On being selfish

Over at MJRose’s site, Susan O’Doherty recently posted the text of a talk she gave encouraging women to reclaim their selfishness. The entire thing is worth reading—yes, for you boys, too—but one line in particular caught me: “We’re not supposed to take time out for ourselves when there are others depending on us. That’s selfish.”

A phrase I must have heard a hundred times over the last couple of years, since my husband became ill, is: “Take care of yourself.” It’s one of those patently inadequate things well-wishers say when there are not words sufficient to the purpose. What they mean is, “I wish I could offer you some relief.” But what they also mean is, “Be selfish, just a little, because if you don’t you’ll break down and then where will we all be?”

Long-term caregivers learn selfishness. We learn that shoveling money into other peoples’ hands may be necessary, if we’re going to be free to do any work. We learn to bully friends and family into sitting in, to let us get to the market or even (shocking luxury) dinner and a movie. We learn that God doesn’t strike us dead if we spend an evening mindlessly before the television, after a day when we’ve managed to post a blog, write 2000 words, shop for groceries, do an hour’s workout, and cook dinner on top of it.

It’s one of the things women in general are not good at, hence Dr. O’Doherty’s talk. It’s one of the reasons there are fewer women among the topmost ranks of painters, politicians, or business executives, since people at the top generally get there by being complete, self-centered, absolutely driven bastards (Not all, you understand, but in general.) and you can’t be that person if you have a kid or a family member who demands large portions of your time.

Personally, I don’t think there’s any problem with being in a B+ position. If being an A+ member of society means I’ve stepped on faces, short-changed my family, and failed to listen to those below me on the ladder, then I am a failure as a person, and deserve the loneliness that comes at the top.

However, a little selfishness is necessary. I’m not aiming for sainthood here, just balance.

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  1. Roxanne on April 4, 2008 at 9:59 am

    Balance–“ay, there’s the rub.” Because it takes (more) work to try and get some balance.

    [“Take care of yourself.” It’s one of those patently inadequate things well-wishers say when there are not words sufficient to the purpose. What they mean is, “I wish I could offer you some relief.”]

    I am sure I am not alone in wishing I could offer you some relief. You have given so much to us, your readers. Your books have offered me escape, solace, information, laughter, and more. I wish I could return the ‘favor.’

    I am glad that you have learned selfishness. We all need to (should) recharge our batteries once in awhile. Your hard work and writing allows me to recharge mine. Thanks. And “take care of yourself.”

  2. SueMo on April 4, 2008 at 10:43 am

    Here’s an old cliche from the SueMo, the cliche queen: If you overload the lifeboat, everybody drowns. “Taking care of yourself” isn’t selfish, it’s sensible. That said, Laurie, I hope all is well with your family and you are able to draw a deep breath and relax a little while.

  3. sindam on April 4, 2008 at 11:02 am

    Amen to that. Also, to accepting a B+ – that’s a lesson I’ve learned in the past few years myself. I could keep climbing the corporate ladder, relocate my children every two years, and get more and more STUFF, or I can enjoy where I am, build a strong community at school and at home, and be happy. It’s not that difficult a decision, for me.

    Have you read Mary Doria Russell’s new book, Dreamers of the Day? It’s set in Egypt – and Palestine – around the 1921 Cairo Peace Conference. Instead of Allenby, the focus is on Lawrence, seen from the eyes of an American (Christian) spinster. I enjoyed the counterpoint of her experience in Palestine and the Middle East in general, to your Russell’s account in O Jerusalem. I ha dyou in mind as I read it – I think you’d enjoy it.

    I’ll echo others here – do, do take care of yourself.

  4. LaideeMarjorie on April 4, 2008 at 11:11 am


    Your sharing of your personal journey is much appreciated and I hope that you can feel our support, for what it’s worth.

    I am reminded of Christopher Reeve and Dana Reeve. After his spinal injury accident, he insisted that his wife remain his wife and that she not become his nurse. They, of course, were blessed in that they had the financial means to make this possible, but I wish some “selfishness” for all primary caregivers, for the sake of sanity and for the quality of their own time on earth. And, tragically, Dana died not very long after he did. I am happy that she had the time that she did when she was healthy and that she was able to live her life in ways that had to be more satisfying for her. It was quite a gift that he gave to her when he set thoses boundaries. She didn’t have to resentful of her husband, only of the accident that robbed them both of so much.

