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Mothers don’t have to be martyrs

I spoke with Dr Beck about the martyrdom of mothers and she said that mothers today have every right to feel angry and victimized by our culture, but cling to this suffering “is a recipe for despair “. She invoked the Buddhist concept of a logic-defying conundrum when she explained how the “dilemma of modern women is a koan.” It is an insoluble problem. The more you give to your job, the more guilty you feel about yourself. The better you are at home, the more withdrawn you will feel at work. Moms can be stuck in a smaller and smaller corner, until there is no room to feel anything other than anger or helplessness. The solution here is not for women to do more or be more. And, even if the problem is not within us, we can take steps to get the agency back.

Even if you don’t succumb to the pressure of heavy mothering and just try to stay afloat, you are still caught between competing demands. To be fair, this is not a problem created by mothers; the mental load is supported by a lack of good childcare 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 that they are in their heads, juggling the logistical nightmare of modern parenting and managing their families instead of being part of it. This leads to feelings of disconnection and meaninglessness and also encourages a sense of learned helplessness in children and partners.

To fully understand the impact of maternal martyrdom on your life, keep a Martyrs Journal running specific situations in which you have made unreasonable efforts to make the lives of your children or partner easier. If your efforts were recognized, note how long the feelings of appreciation lasted. Then keep track of how you felt about yourself after the event and any changes in behavior towards your family. Make a separate list of instances in which you try not to sacrifice yourself, and keep track of your thoughts and feelings, as well as your family’s response.

I teach my patients to think of guilt as ambient noise. When you identify yourself as a martyr, consciously or unconsciously, you are sacrificing your ability to feel a full range of emotions. Guilt is not a matter of choice in front of you. It is simply a familiar place for your brain. Guilt doesn’t have to be your compass. It might just be a feeling that’s there.

Dr Beck said, “Heal by giving too much, cure by thinking too much. The answer is presence – stillness and physical presence in the room. She suggested making micro-decisions that bring you a sense of relief in your body. For example, when you need 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 it associated with a sigh of relief in the throat? Choose the option that makes your body more relaxed. These small steps build on each other. The more connected you feel to your body, the easier it is to make bigger decisions from a clear place.

Unfortunately, what is sold as personal care does not solve the problem of maternal martyrdom. Performative self-care turns into another guilt-ridden task on a to-do list. The solution is to set limits and take over your agency. Don’t expect someone else to give you permission. Practice looking at your weekly schedule and finding a situation, no matter how small, where you can exercise control and communicate your limits.

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

Dr. Pooja Lakshmin, MD, is a perinatal psychiatrist specializing in women’s mental health and Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychiatry in the George Washington University School of Medicine. She’s working on a book on the tyranny of self-care.

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