“Your 20’s are your ‘selfish’ years. It’s a decade to immerse yourself in every single thing possible. Be selfish with your time, and all the aspects of you. Tinker with shit, travel, explore, love a lot, love a little, and never touch the ground.” – Kyoko Escamilla
I grew up watching the women in my family pour every inch of themselves into others. My grandmother would always be on her feet at family gatherings. From the early morning to late in the night, she’d make her rounds from the kitchen to the living room, to the porch. She’d ensure that everyone was comfortable enough to have a good time.
Like many women, her dedication to her family didn’t start or end with family dinners. Her sacrifices spanned a lifetime. I never learned how much of her own dreams she gave up to make everyone else comfortable. Yet I’m blessed to have seen the aftermath of such large sacrifices in my own mother’s life.
When I was a child, every year that passed seemed to allow my mother to reveal another layer of her life.
My mother’s marriage to my father had her emotions brimming over the edge of silence. Her grief would seep out over the kitchen table or afternoon trips to the park. Once I became a teenager I was privy to some of her biggest fears. The root of those fears came from her decision to place my father and her children before her own needs and wants.
She spent her twenties surviving and dating a man who knew how to make his life comfortable. The men in my life seemed to be either natural or educated on how to be selfish. While the women’s teachings highlighted the art of sacrifice.
Once married, my mother moved two states over to live in the hot wasteland also known as Florida. She knew no one except my father and his family — an unwelcoming group who viewed non-blood relatives like passersby. In the span of nine years, she bore four children.
Loneliness was like the grim reaper, always waiting for a decent opportunity. When us kids could finally speak and respond in thoughtful ways she felt brave enough to be candid. She’d express sadness about my father not having an interest in developing his relationship with her or us kids. And she felt lost with the realization she still didn’t know what her calling was in life. It hurt her that my father could still choose his career goals while she was routinely expected to choose us.
The biggest questions that came out of my conversations with her was: Is it possible to decide to be selfish and also be there for people who depend on you to support them? Morally, are you in the wrong?
Her fears and inner dilemmas passed down to me.
The effects of intergenerational trauma are unique for every family. But, as women, effects are often parallel. As pieces of my mother were replaced with pieces of us I’ve felt obligated to figure out how to give back. If not to her directly then to the universe. In some ways, I feel as though I own a debt. And the only way I can pay my debt is through the currency I received it: time. Time is payment I see many women give as they move through their lives as wives and mothers.
My desire to become wholly selfless for my future family isn’t intuitive. A huge chunk of it’s fueled with guilt and conditioning. Why should I live for myself if my mother, and her mother, and her mother’s mother lived so that I could be in comfort?
It’s a neverending cycle that could stop with me making a choice to not take part in always sacrificing my wants.
What would breaking my family’s cycle look like? First, it would be choosing to have money of my own. As I get more serious with my boyfriend it’s vital for me to have my own pocket of savings stashed away. I call it my “in case this goes South” fund. I know, not at all romantic. But if I learned anything from my obsession with the romance genre, life’s not like how things are on the page. And women should always understand no one can look out for their financial future/freedom like they themselves can.
Asking myself where I want to live is another way to break away from selflessness. The women in my family shouldn’t have been indefinitely tied to the jobs their partners decided to take. Of course, there’s some give and take in relationships when opportunity knocks. But, over the course of decades, one person’s career journey shouldn’t continue to eclipse the other. One person shouldn’t have a monopoly on dreams.
Truthfully, I’m still naive about this part of life. I have yet to start my marriage journey. Still, I can’t shake the discomfort that comes with imagining a life of me always standing on the sidelines while my partner is making moves.
According to the quote above, I have six more years of selfishness.
There shouldn’t be a cap on the time you have to choose yourself. Even when you’re a partner, a parent, or a caregiver. My mother thought once she married and had children those selfish years were long gone. In reality, exploring life and figuring on what she wanted from it never had an end date.
When there are other people involved I understand one can’t always get what they want. And even if my desire to give doesn’t come natural, giving still makes me happy. I enjoy seeing my loved ones feel supported by me as they reach for their dreams. But, I don’t plan on sacrificing my own goals as some sort of martyr.
I hope the women in my family stop ignoring their dreams under the guise of the greater good. I hope they realize no matter how much they give no one is going to ask them to stop. We never asked my mom to stop. I never asked her to stop. It’s because as kids and partners, well, we tend to be selfish. And life without my mother — life without a woman — giving me everything I needed felt terrifying.
