The Martyr Mom

What's that you say? I can have a life of my own?

What’s that you say? I can have a life of my own?

She is so busy doing everything for everyone that she leaves no time for herself. Maybe she works. Maybe she doesn’t. Either way, she tells herself her schedule is far too full to allow an hour or so of “me time” here and there. Maybe her mama guilt convinces her it is selfish, or maybe she has lost sight of who she was before children and no longer knows what makes her happy. Either way, she has no life outside her family. She is secretly — sometimes openly — angry and resentful, and she is unwilling to acknowledge that she created her situation or at least enabled it to fester through inaction. She is the martyr mom, and I know her well. I used to be her.

When my children were 1 and 3, we moved from Chicago to the South Suburbs, where we knew only a handful of people. My husband traveled constantly for work, and I stayed home to care for the kids. Despite his packed schedule, he still found time to form a band with his buddies, to practice with them once a week and to book gigs in the city. While he played music, I played the martyr at home. I resented the time he spent away from the family, leaving me to deal with the kids on my own in the evening after an already long day with them. I was envious. Not because of the hours he spent with his friends, but because he entitled himself to pursue something he loved.

What about my “me time”? Well, I worked out regularly, but only at home and while the kids were napping. To me, that didn’t count. I was managing my health, not following a passion. I didn’t even know what my personal interests were anymore because I had immersed myself so fully in motherhood. Instead of trying to rediscover them, I obsessively micromanaged my kids’ activities and daily lives so I wouldn’t have to think about my own lack thereof. I begrudged my husband for having a life of his own, but I was too afraid and complacent to create one for myself. It was easier to hide behind my role as caregiver than to confront my personal dissatisfaction.

I don’t blame my husband for that period of our life together. He hated the stress of long hours at work and constant travel, and finding time to pursue his hobbies and interests brought him a sense of peace and balance. He didn’t ask me to wait at home while he was out having fun. He encouraged me to come along to the band’s gigs, which I gladly did. He also pushed me to get out and do things for myself, which I did not. At least not at first.

I’m not going to manufacture a quick and easy happy ending here. It took time for me to emerge from my mommy martyrdom. When my son started preschool shortly after we moved, I made some mom friends. I began picking up freelance writing assignments. I went out with other moms. I planned dates with my husband and dinners with other couples. The busier I became socially and professionally, the happier I grew and the more I realized what a disservice I had been doing to myself, my husband and our kids by putting my own life on a shelf to accommodate theirs.

What martyr moms can’t or won’t see is that the hobbies, classes and other activities we think we can’t possibly squeeze into our crazy schedules actually make us better mothers and role models for our children. Not only do they help relieve our stress and bring us joy, but they also show our kids that it is normal and healthy for moms (and dads too) to be something other than parents. I don’t want my daughter (or son) to grow up sacrificing her interests because she thinks all her time should be devoted to her family. I want her to be a happy, well-rounded woman who knows how to tell her mama guilt to shut the hell up once in a while.

Now that my kids are teenagers, it’s much easier for me to carve out a few hours here and there to do the things I love. The irony is that as my “me time” grows, what I want more than anything is time with them. The older they get, the more important every little thing seems, every school band concert, every track meet. I don’t want to miss any of the moments with them because soon enough I will have nothing but time to myself. What then? Maybe I can convince my husband to book a world tour for his band or, better yet, a summer in Europe for the two of us. Martyr mom would definitely not approve. It’s a good thing she doesn’t live here anymore.

I Just Wanted You to Know

Dear Mom,

I have been thinking of you a lot this week, I guess because Mother’s Day is tomorrow. I even got out that photo album you made. Do you remember the one I mean? It’s filled with shots of you and Dad from before you got married, on your wedding day and during your honeymoon. There are lots of photos of friends I never met and family members I barely remember. There are pictures from when you modeled in New York and when you worked at Michigan Bell. What was your job there again? Dad told me once, but I can’t remember. I love all the photos of you and him goofing around on your honeymoon. Where did you go on that trip? I think Dad said it was Niagara Falls, although I can’t tell from the pictures. It’s fun to see that you had a silly side. You both look so happy and in love.

