My mom carried me around on her hip for so long that I can remember it. She was my comfort and I always wanted her. She never denied me either. I slept with my legs tangled in hers and hid my head under her shirt when I was feeling shy.

Her every word and action was motivated with love and understanding. She taught us right from wrong but never with judgment. She was even aware that some lessons we’d just have to learn for ourselves, and let us with tolerance. She never got mad at us for misbehaving but investigated the underlying issues instead.

Even in the messy years of adolescence and through all the poor decisions I made, there was nothing I couldn’t tell her. Even if I did something to upset or worry her, she didn’t ridicule. She somehow always remembered what it was like to be a kid, to go through puberty, or to fall in love for the first time. No matter the situation, her feet were surprisingly close to my own shoes.

She was sent straight from the heavens, the kind of person who could cure the dysfunction of the planet. That is, until she fell into dysfunction herself.

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The love she gave was her highest achievement as well as her downfall. It knew no limits, never said no, and it never flowed back to herself.

She made everyone happy but herself. She said yes to everyone but herself. She gave and gave to everyone but herself. And while she was building everyone else up, she was breaking.

For years she fetched us drinks, even in the middle of the night. I watched her in stores put back the items she picked out for herself, replacing them with things for us. She cooked meal after thankless meal, and the stack of dishes always waited for her hands alone. If she tried to tell us no, we argued. We knew we could guilt her easily, and that she would bend over backwards with little fight. We’d whine for the things we wanted, and even if it was more than she could comfortably do, she’d appease us anyway. She rarely acted like she had needs of her own, and unfortunately was treated as such. We all loved her but in our selfish, demanding, kid ways.

As middle school approached, I started noticing another woman sharing the body of my mom. I wasn’t familiar with her because the mom I knew was gentle. This one was sharp. The mom I grew up with was attentive. This one was aloof. With my mom, I was understood. This other woman and I didn’t even speak the same language.

Her unhappiness was subtle at first (aside from the times she yelled about feeling like a prisoner), but as the years went by, it became more obvious. She spent more and more time in the laundry room with her booze, cigarettes, and phone. She’d clean our rooms but leave empty cans hiding in our closets. Instead of being encouraging and understanding, she’d be passive-aggressive and cold. The woman who emerged from our mother’s body was a crap shoot, and we kept our fingers crossed every time we walked through the door.

I often think my mom eventually broke because she was just so tired – tired of trying to make everyone happy, tired of doing it all, tired of caring about everyone but herself. And although I think motherhood consumed her, I know her marriage didn’t make it better.

She was never tagged in or out but stayed in the ring without a break. She loaded us in the car at all hours of the night to go looking for her husband, who sometimes didn’t come home. She put up with intolerable behavior because she wanted what she thought was best for her children.

Although I admire her selfless ideals, what we needed most was for her to consider herself. My younger siblings didn’t have the mom I had for all those early years, and although her heart was still made of love and her intentions were still pure, no trips to the mall or toy store filled the void. We seemed to need it more than she did.

My mom did so much for us but I wish she had done more for herself. I wish she had given us more boundaries, said “no” more often, and followed some of her own passions. I wish she had stopped thinking about our happiness for a minute and contemplated her own, because that’s what we really needed.

We often confuse self-love with selfishness when it’s actually what enables us to give of ourselves. When we nurture ourselves, play with our creativity, prioritize our friendships, and invest in our hobbies, we’re happy, well-rounded people. When we say yes and no based on our authentic feelings and comfort levels, we communicate honestly and show others how to honor us. When we sacrifice ourselves while tending to everyone else, we feel unimportant, disregarded, and eventually bitter. Relationships don’t flourish in resentment.

I’ve learned that being a little selfish is mostly selfless. I think about this in the morning when I make my children wait for me to do my hair or put on some make-up because when I feel good about myself, I’m a better mom. I think about this when I spend two hours a day writing rather than playing or cleaning because my personal fulfillment is essential to their well-being. I think about this when I say that I’m unwilling to do something because my needs are as important as theirs, and we all need to know this.

My mom spent her life loving others with her whole heart but through it, she showed me the importance of saving some for yourself. The greatest gift we can give is our own happiness and we’re in charge of that. It’s up to us to show others what we want and need, and how we like to be treated. We’re not passive recipients of happiness but creators of it. It’s our obligation to create some for ourselves.