Recognize the costs.
I spoke with Dr. Beck about martyrdom in mothers and she said mothers today have every right to feel angry and victimized by our culture, but holding on to that suffering “is a recipe for despair.” She invoked the Buddhist concept of a riddle that defies logic when she explained how the “modern women’s dilemma is a koan. It’s an unsolvable problem.” The more you give to your job, the more guilt you feel at home. The more you excel at home, the more behind you feel at work. Moms can be squeezed into a smaller and smaller corner, until there is no room to feel much of anything aside from anger or helplessness. The solution here is not for women to do more or to be more. And, while the problem does not lie within us, we can take steps to reclaim agency.
Even if you’re not succumbing to the pressure of intensive mothering and you’re just trying to stay afloat, you are still caught between conflicting demands. To be fair, this is not a problem created by mothers; the mental load is propped up by a lack of good child care options and limited parental leave policies. The mental stress of living in this paradox prevents many mothers from being fully present with their families. Many of my patients tell me they’re inside their heads, juggling the logistical nightmare that is modern parenting and managing their families instead of being part of them. This leads to feelings of disconnection and meaninglessness and also encourages a sense of learned helplessness in children and partners.
To fully understand how maternal martyrdom is impacting your life, keep a running martyr log of specific situations in which you’ve gone to unreasonable lengths to make life easy for your kids or partner. If your efforts were acknowledged, make note of how long any feelings of appreciation lasted. Then, keep track of how you felt about yourself after the event and any changes in behavior toward your family. Make a separate list for instances in which you make a point not to self-sacrifice, and keep track of your thoughts and feelings, and your family’s response as well.
Make peace with guilt.
I teach my patients to think of guilt as ambient noise. When you identify as a martyr, consciously or unconsciously, you’re sacrificing your capacity to feel a full range of emotions. Guilt is not about the choice in front of you. It’s simply a familiar place for your brain to go. Guilt does not need to be your compass. It can just be a feeling that’s there.
Take tiny steps back into your body.
Dr. Beck said “to heal from giving too much, to heal from thinking too much. The answer is presence — stillness and physical presence in the room.” She suggested making micro-decisions that lead you to a sense of relief in your body. For example, when faced with whether to bake cookies for a class trip or spend the evening watching your favorite Netflix show, take a minute and pay attention to your body. Which option leads to a release of tension in your shoulders? Or is associated with a sigh of relief in your throat? Choose the option that makes your body feel more relaxed. These small steps each build on each other. The more connected you feel to your body, the easier it is to make larger decisions from a place of clarity.
Say no to find agency.
Unfortunately, what’s sold as self-care doesn’t solve the problem of maternal martyrdom. Performative self-care turns into another guilt-inducing task on a to-do list. The solution is to set boundaries and take back your agency. Don’t expect someone else to give you permission. Practice looking at your weekly schedule and finding one situation, however small, where you can exert control and communicate your boundaries.
For moms, letting go of the martyr mentality is less about a huge life overhaul, and more about building a new muscle. This muscle represents your own thoughts, feelings and preferences. It’s not a luxury; it’s a necessity. And it is a gift only you can give yourself.
Dr. Pooja Lakshmin, M.D. is a perinatal psychiatrist specializing in women’s mental health and a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at George Washington University School of Medicine. She is working on a book about the tyranny of self-care.