I left the album on the couch the other day, and Isabel found it. She said I look like you, but I think she resembles you more. It is strange, but somehow comforting, to see myself and my daughter in photos of someone I don’t remember and she never knew. I wonder if she thought the same thing. I was overwhelmed with emotion looking at the album with her, knowing that you had thoughtfully placed all the photographs on the pages, adding funny captions, telling your life’s story. It was as if you were there beside us. I felt you, Mom.

Afterward, I hugged Isabel and told her how proud you would have been of her. I told her what a sweet, loving person she is. I told her how happy she makes people. I try to say things like that to her whenever I think of them, Mom. I say them because they are true, but also because you never had the chance to say them to me. I know you would have.

I just wanted you to know, Mom, that even though I was too young when you died to have any real memories of you, you have always been a presence in my life. I have the photographs of you and, even better, I have the stories Dad and others told me. I share them with Isabel and Sam from time to time because I don’t want you to be just a picture on the wall to them. I want them to know what a strong and talented woman their Grandmother Jeanne was. That is so important to me.

Aunt Thelma, my undeniably amazing second mother, used to say “life is for the living,” and I think that is true. We should focus on the loved ones who are still with us. But I also believe we should never forget those whom we have lost.

I just wanted you to know I am thinking of you, Mom, as I often do. And I wanted to tell you how much I love being a mother. It brings me peace, Mom, to be able to give my children the love, the comfort, the support you weren’t able to give me. It makes me happier than I ever imagined I could be.

I just wanted you to know.



 she never knew.

God Save the Queen

I decided to go with a shot of Sid Vicious in the forefront because he will always be my favorite Sex Pistol.

A shot with Sid Vicious in the forefront because he is, after all, my favorite Sex Pistol — especially since I witnessed Johnny Rotten spitting on the crowd at a P.I.L. show. 

Yesterday, after my first girls night out in what seemed like about 150 years, I heard “God Save the Queen” on the ride home. So I did what felt natural: I cranked up the radio, rolled down the window and sang along with the Sex Pistols to one of many anthems from my teenage years, when rebellion reigned supreme. All that was missing was the cigarette dangling from my lip.

Not much compares to the release you get from belting out song lyrics at the top of your lungs while driving alone. No one can hear you or judge your singing ability, so you can be as loud and as passionate as you want. It’s like singing in the shower but with backing vocals. With enough creativity and determination, you can find personal meaning in any song, even when you are a middle-aged mother singing along with punks fed up about England’s fascist regime.

God save the queen…

A mother is a queen of sorts, right? She is the queen of her family, its sun, the center of its universe. She is everything to her children. But by being all to them, does she become nothing to herself? Is it possible to emerge from motherhood without winding up a soulless figurehead?

She ain’t no human being…

In exactly two weeks, my youngest child will be 13. In five years she will graduate from high school and head off to college. I can see that portion of the future clearly and will do everything I possibly can to ensure it happens. But what about the mother she leaves behind? Obviously, there is no turning back once our children are grown, but what propels us forward after they are gone? How do we find new roles for ourselves after nearly 20 years of doing the toughest job imaginable?

There’s no future, no future, no future for you…

I can’t attest to their logic, but somehow these were the questions I found myself pondering while singing along to “God Save the Queen” after a visit to my favorite local tavern with an old friend. Maybe the craft beer I drank was stronger than I realized. Or maybe the existential angst I thought I left behind in my teenage years — along with the Aqua Net and black eyeliner — is resurfacing and I’m having the female version of a midlife crisis. I don’t want a sports car or a trophy husband, however. I want a life of my own, plans and goals that are mine, all mine. I want a redefined sense of purpose. And the only person who can provide those things is me. I’m working on it. But I’m thankful I still have five years to figure it out.

Considering how much better I feel after reconnecting with my friend last night — and doing karaoke on the ride home — I guess I need to get out and spend time with other queens, I mean moms, on a more regular basis. I need to be reminded that I’m not alone, that others share my doubts and fears. Who doesn’t need that once in a while?

