Saturday, February 13, 2010

Motherhood Does Not Equal Martyrdom

I had a great conversation with an awesome lady yesterday who inspired me to share this quote with you from Dr. Gayle Peterson, one of my favourite writers on preparing for birth and motherhood holistcally: "Becoming a mother does not need to rob you of your selfhood. Stay away from martyrdom. Martyrs never make good mothers; what is gained in giving is taken away in guilt."

This lady of whom I speak told me she was "self-centred" and "selfish" because she did not want to be the type of mom who sublimated all her personal needs for the sake of her child. She said she planned on enlisting help early on in order to dedicate a portion of her day to her self development and her craft. My reaction? You go, Sister! She has a wonderful, hands-on partner who will support her in this plan, and I think this will lend very well to creating a well-balanced, well-nourished mother. A woman who feels good about herself and her accomplishments brings this self confidence to her mothering. She has more perspective, and can bring greater patience and presence to her mothering too.

Contrast this to a mother who has lost herself entirely to her child with the misguided idea that total sacrifice equals better mothering. Many women of my generation were raised by mothers who believed this, who believed that to have a lot of help or pursue interests intensively outside of mothering was either selfish (in a bad way), or just not considered as an option.

I myself have been accused of being self indulgent for insisting upon continuing my education throughout early motherhood, even though my studies were set up in a way that were gentle to my children. I studied to be a La Leche League Leader, and League involves children, so there was no separation from my babies/toddlers. As I was studying other healing modalities, I set it up in ways that I could come home easily when needed, and the kids were with my husband. My husband would bring nursing toddlers to the hospital in the evenings if I was at births (I didn't attend nearly as many births back then as I do now). I was home the majority of the time. So what my house being clean wasn't my priority? So I took time to visit my therapist to help me go inside and get a stronger sense of self? It took many years to work through the guilt my refusal to be a martyr mother caused, because it has been ingrained in me for many generations. I insisted upon the support of my husband. I refused to believe that men "babysit" their children or deserve Scooby Snacks and pats on the head for changing a diaper on occasion. I didn't feel playing the role of "Laundry Fairy" was acceptable, or that it was mandatory to provide hot meals when the man came home if I had had a particularly challenging day with our homeschooled children. For these things, I was "self-indulgent". "Not very nurturing", even. (These critiques were not from my husband, by the way).

Even with my fighting against this model of mothering and working hard to establish myself the way I wanted to, I still made tremendous sacrifice to be the mother I wanted to be. But it was with joy. I have loved being a mother. It has shaped everything about my life in such a positive way. I have homebirthed, tandem nursed, done child-led weaning, homeschooled...all with raging against martyrdom, not allowing myself to be lost in this intense whirlwind of demands upon my time, my thoughts, and my body. My studies kept my soul alive! I needed them in order to be the best I could, not to take away from my children, as others might have interpreted. I am a horrendous housekeeper, it is true, which is not considered something at all to be proud of by previous generations who believed a clean, orderly house was mandatory to provide a good home. I had a lot of shame about my housekeeping abilities, considering I come from a line of Dutch (which means scary good) housekeepers.

My mom seemed to really dig being at home, cleaning, cooking, and being a mother. She was always pretty calm and content with her role, and brought a lot of love to it. Perhaps it was she who inspired me to make sure I was happy in my role of mother. She's always been pretty supportive of my choices, and even if she may not have always agreed with them, had the respect to let me figure things out for myself. It's because of her presence I learned the immense value of having a mother present throughout my formative years. I wanted my kids to have me at home as much as possible, AND wanted to be fulfilled by more than that. Part of me thought that was asking too much, but I still did it anyway.

Even though I struggled against martyrdom, the archetype of Martyr Mamma still had her claws deeply embedded in my psyche. I would resent and judge women who had maids, or whose children got to go every couple of weekends to their grandparents' houses so the parents could go out together on occasion. I resented those who would allow themselves the "luxury" of emotional breakdown when things got "too hard", and would not feel support for them, but disdain. For these things I am so deeply sorry. At the same time I was trying to shed this image, part of me was still entrenched, and didn't even see it. I was judging those who had some fun in their lives outside of mothering and studying as "self-indulgent", just like those who judged me for doing my simple things to tend to my soul. I felt this bare minium I did should be enough, and that any more was most certainly being a terrible, selfish mother. For those thoughts, I feel so profoundly sorry, as all that served to do was perpetrate the model of motherhood I strove to change for myself, my friends, and for my clients.

A lot of time has passed since then, and I no longer feel that way about my fellow mamas. Okay, I think there CAN most certainly be an extreme of selfishness, just as there can be of martyrdom....I'm not saying that doesn't exist. But now when I hear a mother has a maid to help her keep on top of the chaos of a house full of kids, a husband who does all the dishes after dinner and gives her an hour to take a bubblebath and read a novel in the evenings, I am SO happy for her, and wish I had done that long ago instead of thinking a messy house was some sort of cross my martyr self had to bear to show the world my imperfection, proof of my inability to do it "all". On another level, I think it was also my rebel self's way of saying, "hey, screw you all! My home is a wreck because you are all neurotic! I am self fulfilled!" But all a totally chaotic mess makes you do after awhile is suffer, so nothing good was gleaned from either attitude. Shouldda gotten help.

Martyr Mother still exists, sometimes just as a ghostly image, but sometimes full throttle. She still thrives in our generation of new mothers. Very often I will show up to a woman's house postpartum, her housekeeper dusting the shelves, a diaper service picking up a load of stinky nappies, a grandmother out in the park with a toddler, and the mother will look at me shamefacedly, saying, "I know....I'm spoiled." I will be quick to tell her, "No. You need and deserve this support," in an attempt to lessen the temptation for her to be wooed by the pull of Martyr Mom lurking forlornly in the shadows. We used to live tribally, after all. It was never one woman at home most of the day with a kid or more, holding down the entire fort. And now women are still sort of expected to maintain this June Cleaver role, as WELL as look "toned", be sexual, make money, and have a thriving social live. While partners are generally much more hands on now than they were in the past, it is still not enough help. No wonder so many parents, especially moms, are living their lives as depressed, exhausted, sexless zombies who feel like they will never measure up to all of those overwhelming expectations. This is a very sad image for someone who has the most important job in the world. Parents should be happy and gentle with themselves, understanding those societal expectations are impossible, therefore not worth all the guilt in not achieving them all.

For baby showers, consider putting down the designer baby duds and getting your pregnant friend a certificate for a massage. Chipping in and buying her maid service for a few weeks would be a great idea. Having a food chain is such a helpful way to ease a woman into new motherhood. This is a fantastic start. And this kind of support should inspire a new mother to continue this modus operandi for herself, by making it a priority to enlist help, to take some time during the day to nourish herself, whatever that means to her, and have less responsibility for absolutely everything.

I loved stay-home motherhood. To me, this was my ultimate expression of feminism. Baking cookies, reading to my kids. changing cloth diapers...all those things made me feel empowered, not like a slave. But it could get mind numbing too. Had I not had my studies to nourish me, I might not have loved those years as much. I would have felt a lot more servant-y. And had I had even more support, like some maid service a couple times per week, or more babysitting once in awhile to have more dates with my husband, I probably would have loved it even more and had more patience, rather than always running on "frazzled".

So all of you "selfish", "self-centered" mothers out there, I salute you! You contribute to the raising of children who will respect you. You are a model to them, demonstrating that self-care is a crucial component to living a rich, fulfilling life, and a key to being more present in your important relationships.