    In any case, Laurie, you seem to handling things as well as one could possible hope for. Keep on swimming. Get a massage. See a movie. Know that come October, we will wine and dine you in Baltimore, and you can let your hair down (figuratively, that is!). Keep doing the small things that bring you pleasure. And thanks again for sharing.


  5. Lauren on April 4, 2008 at 11:12 am

    An interesting reflection. I’m currently reading (very slowly) “Gift from the Sea” by Anne Morrow Lindbergh. It is a good reminder to take time for the self. I wouldn’t classify that as selfish. Personal time is not highly regarded these days. Many of my evenings this semester have been spent alone, locked in my room with theology books. There are days I miss being more available to friends for dinner, movies, and long conversations. But there is a piece of me that cherishes the solitude and recognizes that it is a luxury. I can’t say it’s balanced solitude since many of the things I enjoy doing (reading fiction, for one) have been put on hold while I read for exams, but it’s solitude nonetheless. And it is rejuvenating, which is certainly necessary.

  6. Roxanne on April 4, 2008 at 11:49 am

    Good idea, Laidee M.! Here’s to wining and dining in Baltimore!

  7. Laraine on April 4, 2008 at 12:57 pm

    One of the reasons it is important for those who are engaged in caring for family to take care of themselves is that there are unpredictable levels of demand as life goes about its ways. If you are running on empty and the demand level escalates, there are no reserves from which to draw. I ‘took care’ of myself to the degree that I could when Mom was slowly losing her vitality and leaving the world over several years. Had I not done so, the week that I lost twelve pounds while unable to get sufficient help at Mom’s side in hospital to actually get a meal (and other similar times) would have been disastrous, instead of merely slimming my waist and escalating the rate at which my hair turned silver (far more rapidly than my siblings). Sainthood is a risky perch; balance makes so much more sense, as Laurie says. My respect and best wishes to you, Laurie, and others who are also juggling many priorities.

  8. nkk1969 on April 4, 2008 at 8:24 pm

    Here’s an amen from a member of the so-called Sandwich Generation. Those of us with aging parents and kids at home to take care of feel your pain.

    A cliche related to take care of yourself, is take time for yourself. (Mini rant alert, sorry) When people say that to me I want to scream, “What exactly am I supposed to give up so that I can take a few minutes for myself?” I wonder if they want me not to feed my family, not to clean the house, not to do laundry, not to pay bills, not to shuttle everyone to doctor appointments, not to work sometimes so as to contribute my meager amount to the total income of our family, or not to drive an hour each way to do most of those same things for my elderly mother. Tell me what to leave out and I’ll gladly do it!

    And don’t even get me started about sick husbands. I know your husband has serious health problems and that’s different. Mine is just a ol’ big baby who has a cold and I want to put him down, in the sense a decent person puts down a dying dog. It’s a kindness really to end my, er, um, his suffering, right? “I felt your head ten minutes ago, honey. I don’t think much has changed since then and me touching your head does nothing to make it feel any better.”

    I have no answers for you. The best I can do is steal away once in a great while to do something selfish like taking my daughter on a roadtrip to see a beloved author in another state. Here’s to seeing you in two weeks. Please don’t commit murder before then and I’ll try to do the same. I’d hate to miss seeing you because either of us happened to be in jail. [hugs]


    P.S. Caitlin is coming bearing gifts. Hang in there. They’re worth it. 😀

  9. Bachi on April 4, 2008 at 9:15 pm

    You are all so right, on the bright side (if it could adequately be call that) long-term care giving is finally getting some (a little at least) recognition under the health care umbrella, including some $$$ and service assistance, in some circumstances. Dare I say “Onward Christian Soldiers!”. You are in our thoughts and prayers (wheather Christian or otherwise).

  10. Indigo Eyebrow on April 5, 2008 at 7:18 am

    I guess writing could be a good metaphor for life. It’s a matter of choices and there’s no right or wrong, only more or less effective choices. It all comes down to where you are going.

