A Mother's Day Reminder: 'Selfless' is Not a Compliment
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been taught to constantly question how my actions might make others feel and to anticipate their needs and emotions. I was trained to be hyper-vigilant, to have what is called nunchi, to always read the room. This was how you raised a good daughter, a good woman. Once that woman becomes a mother, her identity recedes into the role of a wife, a mother.
In South Korea, where I was raised, women stop being referred to by their names. Instead, they are called “Mother of _____,” insert the name of one of her children. This is a term of respect. A title mothers wear with pride, just as I did when I became a mother and someone called me my son’s Umma for the first time.
At seven years old, I remember being at a family wedding where a tiny baby was crying. No one could make her stop. The mother was frantically preparing a bottle. I asked to help and was handed the baby. I held her snug and warm and tickled her chin. The baby calmed immediately and happily sucked down the bottle in my arms. The adults around praised me for being a natural nurturer. I beamed, taking pride in my ability to comfort this little soul. That was the moment I was struck with the calling to be a mother myself one day.
But does being a good mother mean I must make my own needs disappear? The question seems ludicrous, yet I encounter it again and again in the societal expectations and demands for mothers to be selfless.
“But does being a good mother mean I must make my own needs disappear? The question seems ludicrous, yet I encounter it again and again in the societal expectations and demands for mothers to be selfless.”
In Netflix’s hit reality show Love is Blind, every time the most problematic cast member, Shake, was asked what he loved most about Deepti, the lovely woman he matched with, his answer was consistently that she was so “selfless.” It was not her kindness, warmth, intelligence, generosity, compassion, ability to listen, or even beauty. No, he answered repeatedly that he loved her because she was selfless.
He was casting her in a role of the future wife who will support his dreams while he puts his career first. She was not going to have any demands or needs of her own as they began their lives together. This offended me in a way that I did not see coming. I wanted to scream, “Selfless” is not a compliment. We must stop mistaking it for a virtue.”
Jenny T. Wang, a clinical psychologist and national speaker on the intersection of Asian American identity, mental health, and racial trauma, encourages readers to question invisibility and humility as virtues in her new book, Permission to Come Home. Wang says when we talk about being selfless, what we are giving up is essentially our boundaries, which protect our resources— time, energy, and finances.
“When we assert our boundaries, we are saying, ‘Yes, you matter, but I matter too,’” writes Wang. “Holding our boundaries becomes an act of self-love, reinforcing to ourselves that we are worth protecting and our resources are valuable.”
“Holding our boundaries becomes an act of self-love, reinforcing to ourselves that we are worth protecting and our resources are valuable.” ~ Dr. Jenny T. Wang, Clinical Psychologist
This is why audiences the world over rejoiced when Deepti said no at the altar on her wedding day with Shake. “I choose myself,” she reclaimed, as she proudly walked away.
“As an Asian American woman, I have been taught my entire life to exist in the margins,” Wang writes. “Succeed, but don’t become too visible. Excel, but don’t take up space.” She asks her readers to challenge this concept of remaining hidden to stay safe, whether this helps us achieve our goals, just as Deepti had in rejecting a life with Shake.
The pre-eminent modern-day warrior against female selflessness, Glennon Doyle, writes in her book, Untamed, “We do not need more selfless women. What we need right now is more women who have detoxed themselves so completely from the world’s expectations that they are full of nothing but themselves.”
Doyle explains that a woman who is “full of herself” knows and trusts herself enough to say and do what must be done.
The bestselling author also warns against mothers martyring themselves for their children. “Mothers have martyred themselves in their children’s names since the beginning of time. We have lived as if she who disappears the most, loves the most,” Doyle writes. “We have been conditioned to prove our love by slowly ceasing to exist.”
“We have been conditioned to prove our love by slowly ceasing to exist.” ~ Glennon Doyle, Author, Untamed
She concludes that it is a terrible burden for children to bear, to force them to be the reason their mother stopped living. “When we call martyrdom love we teach our children that when love begins, life ends.”
What Doyle writes resonates deeply because I am one of those guilty daughters who carries the burden of my mother’s lost self. My mother is the epitome of a model, selfless nurturer that society raised her to be — one who disappeared into her role. I began probing for her interests when I was a teenager— a favorite book, song, food, anything? I wanted to know her, but I was too late.
My mother insists she likes whatever I like. She loves whatever we love. She defers all decisions — and is debilitated by the choice of chicken or fish for lunch. I love my mother, yearn for a version of her I never met, and mourn the loss of her identity beyond wife and mother with an intensity I cannot verbalize.
That is why this Mother’s Day and every day, I refuse to disappear — for my child, my partner, and myself. I refuse to perpetuate the cycle of martyrdom and self-sacrifice. The legendary Audre Lorde made famous the concept of self-care as a radical act and it has allowed us to progress. Now, it should no longer be radical for women to practice self-care. Prioritizing themselves should no longer be stigmatized as something only a “bad mother” would do. I will continue to uphold my boundaries, care for and prioritize myself to thrive — and that makes me a better mother and partner. My family will have all my love and nurturing, but they will also feel my power. They will know me as the individual — the dreamer and fighter — as well as the mother and wife. I refuse to forfeit myself. I refuse to be selfless.
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