Mothers Don’t Have to Be Martyrs

I was teaching a group of new mothers a few years ago how to recognize postpartum depression and anxiety when a woman raised her hand. “My work is letting me take an extra two weeks of paid maternity leave. I don’t know what to do. I feel bad if I take it. My team will have to pick up the slack. I feel bad if I don’t. I’d be giving up precious time with my daughter.” I responded, “Is there any option you wouldn’t feel bad about taking?”

As a perinatal psychiatrist who takes care of women coping with the transition to motherhood, I meet mothers who lean into their guilt like it’s a security blanket and hold up their self-sacrifice as a badge of honor. Adopting a martyr identity doesn’t always correlate to clinical depression or anxiety. It’s a role that women can inhabit even without a diagnosable mental health condition.

I don’t blame those mothers for shielding themselves under a cloak of suffering. Appearing too well adjusted can be a liability. Leaving your kids in the car for three minutes to get a coffee can be grounds for a call to Child Protective Services and daring to bottle-feed your baby without trying to breastfeed can lead to criticism from strangers.

In 1996 Sharon Hays, Ph.D., a sociologist, coined the term “intensive mothering” to describe parenting that is “child-centered, expert-guided, emotionally absorbing, labor-intensive and financially expensive.” Two decades later, the mental load describes the invisible labor that goes into running a family. We still find ourselves living in a world where most mothers, even while working outside the home, bear the brunt of household work. The coronavirus pandemic only seems to be intensifying that pressure.

Martha Beck, Ph.D., a sociologist and life coach, has spent more than 20 years teaching women how to break free from society’s pressures. In her book, “Breaking Point: Why Women Fall Apart and How They Can Re-Create their Lives,” Dr. Beck wrote that the suffering that some women feel boils down to contradictory and irreconcilable values. Dr. Beck wrote that “on one hand, the good woman should be willing to sacrifice herself for the benefit of her family. On the other hand, American women are taught to pursue their dreams and excel personally.” She goes on to write that women in our country have been given the impossible task of “reconciling the irreconcilable value system of the entire culture.”

Dr. Beck’s description of the paradox rings true in my work with patients. I see mothers twist themselves into knots to scale the professional ladder and to keep up with the unrelenting demands of mothering. All the while feeling like they’re not doing anything quite right, and resentful that this is their burden to bear. The research supports this as well. A 2016 study of 255 parents of toddlers from the greater Southern California area found that mothers had significantly higher levels of work-family guilt and work-interfering-with-family guilt compared to fathers.

Though I’m not a mother, I’m no stranger to the caretaker role and have experienced my own savior complex. In working with my own psychotherapist, I came to realize I had been swept up in a particular smugness that comes with giving myself until I was past the point of empty (spoiler alert: it’s a sugar high). I had never developed my capacity to set boundaries. What I see now as a psychiatrist who specializes in women’s mental health are mothers who don’t recognize the costs of their addiction to self-sacrifice and feel powerless to stop it. That women are rewarded for the suffering they endure adds to this cycle. On one hand being a martyr is about experiencing pain and destroying yourself for the sake of others. On the other hand it’s about seeking glory, and paradoxically, your glory is in your smallness.

If you’re a mother who finds herself flirting with martyrdom more often than you would like to be, what can you do?

I spoke with Dr. Beck about martyrdom in mothers and she said mothers today have every right to feel angry and victimized by our culture, but holding on to that suffering “is a recipe for despair.” She invoked the Buddhist concept of a riddle that defies logic when she explained how the “modern women’s dilemma is a koan. It’s an unsolvable problem.” The more you give to your job, the more guilt you feel at home. The more you excel at home, the more behind you feel at work. Moms can be squeezed into a smaller and smaller corner, until there is no room to feel much of anything aside from anger or helplessness. The solution here is not for women to do more or to be more. And, while the problem does not lie within us, we can take steps to reclaim agency.

Even if you’re not succumbing to the pressure of intensive mothering and you’re just trying to stay afloat, you are still caught between conflicting demands. To be fair, this is not a problem created by mothers; the mental load is propped up by a lack of good child care options and limited parental leave policies. The mental stress of living in this paradox prevents many mothers from being fully present with their families. Many of my patients tell me they’re inside their heads, juggling the logistical nightmare that is modern parenting and managing their families instead of being part of them. This leads to feelings of disconnection and meaninglessness and also encourages a sense of learned helplessness in children and partners.

To fully understand how maternal martyrdom is impacting your life, keep a running martyr log of specific situations in which you’ve gone to unreasonable lengths to make life easy for your kids or partner. If your efforts were acknowledged, make note of how long any feelings of appreciation lasted. Then, keep track of how you felt about yourself after the event and any changes in behavior toward your family. Make a separate list for instances in which you make a point not to self-sacrifice, and keep track of your thoughts and feelings, and your family’s response as well.

I teach my patients to think of guilt as ambient noise. When you identify as a martyr, consciously or unconsciously, you’re sacrificing your capacity to feel a full range of emotions. Guilt is not about the choice in front of you. It’s simply a familiar place for your brain to go. Guilt does not need to be your compass. It can just be a feeling that’s there.

Dr. Beck said “to heal from giving too much, to heal from thinking too much. The answer is presence — stillness and physical presence in the room.” She suggested making micro-decisions that lead you to a sense of relief in your body. For example, when faced with whether to bake cookies for a class trip or spend the evening watching your favorite Netflix show, take a minute and pay attention to your body. Which option leads to a release of tension in your shoulders? Or is associated with a sigh of relief in your throat? Choose the option that makes your body feel more relaxed. These small steps each build on each other. The more connected you feel to your body, the easier it is to make larger decisions from a place of clarity.

Unfortunately, what’s sold as self-care doesn’t solve the problem of maternal martyrdom. Performative self-care turns into another guilt-inducing task on a to-do list. The solution is to set boundaries and take back your agency. Don’t expect someone else to give you permission. Practice looking at your weekly schedule and finding one situation, however small, where you can exert control and communicate your boundaries.

For moms, letting go of the martyr mentality is less about a huge life overhaul, and more about building a new muscle. This muscle represents your own thoughts, feelings and preferences. It’s not a luxury; it’s a necessity. And it is a gift only you can give yourself.

Dr. Pooja Lakshmin, M.D. is a perinatal psychiatrist specializing in women’s mental health and a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at George Washington University School of Medicine. She is working on a book about the tyranny of self-care.

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