Why you should quit being a mommy martyr

We all make sacrifices for the sake of our families. But all too often, we get judged for what we do and we get judged (even more harshly) if ever we put our own needs first.

A friend of mine was at a dinner party recently, chatting with a friend of a friend. The woman told her a story I’ve since told a bunch of my friends—you know how efficient the mom grapevine is, especially when it comes to cautionary tales. The woman at this dinner party was explaining how her two-year-old had been sick, maybe very sick, probably with the flu. We’ve all been there: coughing, fever, hysterical crying. The kid finally fell asleep on top of her. Ah, sweet relief. But not for long. The mother realized she had to pee. She lay there in bed, afraid to move and risk waking her toddler. The situation became more, um, urgent. She didn’t know what to do. Finally, she whisper-yelled for her husband, instructing him to bring her a diaper. And then, yes: She peed in the diaper.

She peed in a diaper! Access to the toilet is an actual official human right, by decree of the United Nations—I looked it up. And she had one not more than a few feet away! Call it extreme self-sacrifice or, if you want to share this story with the most friends possible, #mommymartyrdom. Out of the dozens of mom archetypes in cultural play (supermom, soccer mom, tiger mom, etc.), the martyr mom is the one who would pick herself out of a lineup. She goes the extra mile, but she doesn’t go quietly. You’re gonna hear about every painful step. Maybe she boasts or maybe she complains. Maybe she sighs, “It’s OK, I’ll just do it.” She has ways of broadcasting her suffering without saying anything at all. If you still have trouble identifying her, she probably looks like crap, too.

If martyrdom was once noble, in the context of motherhood, it has become pitiful. The mom who bemoans her baby won’t take a bottle elicits a collective raised eyebrow. We roll our eyes at the proselytizers of attachment parenting. We cringe when a friend says she’d love to come but her husband doesn’t really “get” the bedtime routine. Ultimately, we feel sorry for her kids, because if she isn’t burnt-out and resentful yet, she will be.

I am attracted to the diaper story, of course, because underneath the shock there is fear. I have, after all, made enormous sacrifices for my two kids. I’ve let my career atrophy, reserving my time and energy for them. I’m still breastfeeding my two-year-old daughter, because I feel it keeps us connected in the chaos, which I have to admit is largely generated by endless child-centred activities. I gave up my hard-won habits of swim training and group meditation because they interfered with the kids’ bedtime routines. You can debate the necessity of these choices; I have that argument with myself almost every day.

But some of the most needling sacrifices are the ones I can’t explain at all, ones that almost seem made for the sake of sacrifice. Every day for the past two years, for instance, I’ve listened to Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off,” at my son’s request, which is looong after it made me want to cut off my own ears. A few weeks ago, the dam finally popped a leak. “I’ve never liked this song,” I growled. My son mercifully appeared not to hear; my husband was incredulous—like, “Why on earth would you…?” So, sh*t, am I a mommy martyr? How did this happen? And what can I do about it?

The cult of motherhood
I expected to find the original blueprint for motherhood written on tablet—as in the stone kind. Not so. As anthropologist Maxine L. Margolis explains in Mothers and Such, child rearing wasn’t even exclusively women’s work until relatively recently. As farmers, merchants and artisans, fathers worked near the home and took an active parenting role for centuries while their wives helped with the business and made goods for the family’s basic survival. It wasn’t until manufacturing left the home for the factory in the 19th century that, as Margolis writes, “middle-class women found themselves ‘freed up’ to spend more time on child care. And before long they were told that such full-time care was essential.” This was the beginning of the cult of motherhood.

The predicating principle was that women are born to be mothers. That is, caring for children isn’t just instinctive, it’s completely fulfilling. Mothers shouldn’t need any other pursuits. The mandate for self-sacrifice was explicit. “Her very name,” exclaimed President Theodore Roosevelt in a 1905 address before the National Congress of Mothers, “stands for loving unselfishness and self-abnegation.” Gina Wong, an Edmonton-based psychologist who studies maternal mental health, says this idea soon leached “into the water we drink, into the air we breathe.” And it proved very resistant to modernization.

