When my husband was growing up, the worst thing you could be accused of in his family was selfishness. It was an even more stinging condemnation when leveled at my sister-in-law, as it continues to be for women in general, because for us gals, being described as “selfish” means you’re sub-par, not quite a woman at all. Girls and women simply aren’t supposed to put themselves first, no matter what their abilities, talents, inclinations or circumstances. God forbid your son should marry such a woman—who will take care of him when he has the flu? And what about the kids? Because what kind of mother puts her own needs first? I’ll tell you. A bad one.
I would argue that selfishness has taken such a bad rap that it’s considered even worse than “ambition” because an ambitious woman might actually return from her day-job as a world-slayer (or Presidential nominee) to nurture her husband and children, organize Teacher Appreciation Day, work the church bake sale and walk the dog. (After all, we women are nothing if not multi-taskers.) But a selfish woman? Forget about it. Ask her to serve on the library committee, and she’ll be like: “Sorry, but I’d rather be stuck in an elevator.”
Let’s talk about me. I can do this because I am in my selfish years. In other words, my own three children are grown. Grown, post-college, out of the house, and with traumatic memories, embarrassing moments and relationship problems of their very own.
During the seemingly endless years between the moment they first made their appearances and the day that they left for college, I, like most parents, often and regularly put them first. I was tired, I was stressed, I had PTSD that wasn’t alleviated until the youngest went off to college. At which point, I was suddenly free of the daily round of house-and-child minding, the societally-induced stupidity that teaches women to put others first or risk being kicked out of humanity, and, as a bonus, the hormonal insanity that accompanies fecundity. I looked at my suddenly empty nest and thought: I always knew I was really a witch. Now I get to act like one, too.
I mean it, by the way, about being a witch. Because we all know what happens right around those traumatic (for some, not for me) empty-nest years: you look your age. I now come equipped with both a hip replacement and gray hair. When my hair first stopped being brown, I went and got it dyed. It was an expensive and time-consuming activity, though, and when I finally emerged with non-gray hair, not only were my nerves fried from inhaling hair products and being forced to listen to bad pop music, but I looked like I was wearing a wig. But who wants to look so … not young? I headed to the nearest butts and guts class, where my 100% female classmates assured me that if I attended the class regularly, my bits, like theirs, would firm up. Which would have been great except that I was so bored that I could feel my synapses hardening.
This is when I realized that I had a choice: I could embrace my inner witch, or become a slave to the gym and the face-lift doctor, the hair salon and the shopping mall. All the dreams that I never pursued because I believed that to pursue them would be selfish—mainly small, private things—were now within reach. My time freed up, and I started doing them.
It wasn’t just a matter of suddenly having the time to do all the things I couldn’t do before—travel, write poetry, climb mountains, learn Chinese—but also the freedom, granted inwardly, to do and be who I was all along, to paddle my own boat without trying to please anyone else. It’s not egotism or self-centeredness or narcissism. It’s being the master of your own trajectory.
Why can’t I learn to play the piano in my 50s? After all, my mother, post-kids, started tap dancing. Her mother decided to learn how to ski.
Isn’t it time that we women stopped demonizing wrinkles, cellulite, gray hair and all the rest of it, stopped with the sense of being diminished and invisible, stopped trying to reverse the clock with facelifts and endless trips to the gym, and started celebrating this time of life for the freedom it offers?