I've been called selfish most of my life. A privileged only child, unable to share, I once involuntarily jabbed my friend's hand with my fork when she nicked a french fry from my plate. It was pure instinct (I swear!)
Of course had I grown up with siblings, I would have become accustomed to sharing (or having my food nicked). It would have made me less 'selfish'... if you believe in the concept of selfishness. I don't. I believe that adjectives like these - lazy, selfish, rude - are one dimensional and dismissive descriptors designed to shame or guilt people into fitting into boxes others have designed. Similarly, even positive adjectives are descriptors which can be broken down further... yet we rarely bother because these criteria satisfy our ideals of how a person in our society should act.
My beloved daughter was jokingly referred to as selfish the other day and remembering my own childhood, I felt smacked in the face. 'Of course,' said my interlocutor laughing, 'all children are selfish.' But that's an adjective which has never been applied to my son who's loving extrovert nature involves spontaneous hugging and generous offerings of cake. He likes to feed people, he's an extrovert who feels empowered by social interaction. His life will be easier.
My daughter is not selfish. My daughter is an introvert; I've realised that it costs her an enormous amount of energy to be with people. She's sociable, but after socialising she needs quiet time. It means she withdraws into her self and focuses on a single task whether it's fiddling with a toy or turning the pages of a book. It means she doesn't always respond to people when they talk to her; so they think her rude and they get angry with her. Due to her first born insecurity, she has difficult sharing unless she has been acknowledged first and asked. But kids don't often ask, they steal. Yet she's the one who gets told she 'needs to learn to share.' She likes to plan and manage, to control something we've named 'the fear monster'. And yesterday after twenty minutes of excruciating 'shy sickness' clinging to her father with her head buried in his shoulder, she overcame her fear as she attended her first swimming lesson with five other kids in the grey sea surrounding our island.
"I beated it Mummy. I beated the fear monster," she said to me at bedtime.
And tears came into my eyes, because I know how extraordinarily paralysing that fear monster can be. And what an amazing feat it was to have 'beated' it.
In understanding my daughter, I understand myself better. I am also an introvert. It takes an enormous toll on me to respond to countless emails, texts and messages on social media, and leaves me with little energy to interact with the 'real people'. Most of the time I prefer not to reply to texts; especially when I'm with my children. I prioritise my energy for them. I'm not selfish or rude, just protecting myself. With friends across the world, Facebook has been a godsend for me. It means I get to continue friendships with minimal interaction.
Several evenings a week, I binge watch crime TV and in doing so shut off from the rest of the world. It's not laziness, it's the time I need to recover from parenthood which requires constant attention. As an adoptee with a previously massive fear of abandonment, people have rarely understood my need to be with people, without interaction. So sometimes I sit on my mobile phone reading articles surrounded by my family, happy that they are there but not wanting to be bothered.
In order to fit in with society we are all expected to adhere to rules and etiquette, to measure up to standards and to fit into boxes not designed for us. Boxes which actively prevent us from surviving and thriving. Most of these requirements demand your attention, as if you owe it to others. As an introvert, my daughter has a constant inner monologue, she will notice detail that others don't, but she might, like me, screen her phone calls - even from her friends, unless she's regained her energy. I will teach her what society expects, and the consequences of going against it. But above all I will teach her to value herself. She has no need to be ashamed.
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