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September 6, 2019

Why I don’t believe in “Mommy Martyrdom.”


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A few weeks back, I was getting ready to leave for a novel-writing class.

It was right after dinner when my four-year-old got up from the table, suddenly clinging to my belt loops like apron strings.

“No Mommy,” she cried. “Don’t go!”

Probably no more heartbreaking words in the life of a mother. I lifted her up into my arms, as my husband tried to console her from the kitchen where he did the dishes.

“She’ll be home soon, honey,” he explained. “She’s doing this for us.”

I looked into my daughter’s eyes, already sensing the distrust in our easy excuses, and it hit me. All my life I was told that my family was doing things for me — the sacrifices, the fears, my mother’s own long nights at the office.

And I knew, just as I knew all while I was growing up, that it was a lie. One I didn’t want to see continued into the next generation. I looked my toddler in the eyes, and I told her: “No, I’m not. I’m doing this for me. Because Mommy has hopes and dreams, and she wants to make them happen. We only get one chance at this life. So we can’t ever give up.”

Suddenly, the distrust faded from her eyes, and a small smile appeared, as she slipped back down to the ground, and ran into the other room to play with the dog. I realized I was standing at a turning point. It was the choice to keep repeating the easy patterns of my youth or to break them right there in front of my child.

Because here is the truth: not everything needs to be for her, or her little brother. Mommies (and Daddies) have dreams and lives and identities outside of Mommy and Daddy, and they have every right to pursue and live those goals simply for themselves.

But not everyone around me agrees. It’s one thing to go and pay the bills. But the weekend retreats, the novel-writing class, this blog are all looked at by my family as needless diversions from my primary job: parenting. And it’s not that I don’t love the job, but I don’t see it as my only purpose on this Earth.

Mommy martyrdom has never held much sway for me. It’s why I hate the show “Caillou.” I mean the bratty, bald kid is annoying enough, but it’s his mother that really does me in. She doesn’t have a role except to cater to her children (“I’m really sick Caillou, but no problem, I’ll stay up and wash your shirt.”) What else does Mommy Caillou have her in life? Does she write poetry? Campaign for local politicians? Have a deep interest in tantric sex?

According to a 2017 United Kingdom study, 87 percent of mothers feel guilty at some point, with 21 percent feeling that way most or all of the time. Moms buy the story that if we’re not doing everything for our kids, we’re not doing enough. Which means we have little time to do anything for ourselves. And I’m not talking about pedicures or mom night outs, I’m speaking about the kind of big plans and ambitious ventures that men, and our single lady friends, might embark upon with ease.

Growing up, I didn’t see women with hobbies or even dreams. Sure, they had jobs. Thankless, unrelenting, soul-sucking jobs, but I never saw my mom take a pottery class or even a weekend for herself.

I don’t want my children to think I only come in two gears: working and momming. Because I don’t.

I was a fully formed human by the time they arrived. Perhaps unlike my own mother, this is simply a consequence of having children later in life. And I was one who still hadn’t achieved all her professional ambitions. Sure, once my firstborn came along, I took the full-time job with stable benefits. But that was the one great act I did for her. It was never for me.

I still had dreams to pursue — retreats to go on, novels to write, blogs to launch — and to sacrifice all of that in the name of parenthood wouldn’t make me a better mother. It would make me a bitter one. And I don’t want to do that to my kids. I don’t want to do that to me.

I think modern motherhood is far more interesting and expansive and liberating than the template we have inherited from previous generations ,  and still watch, in much of children’s content (though it probably won’t surprise anyone the gender of those content creators).

I don’t want my children growing up to think that Mommy had to leave because of them. I don’t want them to believe that I work until 2:00 a.m. and sometimes get back up at 5:00 a.m. because their needs demand that of me (though sometimes they do). I don’t want them to watch me hustle and bustle and break through the glass ceiling of my own inherited limitations because I’m striving to give them a better life — though of course, there’s that too.

I want them to see me succeed because that is what I want. With or without them. My dreams haven’t changed. If anything, my children have only made me more determined to see them realized, so they can know, just as I told my daughter a few weeks ago, we only get one chance at this life, and we can’t ever give up. I want them to know that I have done it not for them, but in many ways, in spite of them — and the all-consuming demands of motherhood.

When my husband made his initial comment that I was doing it for “us,” it reminded me of the final episode of “Breaking Bad,” when Walter White sneaks into his wife’s apartment and finally admits that he never did it for his family, he did it for himself. It is the closest to a catharsis that the White family ever achieves. Now, I’m not trying to run a major meth empire; I’m just trying to revise a novel. But the truth’s the truth.

And like all truths, I felt mine enter my daughter’s spirit. I saw my husband nod in my direction, not angry that I had contradicted him, but grateful. And I knew that what I was doing wasn’t just right, it was fundamentally critical to raising children and a family who believe in themselves.

I don’t need to do things for other people just to make them okay. Doing it for me is more than enough.


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