How Being 'Selfish' is Allowing Me to Be the Best Parent I Can Be

I come from a long line of do-it-all supermoms. But as I discovered when I became a mother, there’s strength in letting go.

girl with purple outfit illustration
Photo: Illustration by Lucila Perini

I am the descendant of strong women. They hustled and made sacrifices to protect their children and survive as Black women and immigrants. My maternal grandmother sold cuchifritos on the street to support her family, brought her children from the D.R. to the U.S., and gave birth on her kitchen table. When a doctor told her one of her babies, sick with meningitis, wouldn't survive the night if she didn't sleep, my grandma leaned against a wall and cradled her daughter in her arms until morning so she wouldn't risk waking her by setting her down. Her toughness is family lore.

But I've always been wary of what's left out of these legends. Wasn't my grandma tired? Didn't she ever feel alone? Wasn't there an underside to being Superwoman, the one who held it all together? When I became pregnant, I read parenting books obsessively, as if they could spare me the same fate. I didn't want to be a martyr; I just wanted to be a mom.

Despite all my planning, I was totally depleted after I gave birth two years ago. I didn't live near family and had limited hands-on help. My aunt visited for one week, my mother-in-law for another. After my husband returned to work, I was mostly alone. I struggled to sleep, shower, and find a moment for myself. Still, I threw myself into caring for my newborn daughter. I knew the larger world could be hostile, hard, sexist, and racist. I wanted her to feel nurtured and safe at home at least, to know she was precious from the earliest moments of her life. My own needs seemed small in comparison.

Before she was 6 months old, though, it was clear I was in trouble. It wasn't just exhaustion. I was sad and full of rage that all the things I'd vowed to hold on to (sleep, exercise, socializing, writing, sex) were sliding right out of my life. I asked my aunt for advice. "You get used to it," she said.

I searched for a different answer, one that could offer some solace. I went for a long walk with a friend, also a new mother and a Black woman. We walked in the cold with our bundled, sleeping babies. We stopped to feed them and change their diapers. I told her I didn't want to accept feeling run-down for the rest of my life. She told me, "Being a good mother requires being selfish."

Just the word selfish made me nervous. It was exactly what I was trying to avoid. Every time I rose in the middle of the night to pump milk instead of sleep, or declined to hire a babysitter to save money, or woke up to comfort my crying baby so my husband could snooze, I was forgetting myself and choosing my family.

My friend, though, tried to help me see that I couldn't choose between being a good mother and taking care of myself. My daughter's fate and mine were linked. She needed me to be well and to teach her by example how a woman should treat herself. I couldn't count on the larger culture to do it. It was the motivation I'd been missing.

Since that conversation, I've tried to take my friend's words to heart and be more selfish. I consider my own needs as I make dozens of daily choices as a mother: whether to make purees from scratch or buy those little pouches, to entertain my daughter or drink my coffee in peace. I've made larger, more sweeping changes too. I've had hard conversations about division of labor with my husband. We started to see a counselor for guidance in navigating this new terrain. And we're paying for more child care. We're privileged to be able to make these choices, and I'm working on believing that I'm entitled to the greater ease, the space for self-care.

I get more sleep now; occasionally I exercise or read for pleasure. It feels wild, transgressive, to no longer feel so crushed. I'm still tired. I often feel guilty when I think of the women who came before me, how much more they carried. I have to fight off the feeling that I'm weak and remember I can hold both my child and myself in my heart. I don't have to decide between my well-being and hers. After all, I'm giving my daughter a new legacy: the permission to give to herself.

Naima Coster is the best-selling author of What's Mine and Yours, a multigenerational story of two families brought together by the integration of a local high school.

This article originally appeared in Parents Latina's June/July 2021 issue as "Make Time for Mami."

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