Motherhood Moments: Try a Little Selfishness

Filed under: Holidays, Opinions, Books for Parents

elizabeth eslami

Elizabeth Eslami and mother. Credit: Elizabeth Eslami

When I was 10, my mother took me out to the shed behind our house to ask me if she should divorce my father.

"I'm thinking of leaving him," she said. "But you need to know what that would mean."

She explained that she would have to go back to work for the first time since my brother and I were born, irregular hours and night shifts, that we'd have to leave the house, definitely our school, probably our friends. She spoke of my father as a dream killer, a Grimm's fairytale devil who revealed his black heart only after they'd married. She said much about him -- speaking more to herself than to me -- while I grabbed tufts of a discarded shag carpet and held fast.

"You have to decide," she said, gagging on tears. "Are you willing to make those sacrifices?"

She asked me that question 23 years ago, and though I recall the shed's plywood walls and the oil stains from my father's weed eater, I can't remember how I answered. I remember the queasy certainty that this decision wasn't mine to make, that it required special information I didn't possess, like looking too many lessons ahead in my math textbook.

My mother was asking because she loved me, that I knew. She had, as always, put my interests before her own. Important decisions were handed off to me, a gift of selflessness, because my happiness was all that mattered, her future long since offered up at an altar to her children.

This is neither a story about divorce nor reconciliation.

Whatever I said, my mother didn't leave my father. We opened the door and walked across the grass, returned to what I took for normal, a life between fights, "I hate yous," springing up with the constancy of weeds. My mother would age wearing the mantle of martyr, arrows of regret protruding from her skin, while my father sleepwalked through their marriage. Both burrowed down into their neuroses.

In time, I realized that living somewhere between mutualism and parasitism, my parents probably couldn't survive on their own. Unhappily ever after, it seemed, was better than the alternative.

I think about that day as I watch my friends becoming mothers. I keep a tally of the women who announce their pregnancies with sadness at the edge of their faces. This baby who will save a floundering marriage, bring meaning to an empty life, honor a deceased sister, do what I always wanted to do (but didn't), who will bring us closer together, heal old wounds, this creature who will serve as the next great step. Becoming a real woman, which for them means becoming a mother.

I marvel at what these babies must accomplish -- superheroes all, before they are even born.

One by one, my friends' children grow up beautiful and free, playing among the fragments of their mothers' lost desire. The new jobs that aren't applied for, the books never written, the trips never taken, sacrifices made each moment with varying degrees of regret, or sometimes no regret at all. Because the truth is, none of these mothers will regret their sacrifices any more than they'll regret having their children.

But these sacrifices run deep. Each one leaves a scar.

It is believed that infants are born with the ability to recognize faces, to pick out eyes instantly. Almost immediately, a baby bonds to her mother's voice; before she is old enough to understand her separateness, she will match her emotions to her mother's. A smile for a smile, worry for worry. We like to tell ourselves that children are close to angels, that they possess a pure understanding of the world. If so, what must they make of those scars, the million dim dreams in their mothers' eyes?

If I could have 23 years ago, I'd have asked my mother to give herself permission to make her own choices. To take the job, go on the trip. I'd tell my friends to make themselves happy first, their children second. Because if mothers don't teach their children how to be happy by example, who will? Maybe a mother's legacy -- along with unconditional love -- should include a lesson in self-preservation. Selfishness.

Not long ago, I had lunch with my mother. "If you could do one thing with the rest of your life," I asked, "what would it be?"

"I would write," she said.

"Then why don't you?" No more children, no more sacrifices to make.

"Because there's never enough time," she said. "Always a millions things to do. Go here, go there." She looked away at a young mother with two small children, one in a stroller and the other, a toddler, at her side, yanking on her wrist.

"I wanna go!" The toddler screamed.

My mother sighed. "Maybe someday."

Elizabeth Eslami is the author of the novel "Bone Worship." Her essays and short stories have appeared in numerous publications, including Crab Orchard Review, The Millions, The Nervous Breakdown, Matador and American Literary Review. To find out more about Elizabeth's work, and to read her blog, visit Red Room.


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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.