A few years ago, my mother called me to ask me if I’d heard of her new favorite writer.
“Ayn Rand. She was a philosopher. I thought, of course Catherine will know her. Do you know her? Have you read The Fountainhead? Atlas Shrugged? Of course you have.” Of course I had.
Mom was a total convert. “It just makes sense, sweetheart.” She went on at enthusiastic length about the virtue of selfishness and the value of prioritizing one’s own happiness. Rand was a light on the grey landscape of her semi-rural Canadian life. Imagine if you didn’t have to pretend to want to volunteer at the community center, or to bring potato salad to the arts board meeting? Imagine putting yourself first! Finally, she was validated in wanting to reject the empty communalism of shared duty, the posturing around selflessness and sacrifice in service of the community that can be particularly intense in small towns. She could be selfish and feel good about it, and she loved it.
I loved her newfound spark, but to be honest, at the time I didn’t think that it would amount to much. She’d skip a few board meetings, refuse to volunteer at the community center, and reference Dagny Taggart to the neighbors (who would have no idea what she was talking about), but that would be it. As a former philosophy scholar I was happy to be able to talk theory with her, but I didn’t think that it would really stick. I certainly didn’t think it would ever prove useful.
But I was wrong. It turned out Ayn Rand would prove immensely useful to my mother, and to me, just when we needed it most.
It happened when she was struggling with a relationship with another family member, a relationship in which my mom was being explicitly called upon to be self-sacrificing. To be on hand for emotional support at all hours, to take phone calls day and night, to reserve criticism and to only say positive things; to validate and support this person without question, to bear the weight of this person’s problems. My mother talks a good game about tough love and personal responsibility, but under pressure, like many people, she can fold. She was folding in this case, and it was hard on her. It would be hard on anybody - there was good reason that I wasn’t taking those calls - but it was hard on her in particular. She’s in her seventies, and in treatment for some serious heart and lung issues, and if anyone shouldn’t be taking manic midnight phone calls, it’s her.
“Mom,” I’d say, after a report about another round of late-night multi-hour phone calls. “MOM. You can’t keep this up. You need to stop.”
“What else can I do?” she’d say. “I’d feel so guilty, not picking up the phone. But it’s just so hard. I honestly don’t know that my heart can take it.”
“You know that none of this is helping, right?” She knew.
“You know that it’s draining you?” She knew that, too. But she also felt a sense of obligation, of duty, of the kind of familial duty that attaches itself even to lost causes.
To hell with duty.
“Mom, remember how much you used to love Ayn Rand? Here’s a suggestion: ask yourself, what would Ayn Rand say?”
That was the turning point. We talked about the difference between altruism and kindness, and about the problems of self-sacrifice. We talked about reason and independence. We talked about whom duty serves; we talked about whom or what her sense of duty was serving in this particular case (the answer: nobody, and nothing.) I reminded her that Rand said (in Philosophy: Who Needs It?) that duty destroys reason, and values… and love.
That struck a chord. She had thought that in submitting to the duty of supporting this family member, she was acting out of love. Even though she hated every minute of it, she had thought that love required it. Reminding her about Ayn Rand was a reminder that she needed to question those kinds of assumptions.
We talked a lot about love, and about selfishness. We talked about my selfishness. “There’s nothing selfless about me helping you here,” I said. “I’m not doing this because I feel like I have to or because you expect it or because that’s what good daughters do.” She laughed. She’d always prided herself on rejecting ‘good mother’ stereotypes; of course I would do the same.
“I’m doing this,” I said, “for me. I’m doing this because I selfishly want you stay healthy. I selfishly want you to live a long time, for me. Because you bring me happiness and I want to maximize my happiness. So I’m being selfish.” That, I told her, was fully consistent with what she’d read from Rand; as she writes in The Virtue of Selfishness, “it is one’s own personal, selfish happiness that one seeks, earns and derives from love.”
“Mom,” I said, “I want you to be selfish, too.”
And that was enough. Not, it should be said, for my mother to liberate herself entirely from the swamp of duty she found herself in, but at least for her to find her path out (and she is indeed finding her way out, very effectively). More importantly, it gave us both a more effective language and a more grounded narrative for our love for each other - a love that honors us both, mother and daughter, as individuals. A love that admires, but doesn’t demand. A love that doesn’t cost. What better Mother’s Day gift than that?