Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Things don't usually end so well for martyrs

Every one with kids knows a Martyr Mom, or probably more than one. Martyr Dads exist too, albeit in lesser numbers. Variations on the MM theme exist, but the underlying concept is simple: I will make any sacrifice, and do it with a smile, for my child.

There's a profile. Most MM's I've encountered make the decision to martyr themselves for their kids consciously. Most stay at home full time, although cases of Martyrdom by Proxy also exist, wherein the MM expects a paid employee to carry out her vision. MM then spends a significant percentage of her time at work supervising her proxy telephonically.

I find the prevalence of MM parenting puzzling, since historically, martyrs acted selflessly for years, only to suffer death in some grisly, creative and time consuming fashion. While the smug woman at the park probably won't burn at the stake for her beliefs, I have to wonder about the long term costs of completely child-centered parenting to couples and family units.

Martyr behavior might mean the Mommy never takes a few hours for herself, because Junior doesn't like when she leaves him with a sitter. It might mean breast feeding exclusively for a year, even when the child is screaming non-stop, because she's hungry. Added bonus for some families: the partner is screaming with sexual frustration because, for some women, lactation can act as a powerful libido stifler.

Martyr behavior might mean refusing to let a healthy baby cry it out at night so the whole household can get some sleep. Some kids don't sleep as much as others, and that's really rough on parents. But once they're able to stretch through the night without a feeding, there's simply no fathomable excuse for the whole house being awake at all hours.

With older kids, martyr parenting might mean moving to the suburbs and saddling the parents with a soul killing commute so that the kids can ride bikes on a cul-de-sac. Plenty of families leave large cities because it's the best thing for everyone, considering space concerns, education costs, et cetera, but read some of the big city parenting message boards, and you'll find that many families move just because they think they must, in order to be good parents.

The only manifestation that's worse than a kid-driven move: having another child just because Junior wants a sibling. If you don't want another baby, don't have one for someone else, because resentment will cancel out any potential benefit to the family.

Martyrdom can often seem more innocuous, too. It might mean giving up every hour of every weekend to shuttle the children to soccer, origami, synchronized swimming, yoga, pottery, tennis and acting. I'm all for activities, but since when does every child have to learn every sport and every art form before kindergarten?

Note to the MM's of the world: You are not failing if your children have time for unstructured (gasp), imaginative play. You are not "lazy" if your kids occasionally have to figure out how to amuse themselves.

I tend to cringe when I meet MM's. And not just because they veer towards insufferable smugness. I can't fault them there; their delusions of moral superiority are all the poor things have left for themselves.

Here's the crux of the issue: To a degree, all parents live to serve their children's needs, particularly when the kids are very young. But (and this is a big but) when the demands of a healthy child compromise the health of the parents, or determine the course of the lives of the entire family, something is horribly wrong.

When a child's demands (or perceived demands) set the agenda for the family unit, month after month, and year after year, marriages or partnerships suffer. Sometimes the parents' relationship suffers irretrievable damage: the adults become so wrapped up in the child that they forget to check in with each other. Too many couples talk about nothing but their kids. They don't make time to socialize with other adults, and their world shrinks.

Call me crazy, but self-imposed exile from adult society cannot possibly set a good example for children. And frankly, kids whose parents never do anything for themselves (whether it's talk on the phone with a friend, go on a date night, go for a jog, read the news or whatever floats their particular boat) tend to be major brats.

I'll get hate mail for this last one, but too many parents let themselves go physically when they have small children. Please note I said parents, not just moms. Because I'm not talking about pregnancy weight. Just because you have a toddler does not mean it's okay to make peace with twenty extra pounds. Or to wear sweatpants every day for a week.

The good news is that the fix for martyrdom is obvious and easy. You can cook what you want to eat a few nights a week. You can hire a sitter and go out on the town with some old friends, or indulge in a date night. You can restrict your pre-schooler to one or two organized activities a week. It's okay to be yourself and be a parent.

Still not convinced? I'll leave you with one final thought: kids can sense, pretty early on, when someone's faking. The mommy is usually the most important person in a child's world. The child can sense whether the mommy is happy or not, regardless of any forced perma-smile she has plastered on her face.

So go ahead, do something every day, just for yourself.

It's in the best interests of the whole family.


  1. Just wanted to reach out to thank you for the comment on sleep, etc.
    I especially like the point about tuning out the noise.
    And, it was interesting to read your post on MM in light of sleep deprivation, which works its way, insidiously, into putting a mother in that very position. Until you put the breaks on. Which this mom has recently done.
    Lunch Box Mom

  2. Hi Sarah,
    Thanks for reading. Glad you've put on the brakes.

    Seriously, though, there is no award at the end of motherhood for accepting the least help (whether paid or not). I love the people who look down at those who hire child care providers but bristle at the suggestion that their live in mom, MIL, cousin Susie, etc... constitutes help too. For your own sake please consider some night time relief.

    Take care,