Martyr-Moms and How Not to Be One


June 25, 2014 by Julia



When I write about this topic of parents making martyrs of themselves for the sake of their kids or society, I do so with the belief that we have all done this at some point. I know “we all contain multitudes,” and while we may be feminists or career-driven or healthy eaters or highly capable of running a household, we still have our moments of self-sacrifice ending in total depletion of body and soul, because such is the nature of parenthood. We have stayed up past midnight finishing cupcakes, we have tolerated repetition to the brink of insanity, we have bent over backwards to accommodate the bizarre requests of toddlers, we have worked overtime in order to pay for their activities or special needs, we have held a screaming infant for hours. We have felt that we are at the end of a rope, the bottom of a pit.


All of which is normal, and is usually motivated by unconditional love.


Parenthood as pie chart


But we might as well avoid those pits if possible. Or learn how to pull ourselves out, because 1) We are human beings who shouldn’t have to suffer unneccessarily and 2) Our kids need us to practice parenting in a way that we can sustain for the long-term. To beat the metaphor of martyrdom to death (pun intended), we can’t just die and go to heaven. And we’d probably prefer not to give our kids the impression that we are burning at the stake when we are home with them.


Unintentional martyr face as I unpack one of the ten thousand bags we require for one night at the grandparents' house.

I came down with a bad case of martyr face

I’m not trying to make the point that we shouldn’t sacrifice for our children – of course we do this every day. It’s just that the entire family is better off when we can enjoy parenthood because of our beliefs (when possible), rather than suffer parenthood for our beliefs. We’ve got to pace ourselves, sustain ourselves, and empower ourselves.


The more I mother, the more I realize that everything starts with me. If I am complaining to everyone about how the kids are going through a rough patch, maybe it’s time to step back and realize I am the one going through the rough patch. If I am overly stressed, I need to do something about it. The old adage, “If mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy,” pretty much holds true about 75% of the time. (The other 25% of the time, the kids have turned into feral cats and couldn’t care less about how mama feels.)

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Which brings me to my first, and most important point:


Make your own well-being a priority.

It’s pretty simple. What do you think would make you happy? Do your best to make it happen. I’m not just talking about spa days or girls’ night’s out, although those are awesome, too. Sometimes what our happiness requires is more work, of a different kind. (Parenting is ultra-fulfilling in the long term, big picture way, but not often in the ‘look what I’ve accomplished today; isn’t it amazing?’ way.) Or maybe we need more focus on our relationships, or a commitment to health and fitness. Maybe we just need to get more sleep, or to force ourselves to slow down. Pay attention. Take inventory of your own well-being on a regular basis, because you are a person and your own needs and desires matter, too.


Sometimes just realizing that you do have some control of your own situation is enough to change your entire frame of mind. If, as usual, you can’t get what you want right now, make a plan.


Not that the above statements need any further support, again because you are a person and you matter, too but I might as well point out that a responsible, caring mom who also pursues her own happiness is modeling wonderful things to her children. If she has a daughter, she is showing her how feminism is done in a day-to-day setting. If she has a son, he is picking up on what a complete woman looks like, beyond just what she can provide him with.


And if I am taking care of myself, I am able to stop and enjoy my children more often. I know they feel that.


Embrace your own personality and interests, incorporating them into your parenting.

For many of us, there is a clear “before kids” identity and “after kids” identity. Which is not a bad thing, unless you feel so far removed from your past self that you actually miss her, and see your current self as a pathetic sad sack in comparison. In this case, it’s easy for that martyr-thinking to sneak in: “I used to have it so good, but I gave it all up for the sake of my kids. I used to go out and dance, and travel, and make pottery on the weekends and blast rap in the car and cook for three hours on Saturdays with a glass of wine. No more, woe is me, etc.” Um, no. It’s time to pull back all those parts that you abandoned somewhere during the newborn baby phase and start feeling like yourself again.


Who says you have to only listen to lame kids’ music when the kids are in the car? Everything’s got a clean version these days, and if your “adult” music has a truly questionable message for kids, make an “after hours” playlist for yourself to listen to while you’re driving to the PTA meeting, or whatever. There are plenty of pottery classes you can take with kids (or by yourself, duh). Dancing is easy and possibly more fun than ever in your pajamas when you’re just being goofy. And if you want to cook in peace, ask someone to get the kids out of the house for a few hours. These things are possible, and enriching for the entire family. More often than not, I think children are enthralled when their parents take the time to expose their quirks and passions, as long as they aren’t being pressured to share those interests. I think it might even encourage them to recognize and embrace their own passions.


Admit it when things are going well.

Sometimes when Dennis gets home from work, I go automatically into “dump everything onto my husband” mode without even reflecting on whether we’ve actually had a good day or a difficult one. I think part of this stems from a fear that if I admit that, yeah, I had an awesome time playing at the park with our adorable son and then he napped like a champ and I even managed to chat on the phone while the kids had snacks after school…then Dennis might think I don’t actually need help. Usually though, even after the good days, I am totally ready for his help in the evenings – especially if I’d been counting on it all day.