No, there’s never a right time to be a selfish woman, but we still have to find time to do it anyway. Preferably, be selfish when it does the least amount of damage to others. I plan to take back my time, my career, and my joy. Living out my dreams is how I choose to repay my debt. Being selfish doesn’t have to be a negative thing. I accept the comfort the women in my family have given me. And use the comfort to chase my dreams. One day, I intend to pass that comfort done to my own daughter. I’ll tell her to do the same.
I’m sitting on the couch with my legs up, complaining about my family drama. He stands there finishing off the last of the dishes, hands wet and eyes on me. We’re discussing how stressed I’ve been since taking on huge family responsibilities. He feels bad saying anything about people he’s met a few months ago. He’s only interacted with my family twice. The longest interaction was at a theme park with screaming children and make-believe castles – too chaotic to have meaningful conversations. So, of course, he doesn’t have much material to build a decent opinion.
“I’m hesitant to say what I’m thinking,” he says, shifting his weight from one foot to another. It’s a phrase that’s become commonplace in our relationship. He doesn’t want to sway my decisions. He doesn’t like feeling as if he’s planting seeds for something that may benefit him in the long run. If I wasn’t living with my family I’d be living with him.
“Say it. Nothing you say hasn’t already crossed my mind.” I always urge him and he always continues to hold back. But, this time is different.
“I think you should try to figure out what will make you happy and go for it. Your current situation clearly doesn’t work. You only have one life and you have to live it for you.”
I nodded, hoping he’ll continue because these are the words I’ve repeated to myself. Words I’ve said when I get up in the morning, head off to work, and lay down at night. But, these words always get tainted by the feeling that I don’t deserve my own space. I don’t deserve to live in comfort and happiness if those closest to me can’t either. What makes me worthy?
“If they heard me they’d probably think I’m trying to manipulate you. But, if you ever feel that way, leave me.”
He says the last part without hesitation. I work to keep my face neutral while inside I’m shocked. I’ve never heard anyone in a relationship tell their partner to leave them in a tone that wasn’t threatening. My father would say the same thing to my mother towards the end of an argument. “Leave me,” were words meant to challenge her to venture into a world that seemed even harsher than him. My father taught us we couldn’t survive in the world without him and that’s what I thought most men wanted their family to think. But, now, I was hearing something completely different.
My boyfriend’s urging me to leave him told me I needed to start working on how I looked out for myself. He didn’t want to be with someone who’d believe he was manipulating them. Nor, did he want to feel bogged down by the guilt of living with the small luxuries he could afford. And that was his way of looking out for himself. He decided to completely choose things that served to make his life stable and balanced.
“I help my family whenever I can, but I can’t split myself five ways. It’s not sustainable. You help people more when you’re in a healthy place,” he tells me as he dries his hands on a towel, ready to move back on the couch next to me.
Making decisions for my pleasure sounds like such a cold-hearted thing to do if I’m being honest. I was raised Christian, so the desire to dedicate my life to others feels like the most respectable way to live. I’m ashamed for wanting to make choices that result in me being at my happiest. But, being with my boyfriend seems to open a door to unabashed self-love and self-care. He’s showing me a version of self-love I never thought I’d be able to learn from someone else, but instead would have to go on a solo journey in some mountain where the trees seem to touch the sky, engulfing me in pollen and hard truths.
“How do you live for yourself without feeling bad all the time?” I ask as he lowers himself beside me.
He shrugs with a nonchalance I will always envy. “I want to look back on my life and say I enjoyed myself.”
I’m addicted to suffering. If my life was ending today I would look back and see anxiety embedded in the happiest of moments. Anxiety often feels like a life raft, keeping me afloat in the world that’s vast enough for me to sink to the bottom. But, my boyfriend looks at this life full of experiences yet to happen and comforts ready to claim.
It’s going to take me time to untangle my guilt from my longing to act on pleasure. My pursuit of happiness will look different from my boyfriend’s – which, is also something I should keep in mind as I attempt to mimic his mindset. My experiences with self-love are tangled with religion and the expectation that women are natural-born caregivers. As I work on releasing my guilt I will remind myself to be open to leaving behind the things barring my happiness. The permission to leave feels like the freedom I’ve always had, but ignored in favor of a life that looks more respectable. To leave will be my first real act of rebellion in the name of self-care. I couldn’t be more excited.
What are you planning to leave behind to pursue a happier life?