  11. kuttlewis on April 7, 2008 at 8:13 am

    I’m the sole caregiver of my husband who has Parkinson’s. There were times I truly despaired of ever finding time for myself. I’d get up early just to have one quiet hour when I can solve British cryptic crossword puzzles. Then a miracle happened: We got Medicaid which qualified my husband for this amazing program called Palmetto SeniorCare. They send in-home care to get him up and fed and shaved (and change bed linens, too), then a driver picks him up in a wheelchair van and brings him to the Center. There, he is under the care of a doctor, nurses, physical and occupational therapists. He is brought back in the afternoon. Since I fractured three bones in my foot a few weeks ago, they have also provided help in the evenings.

    This is part of the PACE (Providing All-Inclusive Care to the Elderly) program which I believe originated in California. I can’t tell you how grateful I am that now a community cares for my husband. I’ve even joined a choir 🙂

  12. Kerry on April 7, 2008 at 2:26 pm

    As everyone has said everything I could possibly say about (forgive me) the virtue of selfishness (I’m quite sure this is not really what Ayn Rand had in mind . . .), I’d like to make a very mini-rant of my own:

    “Personally, I don’t think there’s any problem with being in a B+ position. If being an A+ member of society means I’ve stepped on faces, short-changed my family, and failed to listen to those below me on the ladder, then I am a failure as a person, and deserve the loneliness that comes at the top.”

    I agree wholeheartedly that it’s better not to step on faces, short-change one’s family, etc. What I take issue with is a culture in which those are the things necessary to being an “A+ person.” I vote for a society in which folks (both men and women) can live excellent, nurturing lives and still achieve professional success . . .

    Meanwhile, please take care of yourself 🙂

  13. Bachi on April 7, 2008 at 8:55 pm

    Here! Here! Kerry

  14. aliciajong on April 14, 2008 at 4:11 pm

    Ms King…

    A little background. Some while ago I happened to read (on the book jacket, or perhaps the dedication, something that I glanced at) that you were married to a man named Noel who was from India. The gears in my mind began a delightful clicking as everything seemed to fall into place. Of course! Because, you see I knew Noel King, however slightly, and what a delight to find that one of my favorite authors was his wife. So many things in your books were put in context as I envisioned that twinkly eyed man in the background somewhere. I mentioned this to my mother, who also reads your books. And then I promptly forgot about it.

    But as I finished Touchstone last saturday night, during a rare evening away from my children, I found the knowledge twittering around the edges of my brain, and I found myself wondering “How is Noel? How is he?” And I remembered. I was twenty, and I had taken his class because everyone said it was easy credit. I had landed in an upper division course, rather than the standard History of World Religion, because it was conveniently scheduled. I needed some easy credit because I was drowning in my Earth Science and Physics classes and coming to realize that I would never be a scientist. I was, and am, something of an atheist… something of an agnostic… most decidedly Not A Christian, but fascinated by the history of religion in the way of someone peering through a window at something utterly alien. Sometimes distasteful, sometimes beguiling. Out of sheer perversity, not to mention the ever present scheduling convenience, I took the section on Christianity. I found it interesting, but nothing was so interesting as listening to Noel King. He was an absolute delight, and I found myself looking forward to his lectures.

    Now all of this would most likely have faded in memory had it not taken place in autumn of 1989. I was driving up to campus on a tuesday evening heading for my section meeting on the History of Christianity, mildly distressed as I had not done the reading, when I was suddenly afraid that there was something TERRIBLY wrong with my car. Visions of huge repair bills danced in my head until I noticed the stoplights jerking and bouncing. Thank Goodness! An earthquake. Needless to say section was canceled. In fact most everything in life was canceled that next week as we picked up the pieces and tallied our losses. My first class back was World Religions, and we entered the classroom to find that Noel had written the words to Morning Has Broken on the board. Before anything else, he told us all to join hands and sing. It seemed silly, but oddly it made us feel a little better. I was so proud when Noel asked to speak to me at the end of the quarter about the final paper I had written. I was pretty sure it was drivel. I had even added a couple of poems because I was short on the page count. Of course I had done it the night before it was due. But during the five minutes or so that I talked to him, he made me feel that I had something important to say. I know that he will not remember me. I was only one among hundreds that quarter, and thousands over a lifetime. But I will always remember him. He was the most unique person I have ever met, in such a gentle, lively, good way. And I wish him well.

    To you I wish little moments of peace. We mothers and caregivers so often find our lives measured by what we have neglected to do, rather than by what we have done. And there is always so much more to do than can possibly be done. So it goes.

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