Motherhood becomes increasingly lonely as our children get older — or at least it can if we let it. The friendships that form effortlessly during play groups and other activities when our kids are young become harder to find as they grow up and spend more time living their lives without us. But we have to keep looking. We have to keep trying to make new connections, while also nurturing the ones we have and rekindling those we miss. I have let a lot of relationships lapse during my motherhood reign, and it makes me sad. I guess I need to work on the whole being a good friend thing too. Those five years will be gone before I know it.

In any case, Mr. Johnny Rotten, John Lydon, John Rotten Lydon or whatever you are calling yourself these days, I just wanted to let you know that despite what my teenage self may have said, middle-aged me knows there is indeed a future. And while I am far from being a queen in need of saving, I guess what I realized last night is that I could use a little company as I figure mine out — and a lot more singing in the car with the windows down.

Back Off, Mama Bear

This morning I dropped off my son for his first day of finals as a high school freshman. I know he cares about his grades, and he says he studied. But how he does is entirely up to him. I can’t take the tests for him. Heck, I would probably bring down his GPA if I attempted the honor’s geometry exam. I can’t talk to the English teacher who he feels is being unfair. Well, I could. But I’m not going to. Sometimes mama bear has to back off. Today is one of those times.

I will admit to having been an overbearing, overprotective, borderline obsessive-compulsive parent when my son was small. He was my first child, I had no idea what I was doing, and my biggest fear was of doing the wrong thing or, worse yet, not doing enough. I anally retentively organized his Lego blocks, dinosaurs and Matchbox cars into labeled bins. Each night, as we cleaned up the playroom, I followed closely behind him, sorting through the toys he carelessly tossed into the wrong bins. I made sure the Spider-Man puzzle wasn’t missing any pieces and all the Imaginext figures were on board their pirate ship. I maintained the order in our little universe because I could and thought I should.

But what if I hadn’t picked up all the pieces and erased every mistake? Would it really have mattered if a Lincoln Log turned up in the Thomas the Tank Engine bin?

I look back and cringe at my perfectionist self in those early years. I micromanaged every aspect of my son’s day based on all the parenting books I read. I knew what to expect when I was expecting, during my son’s first year and when he was a toddler. I kept careful track of his progress, visiting the pediatrician more times than I care to admit when he didn’t fall within the range of what the books described as “normal.” I knew that healthy sleep habits make a happy child — thanks to the similarly titled book by Dr. Marc Weissbluth, which I read multiple times — and I rigidly enforced nap and bed times to the point of turning down playdates and leaving parties early. My parenting bibles gave me a sense of control amid the chaos of the early years of being a first-time mother.

When my son started kindergarten, I redirected my need for control to my own life and went back to work part time. Having a focus outside the house, even though I worked from home, helped me regain my sanity, and I think it also benefited my second child. I enrolled her in preschool five days a week at age 3. In the afternoons, when she was home, I sometimes had to conduct an interview or finish an article. She colored in my office, watched a video or played by herself in her room. My work deadlines kept me from obsessing over missing puzzle pieces or misplaced toys. My daughter was, and is, confident, assertive and independent, and I think that has something to do with me being forced to back off with my mama bear ways.

It’s still there, though, that urge to step in and fix things, especially with my son because I did it for so many years. After I dropped him off this morning, I thought about calling the English teacher with whom he is struggling. Would it be so bad for me to interfere — just a little? Yes, it would. I have to let him try to work out this problem on his own first because soon enough he will be heading off to college, and mama bear isn’t allowed there — or at least shouldn’t be.

Mama bear is backing off today, but that doesn’t mean I’m not worried about my son. It doesn’t mean I don’t love him. It means that I know if I keep cleaning up his messes and erasing his mistakes, he will never learn to do it for himself. Sometimes doing nothing is harder than doing something. Today is one of those times.

Kindergarten: a simpler time, when mama bear could, and did, fix everything.

Kindergarten: a simpler time, when mama bear could, and did, fix everything.

