Let me start by saying that I am probably more selfish than you are. Selfishness is pretty hard-wired in me. One of my earliest memories is of going to the mall with my mom, my aunt, and my cousins. The parents would buy us each a hamburger and we would split a thing of fries. I figured out pretty early on that I should start the meal by pounding the fries, since those were up for grabs whereas my hamburger was all mine to have. (Several years later, I did well at Wharton.)
So I'm pretty far on the selfish side of the continuum of humanity. But I assume we all have at least a little bit of selfishness in us. And when we become parents, that inclination is sorely tested. For what is parenthood but one long series of individual decisions to selflessly pour yourself into little people who respond to such considerate acts with, well with nothing. They don't say thank you, they don't appreciate the sacrifices you've made, and sometimes when you are at the brink they do something to push you over like have runny diarrhea right before you have to leave the house to catch a train for the big meeting that you absolutely can't miss but I digress.
I recall when I first became a parent. I was going to a morning prayer meeting with a bunch of older guys, men whose kids were now long grown. I remember lamenting to them one morning that Jada was up all night and I didn't get any sleep, and they razzed me good with chortles of "yeah, I remember when" and "boy, I don't miss that...have fun, you!" I was stung; didn't they hear what I had just shared? I acted as if no one in the history of the world has ever lost a night of sleep on account of trying in vain to get their child to fall asleep. I desperately needed someone to affirm my act of selflessness, since Jada herself certainly wasn't in a position to, but these men had only hearty pats on the back and guffaws for me that morning. (Months later, I turned the tables and joined in the guffaws when a new dad shared practically the same thing to us.)
It's natural to ask for people around us to throw us a bleeping parade when we do something as selfless as be a parent. And, when we are on the other side of that conversation, it's probably good to mix in a little empathy and a little space with our barbs and our knowing looks. Parenting is hard because it exposes just how difficult it is to be truly selfless. Again, maybe this is easier for others who are not as inherently selfish as I. But to constantly, in small and big ways, pour yourself out for someone, and not have them reciprocate with gratitude or even awareness, and not have anyone around to say "hey, that was a really kind and hard thing you just did," is a reminder to me of how hard-wired I am to be selfish.
Let me clear: it is not wrong to desire affirmation. Indeed, we ought to seek it out, and we ought to remember to be generous in giving it to others. I am just encouraging more soul-searching, for parenthood reveals so much about how we are wired and what is the gap between how we want to be and how we really are. Maybe it will make us consider the truly selfless acts that have shaped our lives, and we will learn to be more grateful in general and more intentional in expressing that gratitude to specific people.