By the 1950s, my husband’s Grandma Nina, for example, had the benefit of a newfangled wringer washer, but prepared foods were still a rumour, so she cooked three meals a day from scratch, including pies, cakes and doughnuts. If that sounds kinda fun (#kitchengoals), I should mention she also washed, polished and buffed the floors on her hands and knees once a week. She struck a “deal” with her husband: If he did the grocery shopping, she would take over stoking the coal-burning furnace. They went dancing once a month. Oh, and she also read the local Regina paper, the Leader-Post, every day, recalls my mother-in-law, Eleanor. “That would have been her downtime.” If she suffered, she didn’t let on. “Her generation seemed content with so little,” says Eleanor, whose own cohort was about to “have it all.”

While women of the 1980s and ’90s delayed having kids to establish their careers, that didn’t exempt them from the responsibilities of motherhood. Whether or not they went back to paid work, the parenting approach of these so-called CEO moms was informed by a professional ethic. They wanted results, even as their kids’ future success became harder to ensure. It meant every parental act was scrutinized and debated. There are now a zillion theories on when to have kids, how to birth them, what to feed them and how to get them to sleep. Methods of discipline, socialization and play have become hotly contested. There’s a best way to teach your kids, to motivate them and, ultimately, to help them reach their potential—that is, happy, healthy and successful, all the time. It’s completely unsurprising, given the magnitude of this task, that the mother of all debates is whether to get help, especially if it means paying for it.

Academics have talked about how these decades saw an “intensification of mothering,” which suggests the standard became even more impossible to achieve. Perhaps. But it seems to me, looking at my modest timeline, that the workload has always been punishing. Raising kids is a sh*t-ton of work, whether you’re weaving horsehair shirts for them, rolling out pastry for apple pies or remembering to praise your kids the exact right way. What’s new is the idea that we have a choice in the matter.

But do we really? Does it feel to you like you have freedom of choice? Not to me. Not much. I mean, I know it’s OTT to find 10 times a day to praise my kid (never on outcome, only his effort) and to do it genuinely, looking him in the eye, etc. But the research is clear: This is a great way to foster resilience, and if I want him to survive the many hardships of life, he’s going to need that. I need to do this to be a good mom. If I don’t, it’s not by choice—it’s because something prevented me: the physical limits of time, patience and energy. But if I do pull it off, or even try to, there’s the risk of becoming a martyr, which is also considered a kind of failure. And all that choice opens you up to the judgment of others, which is fuelled by insecurity over their own choices—it becomes a vicious feedback loop. “It’s damned if you do and damned if you don’t,” sums up H. Lorraine Radtke, a University of Calgary psychology professor.

If we want to lessen the burden of sacrifice on women, we have to create space for real choice. And this might, strangely enough, begin with some classic martyr behaviour.

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Voices of discontent
Let’s say I’d just kept my mouth shut about Taylor Swift that day, that I’d never ever complained, but bore it cheerfully till my last breath. I’d be golden, the very picture of Roosevelt’s “loving unselfishness and self-abnegation.” Instead, I whined about it, and in that moment of revealing my sacrifice, I joined the ranks of the mommy martyrs. I also may have broken an oppressive silence.

It was a clever trick of the old cult of motherhood that even if Grandma Nina absolutely hated all the cleaning and cooking and stoking, she never would have admitted it. Good mothers don’t complain. On this side of the 1960s, we know while the truth won’t exactly set you free, it is ground zero of any resistance movement. And there is a movement burgeoning within mommy lit and blogs, says Andrea O’Reilly, founder and director of the influential Motherhood Initiative and professor of women’s studies at Toronto’s York University. These women, she says, aren’t merely whining—they’re pushing back against old standards of motherhood. “They’re saying, ‘This is what it really looks like,’ and ‘I’m not going to pretend I can do it without community and support.’”

But if you want to experience motherhood in the raw, I recommend skipping the blogs and mainlining it from online community forums. Imagine, if you dare, a place where women from all corners of the country, from all walks of life, can anonymously exchange views on the pressures and problems of parenting. Which, of course, begin well before the baby arrives. Kristina0889, for example, writes:

Im having a debate with my mom, again. She keeps saying that once I have the baby my life will be over and everything I do will have to be for the best of my baby and I do not agree with her. I mean, yes your life changes with the baby now being a part of it, but it deffinately does not end and I don’t think you should completely sacrifice your everything for the children.

