BEHIND DOMESTIC LINES
★ ★ ★ ★
THE TRAP OF MOMMY MARTYRDOM
By Jami Ingledue
“If you’re completely exhausted and don’t know how you’re going to keep giving this much of yourself, day after day, you’re probably a good parent.”
The Facebook meme was from Owlet Baby Monitors. A company that sells monitors that don’t just transmit the sounds and visuals of your baby—no, they connect to your baby’s body to monitor their heart rate and breathing. Because apparently we need to worry about that. Every single minute of every single night.
I get what they were trying to say, I really do. If you’re worried about whether you’re a good parent, you are probably a good parent. Just caring about being a good parent usually proves the point.
But no. Join me in drawing a line in the sand: NO, NO, NO, this is not ok. This is not a reasonable expectation to have of parents. This is not the bar we should be setting. This is not healthy or sustainable. We should not be glorifying burnout.
Let’s find some new ways to finish that sentence. If you’re completely exhausted and don’t know how you’re going to keep giving this much of yourself, day after day, then…
You should reach out and ask for support. You should work on creating your own village. You should maybe talk to your doctor about postpartum depression. You should meet a friend for drinks and bitch to your heart’s content. You should let some things go. You should scale back on your commitments and make space for downtime. You should ditch the whole family and get away for the weekend. Dad will manage. And he will appreciate you a LOT more when you get home.
Because that Facebook meme—that is a mom statement, isn’t it?
I’m not saying dads don’t give all of themselves too. I’m not saying dads don’t work hard and aren’t also exhausted. But it’s the moms we expect to be the martyrs, isn’t it? It’s the moms who we expect to give every last bit of their heart and soul until there is nothing left. It’s the moms who carry the burden of that cultural expectation—the caregivers, giving even when there is nothing left to give.
We weren’t meant to do this alone. We were meant to raise kids with large extended families, with tribes, with villages. And now here we are, isolated and spending our days—our long, endless days—elbow deep in poop and vomit and laundry and toys and crumbs and mess, and at the end of the day we have nothing tangible to show for it. Or we slog home from our jobs, feeling guilty for not seeing our kids all day, and we are STILL elbow deep in the poop and vomit and laundry.
Because we’ve gone to work, and it’s great that we have choices. Absolutely unquestionably great. But as we all know, women are still carrying most of the burden at home as well. Women are still doing most of the housework and the cooking and the childcare.
But in my experience, the most exhausting thing in the province of moms is being The One Who Knows All The Things. The frontal lobe for the whole family. The Default Parent. Not just the one who does it; the one who decides what needs to be done in the first place. There is nothing more tiring.
Let me be clear: I do not mean by this to blame dads. I know many dads (my husband included) who work hard at home too, who do the dishes, who change diapers. But check your reaction to that. Oh, he changes diapers, that’s so great! A man who helps with the dishes, isn’t she lucky? The cultural expectation is simply NOT there like it is for moms. They, like moms, are (albeit unconsciously) following the cultural blueprint laid out for them.
Now let’s be real. I don’t think I know a single family where the dad is the Default Parent. And I know a lot of educated, progressive, loving parents. Sometimes even when the dad is a stay-at-home dad, he is not the Knower of the Things. All the many details there are to juggle: doctor’s appointments, health issues, clean clothes that fit, homework, schedules schedules schedules, vacations, music lessons, sports, personal hygiene, relationships with friends, when the garbage bill is due, what’s for dinner, etc. etc. etc. ad infinitum.
This is the hardest job I’ve ever done. There has been no close second. Not even being a manager at work compares, because at least there I had nice, neat parameters and rules. Having my business comes closer, but it’s still a job, it’s not creating humans.
Life is more complicated than ever. And technology helps us manage the chaos, but it also enables us as helicopter parents, watching the live feed of our kids at daycare or obsessively monitoring their heartbeat. And the expectations keep getting piled higher and higher and higher.
How do we change this? How do we take better care of ourselves and each other? How do we forge a better path for our daughters? How do we rebuild the village?
I wish I knew. But it starts, like all change, by speaking our truths. By bringing the unconscious into the conscious, and sitting with it for a while.
And perhaps part of that truth is acknowledging what we’re giving up if we stop wearing that martyr crown: the little bit of power and control that comes with it. Moms are complicit in our own martyrdom when we can’t relinquish a little of the control. And we can sometimes keenly feel it, especially if we are not earning an income: that subtle shift in the power dynamic.
But martyrs are not fully developed and functioning human beings. In fact, martyrs, in the traditional sense, are dead. And a mom who is dead inside is surely not what our kids need. They need to see us happy. They need to see us as fully functioning, multi-faceted humans, who have passions and flaws and friends and a rich inner life.
But in order to get there, we have to lay down that mantle that has been passed to us throughout history: the angel of the hearth, the mommy martyr. We have to strip away the societal expectations, everything the world told us to be, our own fantasies of motherhood. To look at our true selves, clearly and unflinchingly. And in doing that, we can reclaim a much stronger power: our own. When we speak the truth, when we are our own truest selves, we are powerful.
Jami worked as a librarian for over a decade before choosing to stay home when her son, now 4, was born. She also has a 17-year-old daughter. She makes all-natural soap and body products and sells them through her company, Dancing Bee Farms (dancingbeefarms.net). She lives with her husband, daughter, and son on an acre of land in rural Ohio, where they keep bees, garden, and brew beer.