Thou Shalt Not Be Selfish

Overcoming the Guilt of Indulging in Self-Enrichment

I don’t know exactly when it happened. It wasn’t a singular moment, I know that. It didn’t even dawn on me all at once. It was more like the process of paint fading and cracking so slowly that you don’t even see it. Only after passing through the same hallway a hundred times and deciding to pay enough attention to be disgusted do you understand it. I don’t know exactly when I began to feel guilty and stupid for wanting to pursue something purely for my own enrichment.

Before my son turned seven, I wanted to put him into some sort of music lessons, and the violin seemed purrrrrfect because it was a small instrument that made sense to start young. And then it hit me – I myself could take lessons alongside him in the service of being that Suzuki method mom that (I read) should be helping their child intensively at home.

Just look at that bow arm!

I build up the plan mentally, carefully justifying the idea and the associated costs to myself. I get cautious buy-in from my husband, reassuring him that we won’t force anything or go overboard. We take our rented violins and embark on our weekly lessons with my son as the main focus. I do my best to “help him practice” at home while I devour online supplemental learning and tell myself that this is for him. It begins to feel like that episode of the Simpsons where Homer gets Marge a bowling ball for her birthday. I think it might have even said Homer on it.

As summer heats up and the novelty of the violin melts away, my little boy cashes in on my promise to let him quit when school starts if he isn’t loving it. (A Tiger Mother never would have said that… oops.) On his second to last lesson he refuses to do anything until almost the end of the lesson. On his last lesson he does the same thing, only this time he takes apart the setup of his violin in quiet protest while I make use of the lesson time for myself. The teacher and I turn around just in time to see him reaching for the peg to unwind the last brave string holding the bridge up. We both yell “STOP!” before he completely takes it apart. He is done.

My heart is feeling a little broken on several levels. I did promise him that he could put music down and come back to it when he’s older if he didn’t like it. But, I didn’t want his experience to end this way only two months into it. I worried that it would color future attempts to do something musical. I worried that I had gone about things in some wrong way. And secretly, I really wanted him to be in lessons so that I could be in lessons. I hadn’t allowed myself to indulge the notion of taking lessons alone if he quit.

One night, my husband and I were discussing the impending end to our son’s summer violin experiment. We were having the age old discussion about the balance of pushing a child through their typical barriers versus allowing the child to dictate when they quit something. At one point he said, “The lessons seem to be enriching you more than him lately.” He was 100% right. I was outwardly offended, but inside it was actually humiliation that I felt.

My mom once told me a story about our grandmother, who was born during the Depression in the South. When they’d get a piece of gum they would chew it for weeks, saving it on the bedpost at night and tucking it behind their ears at meals. They might stick it on their noses for a more conspicuous way of saying that they were ready to eat. Sort of like tying a lobster bib on before a feast. She said that the children rarely had anything good and fresh to eat, especially treats. So, when a child would have something like watermelon, all of the other children would gather around hoping for a taste.

One day my grandmother and her sister had some watermelon that they had decided to share with some select friends. One little girl was haunting the watermelon circle with her gum on her nose, pretending like she wasn’t sorely longing to be included. One of the children saw her and said, “Whatcha doin’ with that gum on your nose? YOU AIN’T GONNA GET NONE!” All of the children laughed.

That story has stuck with me my whole life. I wanted to scoop that little girl up and tell her it’s OK to want something, and it’s not OK for others to make fun of you for it. I could imagine being that little girl, wanting something more than anything and trying to pretend like she wasn’t. I was that little girl many times in my childhood. Like in the 7th grade when I used to go to my friend’s gymnastics practice to ‘observe.’ I’d sit in the glass booth on the second floor and gaze out at all of the amazing, talented girls down there, and just envision myself as part of that. I wanted to be in gymnastics so badly, but I had to pretend that I just really liked watching her- especially when the other moms would ask me why I never participated. I was a poor kid who was already too old to succeed in gymnastics even if I had been granted entry to the class. I was six years too late and six dollars too short.

That night with my husband I was again that little girl with gum on my nose. So obviously wanting something that wasn’t for me. Violin lessons are for children. For a person with a lot of time to spare. Or maybe for trust fund babies. You never got to play music as a kid and that’s just who you are. It’s silly to want to do this. Ridiculous. I felt another kind of indictement straight from my internal copy of Society’s Rule Book for Mothers : Thou shalt not be selfish and take time and money away from your family in frivolous self-indulgence.

I never set out to be a martyr-mom, and I certainly don’t want for anything, so this was a shock to feel this. I wasn’t prepared for my childhood wounds and my internalized pressure about motherhood to collide like that into a ball of humiliation and sadness at an off-hand comment by my spouse. Sure, I give selflessly to my children. But, I also gobble up their cookies in the kitchen when they are in bed. I buy nice shoes. Yet, I couldn’t shake the idea that I hadn’t earned the right to enrich myself through something like this if I couldn’t completely justify it. That enriching myself was something I wasn’t supposed to do, or could only do if it didn’t overshadow our son’s enrichment. That wanting that was dumb, silly, self-absorbed. Worst of all, it was something to feel guilty about. Apparently, I had some nasty old yellow paint from long ago that needed to be scraped. Baggage – I’m talking about childhood baggage.

Once this started to become apparent, I knew that I had to take violin lessons. If I didn’t, I would regret it even more than I regretted not joining orchestra in 7th grade (which is a whole other story). I knew that not doing this would forever be remembered as a time that I let my long-ago unmet needs continue to impact my self-worth and influence me to let more of my needs go unmet. It would basically be me agreeing to feel humiliated and selfish every time the gum on my nose was seen by another person. My husband wasn’t saying that I shouldn’t enrich myself, it was me telling myself that. And I decided that had to stop.

I came out of the closet as an Adult Starter Violin Player and began discussing with my husband my desire to take weekly lessons, for myself. Like an adult.

And in a funny way, I did end up creating a justification for the lessons after all. But, that’s OK – we all need a “why.” At least it’s a justification that tells the truth, and doesn’t try to pretend to be for someone else.

2 thoughts on “Thou Shalt Not Be Selfish

  1. Again, I totally relate. In my case I didn’t take up the violin until I was 56–and didn’t even read music till then. My father had died and I felt myself angry with him because I was not given any kind of musical education as I child. He had determined I had “no talent” and he would be wasting his money on me. We all accepted this conclusion at the time because he was a musician and had his own dance band as a young man. I realized finally how silly it was to go through my whole life feeling rather pissed off about this, and decided to take matters into my own hands. Clearly if I had insisted on having music lessons, my parents would have relented; they weren’t cruel people but I was not an assertive child and I realized there were financial constraints.

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    1. Sandra thank you so much for sharing. What a bruise to heal, that must have really colored your view of yourself. I think that is what makes this so healing, we can reclaim our relationship to music and heal a lot of childhood things. I never knew my father, but he was a concert pianist and organ player, music teacher, among other things. I always felt that I didn’t have the chance to realize my possible genetic potential as a musician, if I had inherited any. And I was also angry because I would have been in lessons or had him teaching me had he been in our lives or at least paid child support. He has passed away, and I’ve long since forgiven him. But I relate to that pain.

      And this is a pseudonym to provide some separation from my personal life online and my very large online presence related to my business! 😃

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