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Mommy, the martyr: How the overglorification of motherhood hurts us all

The glorification of motherhood — no one can live up to it. (BigStock)

“I don’t know how you mothers do it,” said the man watching me struggle to get my two, shall we say “energetic,” boys into the car.
“Mommy knows best.” This one I’ve heard said by everyone from teachers to doctors to other parents.
“Being a mom is one of the hardest jobs anyone can do,” I read in a post that went viral recently.

While these statements may come from different sources and were said in different contexts, they all carry good intentions of acknowledging, appreciating, or even just noticing my efforts and role as mother. And yet, despite their seemingly good intentions, they also paint an idealized and unrealistic picture of Mom, the Martyr.

As many people have observed, current culture seems to demand that mothers be all in, all the time – especially when it comes to school work, extracurricular activities, and domestic duties. And although I suspect that some of these demands may actually be internal pressures that we mothers put on ourselves – stresses that could be minimized with an attitude of “good enough” here and there – I also can’t help but notice that along with this “all in” mommy problem, there is a countervailing tendency to glorify the role of Mommy, which, in a roundabout way, expects mothers to be “all in” emotionally as well.

Perhaps to compensate for the demands that we feel as mothers to do everything and be everything (whether self-imposed, from other parents, or from society), we seem to be creating this unrealistic image of the mother as all-giving, all-knowing, selfless, superhuman who will gladly give up the last piece of apple pie to please her lip-smacking, big-eyed child.

While mothers certainly sacrifice and go to great lengths to care for our children, that doesn’t mean that those sacrifices don’t come with potential consequences such as hidden resentments, failed marriages, poor self-care, and lost friendships. This over-glorification of the Mommy runs the risk of creating an unattainable standard for what it means to be a loving mother, which can perpetuate cycles of regret or shame that some mothers feel if they don’t fit this mold whether due to post-partum depression, work obligations, or personality traits.

What’s more, the shiny patina that we can put on the role of Mommy can be harmful to fathers and women in general, as well. Mothering is a messy, brutal job – as is all parenting. But when we overemphasize the things that mothers may do or feel for their children, we run the risk of devaluing the other roles that mothers as women fulfill – wives, sisters, friends, daughters, colleagues, neighbors – and we diminish the role that fathers play in the lives of their children.

I love my children unconditionally and with a fierceness that is almost irrational, but my husband loves them just as unconditionally and just as fiercely. And my own unconditional mama-bear love for my children did not come easily, but rather gradually and clumsily as I made my way out of the haze of post-partum depression.

As mothers, we are not martyrs, nor should we expect ourselves to be. We are doing a job and engaging in a relationship and loving as best we can. Is being a mother hard? Of course. It is brutally hard. But so is being a father or caring for a sick parent or battling breast cancer or serving overseas in the military.

Have I stayed up late worrying about my children? Of course. But so has my husband. And, quite frankly, his intuition is usually more accurate than my own.

Have I cried over my children’s hurts and happiness? Of course. But I have also cried too many tears to count over my best friend’s breast cancer diagnosis and my own career setbacks.

Have I put my children’s needs first? Of course. But not always. My children are, after all, part of a family in which everyone’s needs are taken into account. Obviously, children need more help, protection, and guidance than the adults in our family (i.e, my husband and me), but that doesn’t mean that my children’s needs are the only ones that count or that they are always the priority.

Have I stared at my children while they sleep? Maybe on a few occasions, but it was usually because I was just so thankful that there was a few minutes of silence without the incessant demands for milk or snacks or whines of “Mooo-ooom, he’s kicking me!”

This pedestal-building idealized image of the mother – especially the Mommy – as a tireless, selfless superhuman isn’t helpful for anyone – least of all, our children. I don’t want my children to view me as some kind of self-sacrificing martyr; I want them to know that I loved them with all my heart and that they are part of a family – as well as a larger community – which means that their needs cannot always come first. I want them to know that I made decisions based on what was best for our family, which often meant sacrifices and unimaginable challenges. But I also want them to know that I, as a woman, have my own ideas, thoughts, and needs; that I have other roles and relationships outside of that of Mommy; and that I make mistakes sometimes just like everyone else.

And I want them to know that if there is only one piece of apple pie left, they’d better figure out a way to beat me to it.

Nah, I’m just kidding. We’ll split it.

A lawyer-turned-writer, Christine is the author of Open Boxes: the gifts of living a full and connected life. She writes at and you can also find her on Facebook and Twitter.

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