The Short Trip From Mother To Martyr

By Donna Britt
Friday, March 11, 2005

I am the mother of a 9-year-old boy. The other night, I went out to dinner with my husband.

On a school night.

There are mothers reading this -- women whom I would doubtless admire -- who are appalled. They'll be more horrified to know that I put on some cute jeans and lipstick in preparation for this shameful activity, and that my husband and I ate a leisurely meal during which we discussed subjects other than our kids.

Yes, I brazenly flouted the Mommy Rules, which unequivocally state that on school nights, real mothers limit themselves to: helping with homework; ferrying their children to scouts, ballet or swimming lessons; preparing dinner; straightening up; reading to kids; and attending Rules-approved child- or school-related meetings before putting their darlings to bed at a "proper" hour. Maybe -- just maybe -- they can watch a bit of TV before passing out.

Was reading that paragraph wearying? Try living it.

I have, which explains my shamelessness about my midweek date. It explains why I shook my head while reading Hanna Rosin's amusing recent article in The Post on author Judith Warner, who's getting an inordinate amount of press for her book, "Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety," which exposes the "secret" that today's moms are trying so hard to be perfect that they're driving themselves batty.

Rosin's piece pointed out the delicious irony of female fans of the book vacuuming, scrubbing, arranging doilies and otherwise obsessively preparing the site where Warner was to speak about the dangers of exactly such behavior. The biggest irony?

If I'd been there, I might have been scrubbing with the best of them. So I understand the mother of two who'd hired a sitter in hopes of learning one vital thing from Warner about moms' perfectionism problem:

"Does she have a solution? Does she really have an answer?" the woman asked -- as if she didn't already have the answer herself.

I probably won't read Warner's book -- Allison Pearson's 2002 best-selling novel, "I Don't Know How She Does It: The Life of Kate Reddy, Working Mother," made the same point quite amusingly. But I can offer my own inexpensive remedy for Mommy Fever:

Sit down. Lift your tongue and place it gently against your upper palate. Move it so that your mouth makes the "n" sound, quickly followed by the "o" sound. Marvel as the magic word emerges:


Say it. Not to the teacher who asks you to make brownies and cookies for the bake sale, or the husband who invites guests without offering to help with the necessary housework, or the child who insists on being first to own the latest sneaker, Barbie accessory or Harry Potter book.

Say it to yourself. Those people's demands will seem far less compelling once you've mastered the magic word.

If I weren't an occasional -- okay, habitual -- Mommy Fever victim, I might sneer at my fellow moms' plight. Those who believe that anyone who isn't grappling with poverty, war or tsunami victims isn't grappling at all might ask, "So what if smart women with nice homes and plenty to eat are caught up in a perfectionism that pushes them to find the ideal summer drama camp?"

Dismissing such mothers as selfish or shortsighted denies that we're all trapped in our own limited perspectives -- and that we all buy into an amazing amount of bull. Are the women who bake fundraiser goodies at midnight or rush to the mall in search of the latest Bratz doll so different from those who have their perfectly good breasts inflated or their bodies surgically streamlined? Aren't they all slaves to judgment?

The overworked moms say, "I'm sacrificing for my child," which sounds noble. That excuse doesn't acknowledge the approval such mothers might be seeking, or the questionable lessons they could be teaching their daughters and sons about women's and mothers' role.

Contestants on such makeover shows as "The Swan" -- few of whom are hideous or disfigured -- invariably claim to endure head-to-toe cosmetic surgeries "for myself." So why do these shows always end with the transformed woman happily being displayed to cheering family and friends -- people who presumably loved her before she attained her new, improved state? The lesson:

Other people's judgment can be oppressive. Our own can be crushing.

Most of us waste lots of time searching for answers we already know. The only thing we do quicker than deny our own power is to blame somebody else for our troubles. We tell ourselves that the pressures exerted on us by movies, magazines, teachers, college entrance tests and a culture that shows us slim, smiling moms in TV shows -- often blissfully married to overweight slobs -- won't let us rest.

We won't allow it. Once, I was a divorced mom of two who didn't have a spouse or boyfriend to take me to dinner any night of the week. I have huge empathy for such parents -- and I'd remind them of what I too often forgot: They have friends and relatives who might watch their kids while they take some guilt-free time for themselves.

As parents, we have chosen a path not for the fainthearted. It's hard work without trying to be perfect at it. Would we rather our kids see us as the frantic, overwrought, resentful shrews that never saying no can make us? Or as self-accepting, self-aware and self-amused grownups, which is what we hope they'll become?

There's a place for martyrs: in medieval town squares, TV soap operas and on the Senate floor.

Nobody wants one in their own home.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company