BY KAREN BOURIS 2004
It’s hard to find a mother who doesn’t feel guilty. A friend feels guilty for working in a job she loves, and another feels guilty for not working and financially contributing. We feel guilt over taking time for ourselves yet guilt for not taking good enough care of ourselves. While newfound love for our children has taken root in our hearts, an array of complex emotions grows like an unwanted weed patch in our psyches. And guilt has birthed one of the most enduring “weeds” and female legacies around—the Mother Martyr, the ideally devoted mother, sacrificing her life for her family.
The Mother Martyr and her badge-of-suffering surfaces everywhere: our inner critic; our mother-in-law; our own mother; our friends; and messages from our culture. Trying to plan for the birth of our second child, I had the brilliant idea of providing room and board for a college student in the spare room in our basement—not a glamorous setting, but sunny and private—in exchange for about 12 hours a week as a mother’s helper. I imagined being able to care for my newborn and 3-year-old, while feeling rested, having an organized house, exercising, and working a couple of hours a day. With a bit of help cleaning, cooking and caretaking both children, this would all be possible.
Because I knew how difficult having a newborn was, I was determined to create a support system that would promote sanity. My first child had been high-need, and I didn’t sleep more than 3 consecutive hours (on a good night!) for the first year. I should have been arrested for driving under the influence of sleeplessness. I was a maniac, for someone who’s normally pretty even-keeled, and realized that the entire concept of sitting home raising a child alone was nuts. Where was my support system, my extended family, my tribe? If I could have recreated Anita Diamant’s lovely vision from her book, The Red Tent, of a tent full of supportive women in my backyard, I would have woven the red canvas and harvested the tent stakes myself.
For this new baby, I wanted to create a web of support—something I felt that I, and every mother, deserved. It all came crashing down when in a rush of excitement I explained my plan to my mother. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful,” I said, “if I weren’t on the verge of a physical and emotional breakdown with this new baby?” My mother’s simple, dead-serious response was, “But that’s motherhood. It’s about suffering.” Mother Martyr emboldened, she looked at me, and immediately I felt inadequate. I was a wimp. I was betraying all Mother Martyrs before me. I didn’t love my children enough, because I wasn’t willing to sacrifice myself on the stake of suffering. Bottom line, I was just not a good mother.
Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? And yet, as devoted as we are to our children, many of us are just as committed to the Mother Martyr. The Mother Martyr echoes in our head, doing her best to derail us at all times, encouraging us to criticize others for their choices and perpetuating guilt, suffering, and unquestioning self-sacrifice. Christina, a stay-at-home mom, humorously relays the message her mother passed on to her about parenting: “You sacrifice yourself for the good of the children, but then you make your kids feel very guilty about it.” She explains, “My mom was a single mom who worked full-time, and an extreme level of guilt always pervaded our household. If she stayed home from work to take care of me, there was guilt. If she had to go to work to support me, there was guilt.”
Yet Christina admits that she herself does a poor job of taking care of her own needs as a mother. “I definitely don’t take care of myself in general. I’m trying to exercise once a week now. Trying to look for other fulfillment outside of the home, continuing education, classes, time with friends.” But when pressed, she admits she hasn’t signed up for any classes and does something probably less than once a month on her own with friends. She also gently teases another mother at the interview group who exercises every day and does take care of herself. Unwittingly, Christina’s mother’s legacy has been passed along to her, and despite her protests, she has also taken on the burden of the Mother Martyr, queen of suffering and sacrifice.
Sometimes, it’s necessary to perform Mother Martyr interventions. One of my close friends, a stay-at-home mom, has kids the same age as mine. She was so sleep deprived that she had lost rational thought and couldn’t see what a rut she was in. I announced that it was time for a Mother Martyr Intervention and that she needed to take care of herself. She agreed she needed help, and exactly 2 days later, we were on our way to buy beauty products at a department store and spend a day at our local pool just reading, talking, and relaxing.
Be careful not to confuse the Mother Martyr with the normal compromises and sacrifices of parenting. As a friend, Ellen, says, “If I chose to do more things for myself, it would cut down on my productivity and I’d make less money, and I couldn’t afford Jake’s special school.” Her son is autistic, and it’s important to her that Jake attends a school that specializes in working with autistic kids. “There are consequences to my choices,” she points out. “I’m very willing to work hard and carpool my kids halfway around the country, but I still maintain a few things for myself: work that I love; an amazing group of women friends; and twice a year, a vacation with my husband—alone!” Even though Ellen has made compromises and continues to sacrifice gladly for her children, she holds onto what’s most important to maintaining her sense of self.#
Excerpted with permission from Just Kiss Me and Tell Me You Did the Laundry by Karen Bouris (Rodale, March 2004, $14.95)