of motherhood purity. How dare she leave her baby so young to go on a date with her husband? How dare she let her kids play in the park? Where was the MOTHER?! These women are not fit to be mothers! These grieving mothers who want an end to gun violence are using their grief selfishly. They wanted for themselves for a moment, and now they’re burned at the stake. Lest that be a lesson for all of you!

And the childless bear the worst of it. The Scarlet Letter S.

Everyone has heard a childless woman called selfish because she didn’t participate (whether by choice or circumstance) in a biological act that is by definition an evolutionary selfishness. It’s kind of unbelievable. Your reproductive choices are not yours – they belong to the community. And only a selfish person refuses to submit.

Selfish.

We tell ourselves literal Cinderella stories. After all, she did as she was told and followed the rules, and in the end she was rewarded for her obedience and patience…with a lifetime of service as the wife of Prince Charming.

I wish I would’ve been more selfish.

When my loved ones told me that my dreams would change, that once I have kids, I wouldn’t want the same things anymore, I wish I would’ve been more selfish.

My dreams didn’t change, but I did adapt. And I am still made to feel selfish for them. It’s great I love writing, but I’ve got to find spare time for it — I can’t let a dream conflict with the obligations of work, family, or maintaining my role in community. 

Above all, I hope my daughter knows that it’s okay to be selfish. One day, when she’s finally been cursed with the word enough to start internalizing those expectations, I will tell her that instead of struggling against the term, I should’ve allowed the epithet to become a weapon.

I hope the next time someone accuses me of thinking about myself, I will proudly respond, “Yes, I’m selfish, and I hope you are, too.”

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Katharine Reynolds is a teacher and writer who lives with her family in Nashville, TN. 

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