[sel-fish] /ˈsɛl fɪʃ/


characterized by or manifesting concern or care only for oneself

I am browsing through my Facebook feed.

I scroll by another article about women who don’t want children.  I peruse the piece, agreeing with many of the reasons the interviewed women give for not wanting to procreate.  A part of me wonders why so many articles needs to be devoted to explaining a woman’s personal choice.

But one look at the comment thread (I know, what was I thinking?   NEVER read the comments,) and I am quickly reminded why.  Women who don’t want children are selfish.

I am a single, childless, career-oriented woman in her 30’s; content with a dog, a cat and the world’s more adorable niece.  I am also a veterinarian.  In case you hadn’t noticed, there are certain expectations associated with being a woman.  There are also certain expectations associated with working in a care-driven profession such as medicine, social work, and teaching, among others.  The expectations are that we are warm, generous, kindhearted and self-sacrificing.  These aren’t bad assumptions, and they are often true.

But we are not bottomless caring machines that can churn out an endless supply of compassion and empathy.

Too often I see my fellow women and veterinarians (of both genders) give and give and give until there’s nothing left but an exhausted, emotionless zombie going through the motions.  Too often I have been that exhausted, emotionless zombie.

And what happens when you have nothing left?  When you can no longer live up to the exalted expectations of everyone else?  When you realize you’ve given away every last part of yourself and you need to take something back?  When you stand up and draw a line?  Well, according to many, you are selfish.

I hear it every day.

It doesn’t matter to people that a woman may be caring for her ailing parents, helping to raise a niece, nephew or god-child, mentoring other young women in the work-place or devoting herself to a career of caring for others.  If she doesn’t want children of her own, she is selfish.

Women who have children and keep working are selfish for not spending enough time with their kids.

At Work

Veterinary professionals spend all day celebrating the addition of a new puppy or kitten, grieving the loss of a beloved family member, tirelessly agonizing over the fate of a sick inpatient, and working straight through lunch to call clients with important lab results so they don’t spend the rest of the day worrying.  But if they won’t stay late for that emergency surgery instead of sending the patient to the emergency clinic or agree to work for free because a client can’t afford treatment for their pet, they are selfish.

Social workers, teachers, doctors, nurses and a million other professionals…they spend all day looking after the needs of everyone else.  Taking care of them physically, emotionally and intellectually.  They devote themselves thoroughly.  But the moment they try to do something for themselves, they are selfish.

Basically, anytime someone who is expected to be selfless puts their needs before someone else’s, they are selfish.

Somewhere along the line the definition of selfish changed from caring only for oneself, to occasionally putting yourself first.

Screw it!

If that’s what people are going to consider selfish, I’m going to own it.

I am selfish. 

And I’m going to strive to be more selfish.  So should you.

It’s no coincidence that the highest rates of depression occur in care-driven professions like health care workers, social workers, and teachers.  Women suffer from depression more than men and parents are more depressed than non-parents.  We need to start taking care of ourselves.  We need to start being more selfish.

Here are a few, easy ways to start being more selfish right now…

  • Go spend an hour at the gym after work instead of rushing home to make dinner for the family.
  • Say no to covering your colleague’s shift even if you technically can, just because you really need a personal day.
  • Take the extra shift instead of meeting your friends for drinks because you’re up for a promotion and want to put yourself in the best position to get it.
  • Use all your vacation time, even if you’re not going on vacation.
  • Buy store bought cookies for the PTA bake sale instead of homemade.
  • Refuse to stay late at work because you have a date.
  • Approach your boss and advocate for a raise.

What does selfish mean to you?

Honestly, it doesn’t matter if being selfish for you means concentrating on your career, or working less to spend more time with your family.  It doesn’t matter if it means traveling more, or saving up for a dream home you never want to leave.  What does matter, is that you put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others. What matters is that, at least some of the time, you choose you.

So go ahead, be selfish.  I dare you.