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A Love Letter to the Martyr Mom

Image Source: Michelle Horton
Image Source: Michelle Horton

I don’t think you’re a bad person, Martyr Mom.

You probably hate that word, don’t you? Martyr. I bet you heard that word being used a lot growing up — hurled across living rooms, at mothers and in-laws and annoying friends. “Ugh don’t be such a martyr,” you might’ve overheard when someone was taking on the world, piling on everyone’s problems (and responsibilities), even when she wasn’t asked to. Running around saying, “yes” to everyone before collapsing in an angry rant (“CAN’T YOU SEE HOW MUCH I DO FOR EVERYONE?”). The person who runs ragged, most literally the last person on her list of people to take care of. The person who is quick to point blame.

Now you hear that word and your defenses go up, but deep down, you kinda know. You see the signs, you know what you’re doing. It’s not really your fault, though. That’s probably the mold for “mother,” sometimes even “woman,” that you took meticulous mental notes on as a kid. And now that you’re a mom yourself, it’s the perfect excuse/trap to give in to your deepest martyrdom. I understand, because I’ve totally had moments where I tripped and fell into the comfy Do It All role, complete with passive aggression and angry outbursts.

“Listen, motherhood is hard. No one’s saying it’s not, or that you’re exaggerating your experiences. But are you maybe making it harder for yourself?”
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Maybe you’re wearing a dirty shirt that you slept in three nights in a row because you don’t have the time or energy to wash it, and you’ll totally tell that to anyone willing to listen. Or you’ll just angry text it to your partner, who has a running list of FML-themed texts from you in succession. You often text your friends a detailed, to-the-minute update on how little sleep you got, accompanied by dead-eye emojis.

This doesn’t make you annoying or weird or a bad person; it probably means that you really want people to see how much you sacrifice, how much you do, because deep down you equate self-worth with self-sacrifice. Or maybe you know how you want to act, but you have poor boundaries and were raised in a home full of people fluent in passive aggression.

You like being needed — you need to be needed. You want your babies to stay little forever and ever, and you’ll gladly drop whatever you’re doing to help whomever needs the most help. These aren’t bad things! But when someone offers their help, do you say no? When someone, like your partner, wants to do something and you don’t want them to do it, do you say so? Or do you roll your eyes and say, “whatever,” knowing you’ll have it as ammunition in the next fight?

I know it’s not comfortable to be so exhausted, so annoyed, bubbling with resentment. It’s not fun to constantly be sick. Indignant. Really wishing someone would help you but also quick to make an excuse when someone actually does.

Maybe you get barreled over by “mom guilt,” unable to do things that serve no purpose other than making you happy/relaxed/well. What kind of a mother would you be if you didn’t give 100%? (Probably a more effective mother, to be frank.)

“You don’t need to sabotage yourself to get the help you need.”
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Listen, motherhood is hard. No one’s saying it’s not, or that you’re exaggerating your experiences. But are you maybe making it harder for yourself? Because if you can’t take care of yourself, then how on earth can you take care of someone else? If you’re depleted, what can you possibly give? Your validation comes from “helping” and giving and mothering and care-taking, but there’s a missing piece: You don’t love yourself enough to take care of yourself. And that’s a problem.

Love yourself.

If you love yourself, then your kids will love themselves. If you honor yourself, your kids will do the same. If you’re kind and generous to your own needs and passions and basic hygiene, then you have more to give. When we fill our own cups first, we can easily and effortlessly give the overflow — without needing love or validation or even acknowledgment of how damn rough we have it. We’re already full.

Feed yourself.

You don’t need to sabotage yourself to get the help you need. You don’t need to complain to get validation. You don’t need to give up the reigns of your life and get dragged from one day to the next.

“Your family deserves your best self, you deserve your best self, and the martyr version is not your best.”
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And if you need help, find help. A funny thing happens when you stop expecting people to help you because you always help them and you just sit in a quiet room and whisper “help.” From the depths of your gut, open yourself up to the idea of getting help. And when someone offers, or an opportunity comes up that’s for you as a person — not a mother or wife or girlfriend — say, “Yes.” Find a way to sleep. Eat better foods. Make an effort to take care of yourself the same way you’d take care of your kid. Think about it in terms of how you’d want your future adult children to take care of themselves, and remember that they’re watching. They’re figuring out vague concepts like love and self-care and boundaries, largely from whatever you’re doing.

You deserve more than martyrdom. Even if you don’t feel like you do — I know that nagging voice of unworthiness whispering in the back corner of your brain. She’s a liar. Your family deserves your best self, you deserve your best self, and the martyr version is not your best.

It’s not that easy to undo the patterns, though — especially when you’re sleep deprived and dirty and totally, completely miserable. You can intellectually understand the idea of self-care and still not actually make the hard choices to do things that are good for you. You might not even know what’s good for you, still fully immersed in the fog of martyrdom. That’s okay, too. Just take a small step, any step.

Being a mom is hard, but it doesn’t ask us to completely sacrifice ourselves. That doesn’t help anyone.

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