One hundred and five people respond to Kristina0889’s post. That’s 105 versions of how to be a good mom, but I quickly became fixated on two. “My kids make me who I am,” writes TashaRenae. “Without them…I’m nothing. It is with a happy heart that I put them first and forgo all else.” I’m not sure someone who describes herself as “nothing” could possibly be happy, but who am I to say. Laidao, though, doesn’t hesitate: “Someone wants to win a gold medal for mommy martyr? Go for it. Try to put that sh*t on anyone else? They can [BLEEP] right off.” Cue a hundred moms who might have contributed deciding it’s not worth it and clicking off for the night.

This exchange is a good reminder that picking sides and name-calling, however tempting, help precisely no one. Those actions discourage sharing and blind us to what is universal about our experiences. The fact is almost every single mother who posted a response to Kristina0889 described significant personal sacrifice. Extremes may excite our imaginations, says Radtke, but she underscores that when we’re talking about martyrs, “we’re essentially talking about the norm.” And if we’re in this boat together, it might be worth getting to know one another.

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True Story
Caroline Davies has been sleeping in the same bed as her now two-year-old son since he came home from the hospital. Well, initially he was in a small bassinet on the bed, she adds, as if to pre-empt any judgment predicated on safety concerns about bed sharing with infants. But co-sleeping is divisive mostly insofar as it is viewed as an extreme sacrifice of personal space, of marital intimacy, of freedom. “That’s not what I feel,” Davies says. “Have I gone out at night as much as other moms I know? No,” she says, but it’s not something she misses. “I’m in my 40s—I’m not sure how much that plays into it.” She believes being an older mother may have shaped her experience in other ways. “Right from the start,” she says, “the doctors test you for everything. I had quite a list of fears about something happening to him.” Having her son next to her at night was reassuring. “For me, it just felt so natural,” she says. There have been other significant sacrifices along the way. Davies and her family left downtown Toronto for the suburbs, renting a big house for a “steal of a deal” so her husband could build his woodworking business and her son had space to roam. “I’m very social,” she says, “and I feel isolated here.”

Radtke points out that the flip side of self-sacrifice being universal is that there is no single definition for it. “So much depends on individual circumstances,” she says. “What do we value? What do we have access to?” She’s talking about our differences: where and how we grew up, and what material and personal resources we have. I am fascinated by how specific these particularities become, as different needs within the same person intersect—say, having the need to socialize, but not at night, like Davies. It’s also interesting how so many of our differences become embodied: The music that makes me want to cut my ears off might light your soul on fire. (My husband wasn’t only incredulous that I would continue listening to music I loathed but also that I loathed it at all). I know, it’s a cliché: We’re all the same but different. The truth of it is striking, though, when you start listening to stories instead of reacting to sound bites. That’s the key to creating a parenting culture of personal choice. The more difference we can accept in others, the more wiggle room we create for ourselves.

In contrast to Davies, I moved my son to his own room when he was four months old because I just couldn’t relax with all his snorting and bucking beside me. This inevitably led to some quick and dirty sleep training, which I remember as a stop-motion progression from white-knuckling the kitchen counter to lying on the floor in the fetal position. After moving my daughter to her own room around the same age, sleep training didn’t seem so inevitable. She was easier to settle, for one thing, and all the back and forth in the middle of the night didn’t bother me as much. I don’t know why, but fatigue hasn’t been a problem the second time around, though it’s a handy explanation for why I almost never go out at night. If friends and family think I’m being a martyr, the truth is I don’t feel like socializing.

I’m an introvert, and after a day with my kids (that is, every day), I’m desperate for time alone. This personality trait also explains the explosive little scraps my husband and I get into about downtime, like hungry dogs fighting over a meatball.

Right, my husband…. I almost forgot about him. We don’t mother in a vacuum (even if we do get all the scrutiny), so while we’re trying to figure out which sacrifices are worth it, we should probably ask why we’re the ones making most of them.

