So I have realized recently that I have a daily mothering M.O. that – while appearing selfless on the surface – is actually not good for me or for my family.
The M.O. is presenting myself as the mommy martyr. In practice this means putting someone else’s needs before my own, (possibly announcing to the family that I’ve done so…though not always), sighing, and then internally celebrating what a selfless mother I am.
We’re having dinner, and after I’ve hopped up for the 15th time to get something for someone, a child asks for more milk. My response: “Yes, I’ll get you more milk, but I want you to realize that I haven’t even gotten to eat a bite of my own dinner yet”. Sigh. Steps to the fridge, pour the milk, martyr, martyr, martyr.
“Yes, I’ll get out the tea set for you, but I want you to notice that I am cleaning up the whole house while you’re doing that, so I want no arguing about who gets which cup. Sigh. Clean. Martyr, martyr, martyr.
Or this could also apply in more adult situations.
At 5am, internally thinking, “I am exhausted, but I’ll get the baby, again.” Martyr, martyr, martyr.
I could list about 100 other examples: Sigh…I have too many family demands to go out tonight…I’m always taking the burnt piece of toast (I always just do this one, never announcing it)…etc, etc, etc, martyr, martyr, martyr…
I’m not saying all of these actions are bad. I love my family, and I love doing things for them. Also, I do think sacrifice is an important element of parenthood and that generosity is an important character trait. I also want to emphasize that my family is amazing: they appreciate and respect me, do their share (and more!) around the house, make sacrifices, and encourage me to live and follow dreams big and small. This is not about them.
Instead it is about recognizing that my own mentality and some of my words – at the dinner table, during cleaning hour, when I’m invited to do things outside the house, etc. – need an adjustment.
This recognition struck recently when I read a story that made me think about what I’m really doing when I continually present myself as a martyr to the family.
I haven’t been able to find the story since (I’ll post an update if I find it…) but it goes something like this…
There is a mother on her deathbed who realizes that she has sacrificed everything about herself to devote herself to her husband and children. Instead of the expected celebration of the selfless mother content with her life of service and devotion, the story presents the mother as one overwhelmed with regret. Paraphrasing as best I can remember, the mother laments that by always putting herself last she “made myself resentful, taught my daughters they weren’t worthy of respect and taught my sons to treat their wives badly”.
Again, I am NOT in that situation (my family is too fantastic for that, and I’m not nearly that selfless), but I think as mothers, there is real danger here.
I mean, if I’m being honest about why I’m denying myself, it is often to
(1) make my own life easier (it’s just easier to deny yourself that to deny someone else in the family, or to make another piece of toast to replace the burned one, etc…) or
(2) to create some ridiculous “bank of chips” that aren’t necessary (no one in the family is keeping count) and that I’ll never cash in anyway (i.e. the mentality of “once I’ve taken a girls weekend once, I’ve cashed those chips and may never get to go again!” so I’ll sit here and bemoan the fact that life just doesn’t allow that…martyr, martyr, martyr…)
So I have been consciously trying, for the last few weeks, to drop the martyr mentality.
I have actually told the children: “I’d be happy to get you more milk, after I’ve eaten my own dinner. Please wait.”
And guess what? Everybody’s fine. My kids learn to wait. I get to eat, and I’m forced to drop that “woe is me” mentality. Win, win, win.
I have actually said, “No tea party right now. We can’t get out more toys when the house is already a mess. Let’s clean up together, and when we’re done, we can play whatever you want.” There is often whining, the clean up takes longer, and the result is not “adult-did-it-perfect”, but the kids learn to pitch in, and again, I am forced to drop that “Must I do everything?” mentality that is unhealthy for me and a bad example for my kids. Bonus: tea party together…
And guess what? I have the ability to say to my husband, “The baby was up so early this morning. Can you take the kids for an hour this Saturday so I can take a nap”, and he’s happy to do it. I go from martyr, martyr, to an appreciative (and rested) wife. And my husband feels good about being my afternoon hero. How’s that for a good transition?
I feel like someone could read this and think I am dumb for missing something so simple, but honestly, it is really hard for me to find the balance. I am a mother. My family comes first. It’s easier to clean the room myself. It’s easier to eat the burnt toast. It’s less of a battle to hop up and get the milk. Sometimes getting away for a girls’ night is honestly just too much work for me, and too hard for the kids. Those things are legit… but if I cross the line, and
– become too proud of those sacrifices,
– or become resentful,
– or start to enjoy the power that giving bestows (as opposed to being the one to receive and express gratitude or even feel indebted)
– or let my family take the sacrifices I do make for granted,
– or make them feel guilty about something I’m doing for them, when in reality they should know that true sacrifices come from love without emotional price tags,
– or deny my family a chance to feel the pride they earn when they do things for me,
– or deny my children the praise they earn when they patiently wait,
then I’ve gotten out of balance.
I don’t want to be a martyr. I want to let go of all the self-importance that title provides me and I want to share an attitude of “let’s take care of each other”. It’s going to be hard work, and I will miss the peace that came with kids who are momentarily satisfied (because mom got that milk right when they wanted it!) and the ego of one who “must always be the one who [insert task here]”.
But there’s a chance that if I made a few choices differently, the inflated sense of self-importance that “martyrmom” provides me with could be replaced with a sense of appreciation for my family (who are so happy when they do something for mom) and some important lessons about how things work best when we all practice patience, generosity, and tell each other what we need to be happy.
I want to stop the sighs, have the sacrifices I do make come from a place of love (not martyrdom), and trade that sense of self-importance for a sense of gratitude, because there are two truths here:
(1) My family is fantastic, and will do what I ask them to.
(2) I don’t want to be a martyr. That attitude doesn’t actually make me feel good or help my family. The truth is, I just want to be a good mom.
P.S. This was a hard post to write and I’m worried it won’t say what I mean it to. I hope it conveys that (1) my family is wonderful and (2) I have found a(nother!) flaw in myself that needs my attention.
For some reason, as I write this, I also feel the need to admit that the dishes are piled in the sink, the laundry is overflowing the hamper, and that I lost my patience more than once today with the kids. I think I feel the need to admit all that because I’m worried the post could be misinterpreted to read that I have erred on the side of being the always-at-attention, ready-to-serve, never-neglectful mother, when what I’m trying to say is that I was aiming for that, and even in the midst of falling short, am beginning to think that the martyr mentality that sometimes (for me) accompanies that outlook is bad for both me and the kids.
P.P.S. I wrote this post, and the P.S. above, over a week ago and have just hesitated to hit publish until now. Can you tell I am nervous about how it will come across?! I should also include – as an emphasis on how blessed I am – that last night I went to bed early because I was too tired to deal with the house and planned to tackle it this morning. I woke up this morning to find a pristine kitchen and most of the laundry done – all a nice surprise from my husband who just thought I might appreciate a break. Pretty amazing, that one…