Mommy Martyrdom

Why are mothers so highly praised for acting like martyrs in our society? For giving so much of themselves that sometimes there is nothing left for themselves (or their relationships for that matter… But that’s another blog post for another day)? Stories abound in which “a mother’s love” is demonstrated through extreme selflessness, often to the point of self-destruction.

Tenneva Jordan writes, “A mother is a person who, seeing there are only four pieces of pie for five people, promptly announces she never did care for pie.”

On the surface this sounds like a sweet sentiment. Moms often give to those around them, and they often make sacrifices for those they love. What rubs me the wrong way is the cultural assumption that mothers MUST constantly be on the short end of things, that it is somehow their duty to always be in a state of “less than”.

Since I was a little girl I have received messages from the media and those around me that motherhood equals martyrdom, that my status and value as a person was already low because I was the product of two X chromosomes and somehow would decrease even more once I became a mother.

Mothers are sometimes given a copy of “The Giving Tree” by Shel Silverstein as a gift around Mother’s Day, as a symbol of the great sacrifice of motherhood. The book is often lovingly referred to by martyr mommies to help express the depths of their love for their children. I love the writing style of Shel Silverstein, but I’m more of a “Missing Piece” and “Where The Sidewalk Ends” kind of girl.

In case you haven’t read “The Giving Tree”, let me summarize it for you: The tree (symbolic mother) gave and gave to the boy (symbolic son) until the tree was essentially dead. The End.

The refrain in the book after each sacrifice is: “And the tree was happy…” The theme is basically one of codependency and unhealthy self-sacrifice.

Another way of telling this story is: “take my fruit and leaves, damage/carve me, cut off all of my branches and my trunk until I am but a stump in the ground so that you can be happy and abandon me… then I will be happy. Use me until I am but a shell of my former self and then I will be happy”.

I don’t know about you, but this message does NOT resonate well with me as a woman or as a mother.

I am reminded of the flight attendant speech I heard on the plane ride during our honeymoon… You know, the one in which the flight attendant stresses that healthy adults must FIRST give THEMSELVES the oxygen mask before assisting any children or infirm passengers with theirs.

How can I produce healthy milk for my daughter if I am not fueling my own body with nutritious food and beverages at regular intervals? How can I model proper self care and hygiene if I myself don’t make time to brush my teeth or bathe? If I show my daughter that mothers (and by extension, women) deserve less respect than the rest of the members of a family what kind of role model am I being?

I’ve recently spoken to a number of moms who say they feel guilty when going to the bathroom if it means being separated from their crying baby, moms who go days without showering or bathing because they are too busy meeting their child’s needs to engage in self-care, mothers who eat only one meal per day, and only after baby’s “bedtime”.

These mothers are shocked when I tell them that I’ve had a shower literally every morning since my baby was born, even if it meant that she screamed with daddy in the next room the entire time, or sat fussing in a reclined “bouncy chair” in the bathroom beside the tub. Some have been mystified at my apparent lack of the “nurturing gene” when I pull out my glucometer and proceed to eat during a mommy group, missing out on a few moments of precious interaction with my child while she squirms on her blanket. I explain that food has to be a bigger priority than interacting with my baby, as my diabetes requires constant monitoring, regular meal times, and a delicate balance of medication and carbohydrate intake. I do not have the luxury of eating only one meal per day once the baby is asleep.

The kicker: Martyr Mommies are mortified when I explain that even if I did not have a chronic health condition I would still be sure to eat regular meals to keep myself healthy. Yes, even if it meant that Willow was crying on her own for a few minutes while I finished eating.

We may give up higher salaries, periods of paid work, volunteer opportunities, and some amount of power or prestige to join the mommy club. We may give up some sleep and the notion of having privacy for any length of time in the bathroom for the next several years. We may give up ever fitting into our old jeans in quite the same way. We may give up some of our independence and much of our old way of life. These are the things I willingly signed up for.

I did not sign up to drink the Kool-Aid that equates Motherhood with Martyrdom. I did not sign up for the life that will show my daughter that she deserves less than anyone else or should have to destroy herself in order to raise a family.

Willow, you are as strong and as resilient as the tree you were named for. You have proven this to us several times when we thought we might lose you. I will do my best to continue to nurture your strength, and to teach you that women and mothers can be loving and nurturing toward themselves and still be good at taking care of others.

Indeed, mothers must nurture ourselves if we can at all hope to nurture those around us.

Mother, Mother Thyself…