Every year on Mother’s Day, I see people post old family photos on social media with captions praising mums for all the ways they prioritised their kids’ needs at the expense of their own. “You dropped whatever you were doing to help us.” “You never bought anything for yourself so we could have whatever we wanted.” “You made it to every one of my baseball games, no matter what else you had going on.”
The posts are sweet, appreciative and written with the best of intentions. But they perpetuate this narrative that being a good mum means being a martyr.
“Sacrificing yourself as a person is still very much what’s expected in this culture as a mother,” Georgetown University women’s studies lecturer Elizabeth Velez, who co-teaches a class called Reading Motherhood tells HuffPost.
In recent years, there’s been more acknowledgment that moms bear the brunt of domestic labour – both visible and invisible – whether or not they work outside the home. Mums are told they deserve self-care for their tireless efforts and they need to find time to practise it. But have these conversations actually lightened their load? Or have they just added more to their already very full plates?
People will point out that the martyr mentality is damaging and, in the next breath, glorify mums for attempting to “do it all.” Many women still feel immense pressure, internal and external, to keep all the balls in the air at the expense of their own well-being.
The unyielding pressure of intensive othering
The expectation that women devote so much of their time and energy to raising kids really took off in the 1980s and 1990s — the same time that more and more women were participating in the workforce. In 1996, sociologist Sharon Hays coined the term “intensive mothering” to describe this parenting ideology, which is “child-centered, expert-guided, emotionally absorbing, labor-intensive and financially expensive.”
Being a “good mum” came to mean making everyday interactions with your child intellectually stimulating, filling your afternoons and weekends with enriching extracurricular activities and staying up to date on the latest parenting guidance.
Now, women were expected to excel in their careers while also expanding — not reducing – their parenting responsibilities. According to a 2013 Pew Research survey, mums today actually spend more time with their kids than mothers did in the 1960s.
“Sacrificing yourself as a person is still very much what’s expected in this culture as a mother.”
Writer and activist Glennon Doyle aptly summed up how the expectations put on mums have greatly increased over the last few generations in her 2020 book Untamed. In one chapter, she spells out three hypothetical “memos” women of different generations received when leaving the hospital with their babies.
Her grandmother’s memo would go as follows: “Here is the baby. Take it home and let it grow. Let it speak when spoken to. Carry on with your lives.”
Her mother’s memo would say: “Here is your baby. Take her home and then get together each day with your friends who also have these things. Drink Tab before four o’clock and wine coolers after. Smoke cigarettes and play cards. Lock the kids out of the house and let them in only to eat and sleep.”
This generation’s memo, however, is a lot more involved:
Here is your baby. This is the moment you have been waiting for your entire life: when the hole in your heart is filled and you finally become complete. If, after I put this child in your arms, you sense anything other than utter fulfillment, seek counseling immediately. After you hang up with the counselor, call a tutor. Since we have been speaking for three minutes, your child is already behind. Have you registered her for Mandarin classes yet? I see. Poor child. Listen closely: Parent is no longer a noun — those days are done. Parent is now a verb, something you do ceaselessly. Think of the verb parent as synonymous with protect, shield, hover, deflect, fix, plan, and obsess. Parenting will require all of you; please parent with your mind, body, and soul. Parenting is your new religion, within which you will find salvation. This child is your savior. Convert or be damned. We will wait while you cancel all other life endeavors. Thank you.
And that’s precisely why mums in today’s generation feel so “exhausted, neurotic, and guilty,” Doyle writes.
Mummy martyrdom isn’t good for mums – and it’s not good for kids, either
The cumulative effect of neglecting your own wants and needs for your kids’ takes a toll and can leave you stressed, exhausted and resentful. According to Motherly’s 2021 State of Motherhood survey, 93% of mothers say they feel burned out at least some of the time – with 16% reporting feeling that way all the time. A 2012 study from the University of Mary Washington found that women who endorsed intensive mothering beliefs were more likely to experience negative mental health outcomes like depression and lower life satisfaction.
Psychologist Becky Kennedy, known on the internet as Dr. Becky, tells HuffPost that societal messaging about maternal sacrifice sets up “a very unsustainable vision around parenthood” – a concept she’s discussed on her Instagram account and podcast “Good Inside.”
We think our kids want us to sacrifice our needs for them when that’s likely not the case, Kennedy says. When they see that we’re afraid to do things for ourselves because they might tantrum or protest, they feel “way too powerful” she says – likening it to a kid running into the cockpit of an airplane and trying to take over as pilot.
“Even if they’re knocking down the cockpit door, it would terrify them if the pilot opened the door and let them take over,” Kennedy says. “And so we need to realise as parents that taking care of our own needs is part of being a sturdy leader to your family. In that way, taking care of your own needs is really a way you’re taking care of your kids.”