The Bad Wife

I dreaded my husband’s business trips when our kids were young. Parenting alone for a few days several times a month left me in need of therapy, a vacation, or at the very least a case of wine and a visit from the fairy housekeeper. I missed his help more than his company when he traveled back then. Perhaps that sounds coldhearted and selfish, but anyone who has single-handedly wrangled a baby or toddler will understand.

Nope. That's not me. (Image source:

In the tween and teen years, parenting alone is trying but manageable. The angst, attitude and backtalk stress me out, but at least my kids are old enough that I can reason with them some of the time. And because they are independent and more or less self-sufficient, this mother’s work actually is done at the end of the day. When my husband is away now, I miss his company because I do fine without his help, usually at least.

His latest trip has been a different experience for us here at home. One of our kids is having a tough time, and life has been more than a little challenging. (As much as I would like to talk about it here, I can’t, because I have to respect my child’s privacy. I’m starting to understand why people blog anonymously. Self-censorship sucks.) In light of our struggles, you would think I would want my husband here with me.

Instead I’m enjoying a few days of freedom. There’s nothing sordid to tell. I haven’t been out boozing, gambling or carousing — at least not yet. Actually, I’ve been home every night since he left.

I’m a bad wife not because of anything I’ve done while he’s away but because I’m relieved that he’s gone.

For the past few days, I haven’t worried a bit about being unemployed for the past four months. While the kids are at school, I write and work out at my leisure because he isn’t here to see me slacking. In the evenings, I relax on the couch in front of the TV without a twinge of regret because he isn’t still working in his office upstairs. I do whatever the hell I want, when I want, and I revel in it.

I’m a bad wife because even though my husband has supported me lovingly and completely ever since I lost my job, I still think I’ve let him down. He’s given me no reason to feel this way, none whatsoever. It’s all in my insecure, delusional head. He wants me to be able to relax and do the things that make me happy. Instead, I’ve relegated myself to serf status in my own home because I think I am not carrying my weight financially.

I’m a bad wife for the same reasons I’m a good mother: I would rather give support than receive it. I want to be the caregiver not the patient. I want to heal my family’s wounds, while ignoring my own. If I want to be a good wife who is worthy of my even better husband, I have to allow him to take care of me a little. I have to admit I need the emotional Band-Aid of someone telling me it will all be OK.

This bad wife could really use a good husband right now. Thank goodness he comes home tomorrow.

Bad Case of Sunday Blues

I remember sitting on the couch as a child, happily playing with my Colorforms or Barbies, when suddenly a wave of fear and sadness would wash over me. It was Sunday evening, and the clock was ticking away to the end of the weekend. I could feel the dread in the pit of my stomach as I anticipated the events of the next day.

Monday meant leaving the safety and comfort of home for the scary uncertainty of school. Would the mean girl on the bus who was twice my size tell me she hated me and glare at me from across the aisle? Would I get in trouble with the teacher for talking too much in class? Would the queen bee of the playground welcome me into the fold or would I wind up alone on the swingset?

I hated Sunday because it meant Monday was coming, and there was nothing I could do to stop it.

Even though it’s no longer me who has to face school in the morning, I still dread Monday’s arrival. Monday means my kids venture out into the world where I have no control over their safety or comfort. What if the carpool driver or bus taking them to school gets into an accident? What if they fail a test? What if they are excluded at the lunch table? These thoughts plague me every day as they walk out the door, but especially on Monday.

Why are Mondays the hardest? After the kids head off to school, my husband goes to work, and it’s just me and the dog at home. My abandonment issues kick into high gear because after spending two days with the three people I love the most, they all leave me behind. It sounds silly, I know. They have to go, and it’s not as if they aren’t coming back. Mondays just make me realize how much I hate it when they’re gone.

I have yet to come up with a way to make the Sunday blues disappear entirely, but spending the evening together as a family definitely helps. Usually the four of us hang out in the kitchen and make a special dinner. We try to come up with a new recipe or we make something that requires extra time and isn’t conducive to our weeknight schedule crunch.

