Calling All Martyr Moms: You Are Not Doing Anyone Any Favors

04/03/2015 03:55 pm ET | Updated Jun 03, 2015

When my son was 6 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 but, following a 50-pound weight gain and an emergency C-section, was at serious risk of never serving me well again. Or so I feared.

At the time, I had no idea that I lived in a society that exalted the Martyr Mom. I had an involved husband who was 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 later -- ("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 surveyed more than 8,500 moms and to see the Mom Martyr Syndrome laid out in black and white is startling:

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

We are doing more and more. We are wearing too many hats. We work in the home, out of the home and pretty much all the time. We are exhausted. Yet we wear our exhaustion like a badge of honor.

The dirty little secret of this self-sacrifice is that it is not accomplishing a thing. Women are more than twice as likely to become depressed as men and a huge body of research shows that a mother's depression has significant negative impacts on her children. Moms are the self-declared food police, yet childhood obesity is at a record high. Many moms feel pressure to stay home, yet research shows that SAHMs with young children are more likely to be sad and depressed than their working counterparts.

Living the life of Martyr Mom is no good for anyone. Yet we continue to do it and the excuses essentially boil down to three: No time. No money. Guilt.

Allow me to disabuse these one by one.

No Time

Taking care of yourself does not require a lot of time. It does require a subtle shift of priorities. Every day, we make decisions about how to spend our time which generally includes some combination of family obligations, household, kids' activities, and work.

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

My daughter loves me to watch her gymnastics class. For a long time, I watched the entire class. But I realized that the class wasn't for me, it was for her. And she shouldn't be participating to perform for me; she should be participating for herself. So now I drop her off and leave. I return early enough to watch the last fifteen minutes. Forty five minutes, reclaimed for me.

Meal prep can be brought under control. Plan your weekly menu, shop once, use your slowcooker and reclaim the 30 minutes each week "figuring out" what's for dinner each night.

Say no. It's cliché, but a valid way to reclaim time. At least once each week, you will be asked to do something you don't want to do. And that someone might even be your child. "I'm sorry, I don't want to have a tea party right now" can be an appropriate response to your child's request -- remember, you are her mother, not her on-call entertainment center.

No Money

I was shocked that this came up as a reason why moms don't take better care of themselves. You don't need to pay a cent for the most nourishing things you can do for yourself. Walk in the woods. Take a bubble bath. See your girlfriends. Nap. It is not about a weekly massage 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.


I was driving with my son when he was four and the subject turned to his favorite "Aunt Sue," a dear friend who was childless. Out of the blue, he said "I hope Aunt Sue never has a baby." "Why?" I asked, assuming he would say something like "because then she won't have as much time for me." But that wasn't it. 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 children any favors by struggling to ensure that every experience they have is perfect. There is no prize for the mom who sacrifices the most. Rather, we serve our children by striving to be the fullest expression of our true self and 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.