The reason as to why so many moms naturally become martyrs is that there’s significant overlap between femininity and what it means to be a martyr.
Many of the martyr’s ideal qualities align with those put forth by the tenets and pressures of femininity. To be successfully “feminine” means to: defer to others, anticipate the needs of others and define the self in relation to others (mother, daughter, sister, wife, and so on). The risk of not being “good” is very high for mothering individuals—being critiqued for not doing “enough” and therefore being “enough.”
And yet, the cost of being defined in relation to others, is that one doesn’t live in line with her own needs and wants.
Somewhere along the way, we got the cultural message that to value being “child-centered expert-guided, emotionally absorbing, labor-intensive and financially expensive” was the right way to parent.
We begin to feel guilt if we outsource child care to a community member or babysitter. We believe we should be straddling the jungle gym alongside our toddlers, not sitting with adults on the sidelines. We worry that we aren’t being supportive parents if we don’t sign up our kids for several extracurricular activities; and therefore we continue to sacrifice ourselves on behalf of our family.
Perinatal psychiatrist Pooja Lakshmin, M.D., writes about the conflicting messages her mothering patients receive: On one hand to be self-sacrificing and on the other hand to find personal meaning and succeed as professionals.
Have you considered that this style of parenting is a cultural norm not necessarily the best way of being for you and your family? Have you noticed that being a martyr might keep you doing more work (without payment, ahem), enabling others to do less work? Who does your martyrdom truly benefit–is it your kids or a patriarchal and capitalist society that taught you that you are worthless if you are not working for others?
How do we model living more freely in ourselves, gaining clarity on our own thoughts, feelings and desires, so that eventually our children do the same?