After a Sunday evening of laughing, talking and eating with my family, Monday doesn’t feel quite so ominous. The family bonding makes it a little easier when everyone walks out the door the next morning. But I still can’t wait for them all to come home.

Do you suffer from “Sunday night syndrome”? How do you cope?

Why Moms Shouldn’t Start Mosh Pits

A few weeks ago, I went to my first all-ages show in probably 20 years. My husband’s band, The Bishop, was playing in a battle of the bands at Reggie’s Music Joint in Chicago, and I, being his ever-faithful groupie, went along for the ride.

His band had played at Reggie’s before, and I fell in love with the place immediately. The bar and its patrons brought back fond memories of all the punk clubs I frequented in Detroit during my teen years (I mean, after I was 21, if my kids are reading this). Dyed black hair, tattoos, black leather, ripped denim, clove cigarettes. I felt right at home, although I’m sure I looked completely out of place. It’s not that I’m altogether uncool. I have my moments. But I’m a mom. And I’m 45. Enough said.

The good thing about being in your forties is you finally stop worrying about what other people think and let yourself go. The bad thing is when you let yourself go too far. And that is exactly what happened during our next visit to Reggie’s.

I was excited to go back to the bar and revel in nostalgia once again. What I didn’t know until a few days before the gig, however, was that it was an all-ages show. This rattled my nerves — and more than just a bit. It’s one thing to hang out in a dive rock joint with young adults, but teenagers? I have one of my own at home, and I’m fairly certain he wouldn’t want to be seen with his mother, or anyone her age, at such an establishment (thankfully he is only 13 and this is not yet an issue).

Do you know what it’s like to be a mom in a roomful of kids with blue hair, tattoos, mohawks and ear expanders? Unless your name is Courtney Love or Sharon Osborne, I’m guessing the answer is no. I immediately assumed the role of lunchroom monitor and found myself worrying about whether these kids would be up past their bedtimes. It was a Sunday after all, a school night.

Courtney Love, I am not. (Source:

The good thing about being nervous in a bar: alcohol. The bad thing about being nervous in a bar: alcohol. Several craft beers and death metal bands into the show, I made what seemed like a perfectly reasonable decision: I started a mosh pit.

What, you may ask, was a suburban mom doing participating in a mosh pit, let alone starting one? I’m not exactly sure, honestly. My best answer is that my inner teenager took over. My worst answer is that I was experiencing a temporary midlife crisis. Either way, I ended up on my ass in the middle of the dance floor in a bar full of death metal kids.

I learned two things about myself that night. First, I’m far too old, and clumsy, to mosh. Second, I’m just old enough to be able to laugh at myself when I do something stupid. Believe me, I laughed my (very sore) ass off over this one for days.

I Got a Rock

I’ve always been a Halloween girl. My birthday is Oct. 28, so I guess that’s not a surprise. I couldn’t wait to dress up and trick or treat as a kid. I never missed “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” and could even recite more than a few of the lines. Now, as a 45-year-old mom, I love to experience all the ghoulish glories of my favorite holiday vicariously through my children.

Or at least I used to.

I made their costumes by hand (well, I did one year anyway). I covered my shrubs in cobwebs and planted tombstones and skulls in my flowerbeds. Mummies, skeletons and giant spiders welcomed visitors on our porch. The living room looked as if Frankenstein had vomited pumpkins, ghosts and witches all over it. Not a spot in the house went undecorated. Halloween was everywhere.

My little Indian chief, age 3, in his handmade (by Mom) costume

My little princess, age 2 (did I mention I made her costume?)

But this year was different.

I only dug out one bin of decorations from the basement (I have at least five). The porch featured three Pottery Barn-esque clay jack-o’-lanterns and a tasteful copper skeleton. I left the cobwebs to nature, and Frankenstein never even made it out of the crawlspace.

It’s hard to feel, well, Halloween-y when your kids reach the tween and teen years. They want to trick or treat alone or at least at a distance. First you are relegated to the end of the block; eventually you aren’t even asked to tag along.

