Do You Suffer From Martyr Mom Syndrome?

HealthMotherhoodSelf Improvement 8 Comments

By Joyce Shulman – When my son was six-months old, I went hiking for a week. I was struggling to settle into the new reality of motherhood and fighting to reclaim the body that had served me well for 35 years but, following a (yikes) 50-pound weight gain and an emergency c-section was at serious risk of never serving me well again. Or so I feared.

The failure of moms in our society to take care of themselves is epidemic. At the time, I had no idea that I lived in a society that exalted the Martyr Mom. I had an involved husband who intended to be my partner in parenting and supported me heading off to take care of myself for a week, leaving my new son at home. Sure, I missed the baby, but it wasn’t for months — and many, many backhanded comments — (“oh, I could never leave my baby, how did you do it” “Your husband must be a saint” “Was the baby okay?”), that I came to understand that I was supposed to feel guilty. That I was no longer supposed to take time for myself.

The failure of moms in our society to take care of themselves is epidemic. Macaroni Kid recently surveyed more than 8,500 moms and what we learned is unlikely to surprise anyone. Nevertheless, to see the Mom Martyr Syndrome laid out in black and white is still startling:

90.4% report taking better care of their families than they do of themselves and a full 25% admit they haven’t done anything just for themselves in more than a year.

The excuses, or rather “reasons” – offered essentially boil down to three: No time. No money. Guilt.

Allow me to disabuse these one by one.

No time

time for me concept clockTaking care of yourself does not require a tremendous amount of time. But it does require a subtle shift of priorities. Every day, we make decisions about how to spend our time and those investments generally include some combination of family, household, kids’ activities, work and, for many, extended family obligations — we are in the sandwich generation after all.

It is in making those decisions that there are opportunities to find time for you. Sarah, an incredible baker, physical therapist, professor and mom was recently called upon to bring cupcakes to a party. She felt obligated to bake them. From scratch. It was an hour and a half investment of her time. She arrived to discover that she was the only mom who brought home-baked goodies and realized that picking up from a bakery, or starting with a mix, were legitimate options. Of course, if baking is what you love to do, that is not the place to find a pocket of time. But I promise you, there are two hours in your week that you CAN reclaim for you.

Here are three ideas to reclaim time:

  • My daughter loves for me to watch her weekly gymnastics class. For a long time, I watched the entire class. But then I realized the class wasn’t for me, it was for her. And she shouldn’t be participating primarily to perform for me as her audience; she should be participating for herself. So now I drop her and, gasp, leave. I return early enough to watch the last fifteen minutes. 45 minutes, reclaimed for me.
  • The fantastic Lisa Quinn wrote a book called Life’s Too Short to Fold Fitted Sheets and she advocates finding the shortcuts around your home. Do it, there are 30 minutes to be saved right somewhere in your weekly household routine.
  • Say no. I know, it’s become almost a cliché at this point, but it remains a valid way to reclaim ownership of your time. At least once each week, you will be asked by someone to do something you don’t want to do. And that someone might even be your child. “I’m sorry, Maddie, I don’t want to have a tea party right now” is an appropriate answer to your child’s request – remember, you are her mother, not her on-call entertainment center.

No Money

piggy bank coinsI was shocked that this came up over and over as a reason that moms don’t take better care of themselves. You don’t need to pay a cent for the most nourishing, restorative things you can do for yourself. Walk in the woods. Take a bubble bath. See your girlfriends. Spend time alone with your partner. Read a magazine in a hammock. Nap.

Taking care of yourself is not about a weekly massage or a trip to a spa or a vacation in Tuscany, though all would be nice. It is about being willing to reject the Martyr Mom cultural messages and putting yourself at the top of your list.


got-guilt-buttonI was driving alone with my son when he was about four and the subject turned to his favorite “Aunt Sue,” a dear friend who was childless at the time. Out of the blue, my son said “I hope Aunt Sue never has a baby.” “Why?” I asked, assuming the answer would be something along the lines of “because then she won’t have as much time for me.” But that wasn’t it at all. My insightful son said: “Because having kids is so hard, and I want Aunt Sue to be happy.”

Yikes. What behavior was I modeling? What message was I sending? That being a mom was more work than joy?

As a society, we are not doing our children any favors by struggling to ensure that every experience they have is perfect, or by wearing our exhaustion like a badge of honor.

We serve our children by striving to be the fullest expression of our true self and by showing that they can grow up to live balanced lives in which their families contribute to their happiness.

And that is the ultimate paradox of the Martyr Mom syndrome: ultimately you serve your family better by rejecting it.

About the Contributor

Joyce ShulmanJoyce Shulman is the CEO of Macaroni Kid where she oversees more than 500 local websites focused on events, activities, products and places for kids and families. She speaks and writes frequently on the importance of moms taking care of themselves and is currently at work on a book titled The Plight of the Martyr Mom. Connect with her on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn.

  • gailkeller

    Joyce, Thanks for writing this. Yes, it resonates with me! Each year I struggle and say I will do better. I say that I will put myself higher on the list. It still hasn’t happened. This, now my 49th year, I need to force new habits to happen. 30 days makes a new habit, right. Thanks for the inspiration! I can do it.

  • Joanne Walton

    Just to clarify, in the last sentence do you mean rejecting the paradox or the family? It is not clear what the “it” is that you are referring to, sorry!

    • Angela

      I think the “it” she is referring to in the last sentence is the Martyr Mom Syndrome.

  • Angela

    So much what you said stuck with me! I always feel guilty for saying no to a tea party with my daughter or a Lego session with my son. I don’t always say no, but you’re right, it is okay to say no. We aren’t the on-call entertainment. Until I read this, I did not think it was okay to say no. I thought I had to do it. Thank you!

  • Kat Hollowell

    This article definitely resonates with me. Recently a co worker made me doubt myself because I didn’t feel guilty leaving my kids to do something just my husband and I. I normally have a lot of confidence as a mom but with everything going on with the holidays and some stresses in my life I was really taken a back by it and questioning myself. I think that last few days I am getting back to who I am and what I know I need to be the best mom. That includes breaks, other interests and carving out time for friends!

  • Diana de Castro

    Great article Joyce. It is very helpful to hear these ideas of how to make changes to our routine. It’s like the oxygen mask – we need to put it on ourselves before helping our children do the same. It seems so unnatural and counter-intuitive and that where the conflict begins. Thanks!

  • itsme

    So glad to see someone else is not only convinced they still are a human being after having children- but also that one should actually actively avoid raising incredibly self-centered children. When we wreck ourselves to serve our child’s every whim, we are creating monsters who will likely expect the same from their partners as adults- a recipe for disaster.

  • Pingback: 15 Ways To Stop Being A Martyr Mom | Brea Getting Fit()