This is probably the best example I know of how I sometimes play the martyr, and I’m guessing it’s a pretty common habit for people everywhere. For the record, I am NOT saying that women shouldn’t complain to their partners – just that it’s okay to tell the good stuff, too. I feel stronger when I can openly say, “We had a fun day. I’m glad I get this time with our kids; we are in such precious stages with them right now.” The part that wants to exaggerate the suffering in parenting is needy and weak, which is totally human, but there are better ways get attention for that side of myself. I can just ask for help if I need it, even after the good days. I’m pretty sure Dennis gets this. (How lucky am I?)


In short, if we hear ourselves always telling the sob stories, maybe it’s time to change the record in our heads, for the sake of everyone.


Let go of perfectionism.

Easier said than done, I know. But if we hold onto some of our ideals (which I think of as different than values) too tightly, they might be our downfall. Sometimes I have to let go of my desire for a clean living room to watch TV in at night, or I have to let go of my desire to pick out cute clothes for my kids to wear that day, or the fact that I may never find the time or energy to paint my toenails. Seriously, this has been a concern of mine. I have been wanting to paint my toenails for about three weeks, now.


Don’t try to go it alone.

I think part of the modern martyr complex is the belief that one’s self is the only one who truly “gets it,” the only one who can handle things, that we must suffer alone, because no one else can be trusted with the tasks we are burdened with.


I don’t flatter myself that I always know the best way to parent or finish household chores, but when I get tired, I do start to feel alone in my work, and for some reason I hold more tightly to it, unwilling to admit defeat. If I was planning on being a productive supermom that day, it feels like a failure to hand over the kids or the chores for an afternoon. But it’s not defeat to ask for help.


Remember – we’re in this for the long haul, and we really, truly can’t do life alone. It takes a village, yada yada yada.


If you begin to feel like an actual victim of your children, then something needs to change.  

There is natural exhaustion and frustration that we all encounter in parenting, but sometimes a child might enter a new difficult phase that we just haven’t figured out how to deal with yet. Feelings of dread, anxiety and actual fear can creep into us. Before we realize it, we’ve lost our power, and we’re walking around on eggshells, trying to avoid another tantrum.


You guessed it! – as usual, I’m speaking from personal experience on this one. The best advice I can give is to just forget about the shame of the situation – sometimes the embarrassment along with the confusion is enough to get you stuck. Next, focus on the problem, what you think is behind it, and the outcome you think is best for your family. It could be a baby who won’t sleep, a toddler who bites, a preschooler who curses at you. Take inventory of your core values, and make a plan to use those values with conviction. If you can find a solution you really believe in, it will be more possible to act with calm strength – like an adult who knows they are still in charge.


I’m not saying there will always be an action to correct the problem. Right now, Jack is totally stuck on saying “stupid,” which is word I’ve told him a thousand times not to use. He currently says “stoop” instead, as though it’s a way he can get away with it, but even strangers know what he means because he’ll say it like a curse word, right after something goes wrong. I’m not sure what to do, because it seems like the more attention I draw to it, the more he says it.


When I remember that we keep reminding him not to say it, and we no longer say it ourselves, and that I am trying to model patience with the world and people around me, I am reassured that he will eventually get the message. There is no one specific formula to correct his behavior, but if I hold tight to our family’s values, I think those values will prevail eventually.


Anyway, I’m reading this amazing book right now called “All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenting” by Jennifer Senior that so perfectly describes how parenthood can be both the most fulfilling thing, big-picture-wise, but the most draining thing on the everyday level. The author offers no suggestions, but her articulation and observations of the struggles and joys of modern parents is probably the most accurate and validating depiction of parenthood I’ve ever read. It is not overtly negative or forcefully cheerful – it’s just true, covering the extreme highs and lows.


Okay, I am super tired after a really long, hot day filled with yelling, tantrums and whining…so I guess I’ll just post this unpolished, too-long piece of writing and go relax.


...and then the children cleaned their rooms, got mommy her drink, and went straight to bed. The End.


(P.S. Anne Taintor makes the “Vintage Revisited” pieces I’ve used in this post, some of which I have as magnets on my actual refrigerator – worth checking out.)



3 thoughts on “Martyr-Moms and How Not to Be One

  1. Love it! Often for me it’s realising when I’m having a really sh*t day and need to call my husband home a little early to help with dinner and bedtime. But at the same time, other days when I’m feeling fine, it makes me feel stronger not to “need” his help when he comes home. It’s probably a throwback to the days when I was home alone for ridiculously long days with a baby who couldn’t yet talk but also didn’t sleep much and I’d be counting down the minutes until he came home so I’d have some adult company! I don’t think that’s martyrdom though, more not wanting to depend too much on something outside my control (i.e. the time that my husband finishes work for the day). And regardless of whether I need it, he does help, so that’s great.

  2. I totally agree with you!!

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