From me to we
The gender gap has narrowed since Grandma Nina’s time, but plenty of studies show that women are still doing more of the domestic labour than their partners: over one and a half times more housework and double the child care. Then there is the work of “thinking about baby,” says Bonnie Fox, a University of Toronto sociologist who has studied how divisions of work based on gender develop as heterosexual couples make the transition to parenthood. “You see dads pushing carriages,” she says, “but the person monitoring the whole situation, nine times out of 10—well, I wouldn’t want to put a number on it, but it’s usually still women.”

There isn’t any solid data on how women feel about all this, but do we really need the evidence? I mean, do we require a study to tell us we’re knee-deep in the blame and blood of the Chore Wars? My house, truthfully, can feel like a minefield. With years of practice, I can finally sidestep, like, three or four mines in a row, but the fifth is always going to blow up…. Where did that stack of dirty dishes come from? Breathe. The kids aren’t in bed yet and you’re plucking your ear hair? It’s fine—I concur, the ear hair has got to go. Oh, sh*t, we don’t have an end-of-year gift for the teacher! Boom, we’re fighting: He’s a deadbeat and I’m a…well, I guess the PG version would be “martyr.”

As the dust settles, I often find myself wondering what it would be like to divide household labour without the complication of gender, specifically, when both partners are mothers. Not surprisingly, the research shows lesbian parents divide the work more equitably than either heterosexual or gay male parents. Fiona Nelson, an expert in lesbian motherhood and associate professor of sociology at the University of Calgary, clarifies that “equitable” does not necessarily mean “identical.” One mom might do the laundry while the other mows the lawn, but it’s not an automatic split along stereotypical gender lines. They negotiate based on interest and ability. In terms of child care, lesbian parents find ways to be equally involved. “If one was nursing, the other would burp,” Nelson explains.

Which mother breastfeeds may be one of the only decisions lesbian co-parents don’t have to negotiate. Well before deciding who’s going to do the laundry and who’s going to mow, lesbians have to discuss who’s going to carry the child and how they’re going to conceive. Communication is built into every single step of lesbian co-parenting, says Nelson. Heterosexual co-parents aren’t so lucky. Even those of us who explicitly want more equality don’t know how to negotiate for it, so we just keep dodging land mines.

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Baby steps
What I guess I need to know, then, is how to get from here to there. How do I negotiate with my husband for a fairer share of the load? I love a good “how-to” as much as the next busy CEO mom, but the closest I’m going to get on this topic comes from an obscure study by a social science student at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Penn. Erin D. Thorn asked five sets of lesbian co-parents about not just who did what, but also how they came to their arrangements. She found that even when the division wasn’t identical—that is, when one partner (often the one who did less paid work) was more responsible for household work, and even if that partner wasn’t thrilled with the arrangement, the fact she’d had a say in the arrangement made it feel fair. In other words, “a majority of interviewees were quick to mention that the inherent fairness in the situation came out of mutual importance placed on communication,” Thorn writes.

So there’s that lesson again: Talking about our experience changes it. Posting anonymously online is OK, but we also have to open up to our partners. It doesn’t matter if at first it comes out kind of twisted or if it doesn’t immediately fix everything. Over time, talking defuses some of the subject’s charge, settling instead into a familiar, relatively comfortable script for negotiation. Eventually, it may yield some surprising solutions—choices that wouldn’t necessarily make sense to anybody else but that work well enough for each of us.

I want to apologize to the mom whose story I exploited for the sake of this article: I am sorry, Diaper Mommy. By sharing your sacrifice, you got me thinking. You got me asking important questions about my own sacrifices, like why on earth I tortured myself for so long with Taylor Swift and whether I was right to moan about it. I still hope my son didn’t catch me playing the martyr, but I have to acknowledge that he subsequently stopped asking for T. Swizzle, and my world looks brighter without her.

My goal now is to express my needs better, to negotiate more directly and with less angst. And that means doing it more often, which, of course, is more work. Sigh. “It’s unfortunate that it takes so much work,” says Nelson, “but you do have to work hard to create more equality.” Point taken. Anyway, if there’s one thing we moms are used to, it’s more work, no?

Read more:
9 new mom lessons from my first year of parenting
15 working mom confessions
Stay-at-home vs. working moms: Can’t we share without being attacked?

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