My mom is the perfect “selfless” woman, but I’ve learned that’s not actually a good thing

I never want to give myself so completely to others that I lose sight of my own well-being.

My mom is good at putting others’ needs before her own; so good that she often forgets to say “no” and struggles to make time for herself. She has always tended to my brother and I before herself.

She made incredible sacrifices, such as leaving her job, when we were small, and she continues to help us, whether that involves packing for a large move, straightening out medical bills with the insurance company, or assisting us with our taxes.

She helped my aunt find a job and gave her rides to and from work when my aunt’s car was in the shop. My mom goes out of her way to make sure everyone is taken care of.

She is selfless. Which is great, but as I’ve learned, also problematic.

As a culture, we tend to believe that women – and particularly mothers – should be selfless, caring, and emotionally available. Women in the workforce are accused of being “bitchy” if they are assertive, rebuke male colleagues, or simply do their job well.

Trolls from around the world shame mothers daily on Facebook, blogs, and other social media for their parenting styles. Working moms get blasted for “abandoning” their children for a career, and stay-at-home moms are demonized for not providing “enough” for their kids.

If a woman appears in anyway cold, selfish, distant, or intolerant of bullshit, society pounces.

Even in my own home, I’ve listened to my dad criticize my mom for not getting a “real” job while simultaneously complaining that the house isn’t clean enough. So what should she be? A career-focused “bitch” who will stop being the dishwasher and the cook, or a stay-at-home mom who gives everyone in the household the privilege of some amount of laziness? Should she be “selfish” or selfless?

Because either way, it still won’t be good enough.

I’ve seen what the end results look like for selfless women who give themselves tirelessly. It’s exhaustion. It’s silent bitterness. It’s knowing that you must continue to put up with men’s ineptness because without you, they can’t function. It’s constant emotional labor. It’s being stuck as the bill payer, the finance manager, and the deadline keeper in your house because everyone has gotten used to you keeping track of important documents.

Not all women or mothers find themselves in this burdensome cycle, but those who do seem to live in a reality dictated by everyone else’s needs.

My mom is a “good” selfless woman. She thinks of her kids and relatives first, and is willing to offer support whenever its needed. But now that I’m older, I’ve realized the underrated importance of saying no, of cancelling plans when you are simply too tired or too overwhelmed, and of leaving others to their own devices when you have nothing left to give.

As I am learning my own emotional boundaries, I still sometimes struggle with the guilt of feeling “selfish.” Simple instances of not staying later at work, cancelling dinner plans when my anxiety is out of control and I don’t want to go into public, and not buying more Christmas gifts because I have student loans to pay off make me second-guess myself.

I know that my reasons for saying no in these scenarios are perfectly rational, but once in a while I feel a pang of guilt: should I be doing more? I make it a point to communicate with my friends and support them during their triumphs and setbacks, but am I doing enough? Am I really there for them in a large enough capacity? Should I have been the one to initiate dinner in the group chat?

But then again, I know the consequences of putting yourself last. I will not end up in a marriage where I enable my husband’s laziness. It’s not healthy to constantly place my friends’ emotional needs before mine. In a world where we are judged on how productive and successful we are in the workplace, I am absolutely aware that we need mental and emotional breaks from our jobs.

It can be hard to distinguish between “selfish” and “reasonable requests to keep one’s sanity.” Being decent to other humans is important, but we must make time for our self-care, our goals, and our hobbies outside of our families and even friend groups.

We are allowed to say no as often and as loudly as we need.