Consider also the message we’re sending our kids when we neglect our own needs time and time again and praise other women for doing the same. As writer Christine Organ wrote for the Washington Post, painting mums as some kind of “tireless, selfless superhuman” isn’t good for anyone, “least of all, our children.”
“I don’t want my children to view me as some kind of self-sacrificing martyr; I want them to know that I loved them with all my heart and that they are part of a family – as well as a larger community – which means that their needs cannot always come first,” she wrote.
What can we do to address this?
Certainly, there are larger social issues that contribute to mums feeling like they have to do it all for their families. The US is one of few countries worldwide with no national paid parental leave. Good child care is often prohibitively expensive. The gender pay gap plays a role, too: because women generally earn less than their male partners, when one partner needs to step away from work to take care of the kids or a sick relative, it’s often the woman – which only perpetuates the cycle.
Then there’s the fact that mums, whether they work outside the home or not, are often considered the primary parent. If there’s an issue at school or the paediatrician’s office has a question, whom do they call? Mum, of course.
“I don’t know why in 2022 we still have this idea that women are better nurturers than men and that women are in the central caretaking role,” says Georgetown English professor Pamela Fox, who co-teaches the Reading Motherhood class with Velez.
We can’t reverse these deeply entrenched patterns overnight. But there are smaller things we can do within our own families to change the “motherhood is martyrdom” narrative – and cut ourselves some slack in the process.
Tell your partner what you need from them, and then actually let them do it.
Ask for and accept help. Say you’re not able to take on the brunt of the household and parenting duties anymore.
“We can’t expect one person to do almost all of it,” Fox says. “That’s just totally unfair.”
“I want [my kids] to know that ... I loved them with all my heart and that they are part of a family — as well as a larger community — which means that their needs cannot always come first.”
Offloading some of your tasks onto your partner requires giving up control. Resist the urge to micromanage: Your partner may not do things the way you would, but they’ll get done. And that’s good enough.
Say “no” to others so you can “yes” to yourself more.
As women, we’ve been socialized to be accommodating, which can make saying “no” seem so difficult.
“We so often say ‘yes’ to favours, requests and unrealistic parenting expectations because we fear being accused of being rude, mean or – shock horror – selfish (one of the worst things you can call a woman in our culture that fetishises female self-sacrifice),” journalist Grace Jennings-Edquist wrote in an essay for The Guardian.
Practise tolerating other people’s disappointment.
When you start asserting your needs more, expect some pushback from your partner, kids or the other people in your life. For people-pleasing martyr types, that can be quite uncomfortable.
“There’s this idea that, ‘OK I’m going to stand up for what I need. I’m going to say I’m going to that exercise class.’ And everyone around me is going to be happy for me so that will make it easier to go,” Kennedy says.
“No. When we stand up for what we need, we often do get pushback because sometimes it is an inconvenience to a partner to watch your kids while you’re exercising.”
In other words, we can’t wait for other people to give us permission or tell us we deserve it. We just have to do it. And the more we do it, the easier it becomes.
Do more of what excites you outside of raising kids.
In an essay for The Week, A. Rochaun Meadows-Fernandez – a writer, activist and mother of two — said that long before she had kids, she internalised the message that becoming a mom would mean giving up “the enjoyable aspects of [her] life.” Eventually, she realised how unfair this expectation was and how unhappy it was making her, so she stopped putting her life on hold.
“I decided to detach myself from ‘if only I weren’t a parent’ ways of thinking... And I started living differently,” Meadows-Fernandez wrote.
“Instead of staying home when I didn’t have access to a sitter, I would bring my children with me to community meetings,” she continued. “I stopped apologising when I had to shift work deadlines for my family. I volunteered for opportunities that interested me ... and made a career out of talking about the emotional stressors that accompanied Black motherhood. The more I did the more I realised that I didn’t have to reduce my impact because I was a mother.”
Know that prioritising your needs will set a good example for your kids.
Last May, I was eight months pregnant, writing a Mother’s Day card to my own mum, whom I hadn’t seen in over a year because of the pandemic. I thought about thanking her for the sacrifices – big and small – she had made for her kids over the years.
But what stood out to me more were the things she chose not to sacrifice. She didn’t breastfeed because she didn’t want to. She continued working in a career she found rewarding. She went to the gym every morning because it helped energise her for the day ahead. She carved out time on Sunday nights to watch TV with my stepdad, no kids allowed. She led by example, showing me the importance of prioritising the things that make you *you* even after you have kids.
That Sunday, I woke up to a text from my mom that said: “I’m glad I set that example for you guys because it’s an important lesson. It’s possible to be a great mom, daughter, sister, spouse, employee, manager, friend, but only if you make your physical, mental and spiritual well-being a priority.” And since becoming a mum myself, I’ve taken those words to heart.
This is part of a HuffPost Parents series called Enjoy the Ride. Read more here.