This year my 13-year-old wandered the neighborhood with his horde of fellow hoodlums, I mean, teenagers. My 11-year-old trick-or-treated and partied with her best friend’s family. And my husband and I stayed at home to hand out candy.

I have to admit that I was more than a little bummed to be left out of the holiday revelry. I wore my hot pink skull T-shirt. I stocked my cauldron with fun-size chocolate bars. But I just wasn’t feeling it.

Until 15 teenage girls and boys descended upon our house.

Don’t worry. They were invited. My husband and I skipped the Halloween fun this year so our son could host an after-party. Chaperoning is far less exciting than partying, but it was a great group of kids and we didn’t have any problems. The kids exchanged candy and ate pizza. I think there may even have been a game of Truth or Dare in the basement. But of course I can’t be certain because I never, ever spied on them.

Who am I kidding? Of course I did a little spying. I was thrilled to overhear more than one of the kids say they had a great time, and someone actually told my son his parents were cool.

It was a very different Halloween this year. It wasn’t all about me. In fact, it wasn’t at all about me. But my teenager and his friends had an awesome night.

You know what, Charlie Brown? I’ll take that rock.

Best Mother’s Day Ever (I Planned It Myself)

I am a control freak. Ask anyone: my husband, my children, the postal carrier. I like to know what is happening, when and with whom. I’ve gotten (a little) better now that the kids are older (11 and almost 13), but I still like to be in charge. I am not ashamed of this because I’m not rude about it. However, if I have an opinion about the plans we are making, you’d best be sure you will hear about it.

And this, my friends, is why I planned my own Mother’s Day. It’s no reflection on my husband or family, but I’ve always found the holiday to be a bit of a letdown. My husband is pretty laidback and doesn’t make specific plans. Instead, he usually wakes up that morning and asks me what I want to do. My response is a downtrodden “I don’t know,” and the passive-aggressive stewing begins. Mine, that is.

What he doesn’t know is that we moms have big expectations about Mother’s Day. It’s our day off, our day to relax, our day to do whatever the hell we want, right? Well, not if no one knows what we want to do.

So this year — finally, after 12 Mother’s Days — I took some time to figure out something I would enjoy doing and told my husband about it. Was that so difficult? Not really, especially for someone who is normally so vocal about her opinions. And it saved us both a whole lot of hurt feelings. On my end: I got to do what I wanted. On his end: He didn’t have to deal with the quiet wrath of a disappointed wife.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy the gifts and cards. Handmade or store-bought, I adore all of it. I savor every last word and shed boatloads of tears (see previous post “Confessions of a Mother’s Day Card Sap”). This year, I particularly loved that the kids made me breakfast in bed. Slightly runny eggs and mushy toast is, after all, my favorite. They even did the dishes. But what about after breakfast? Then what?

Honestly, the idea of heading to the local nursery and fighting other crabby moms who would rather be getting pedicures (maybe I’m projecting a bit here) for the last hydrangea hanging basket is not my idea of a good time. Do I like planting things? It’s not exactly at the top of my list. I’d rather get that pedicure or go to brunch, especially if mimosas are involved.

And that’s how I made Mother’s Day my own. I named the place. I picked the time. I told the kids what to wear (I am the mom after all). And I dragged my little family to the gospel brunch at the House of Blues in Chicago, where the four of us proceeded to get down with Jesus. I am not a very religious person, but that gospel choir’s performance moved me. And, you know, I think my husband and kids liked it too — or at least they did a stellar job pretending they did. I know they enjoyed the all-you-can-eat buffet.

The important thing is that we were together, and Miss Control Freak spent the day her way. Because if mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy…especially on Mother’s Day.

Confessions of a Mother’s Day Card Sap

Yes, it’s true: I am one of those ridiculously over-emotional types who cry while reading greeting cards. I don’t know who comes up with your schmaltz, Mr. Hallmark, but it gets me every time. It doesn’t matter what the melodramatic rambling is about — birth, graduation, wedding, death — because any cause for celebration or sympathy will start the tears flowing.

The worst by far are the Mother’s Day and Father’s Day cards.

I don’t remember being nearly so affected by them before I had children. (Then again, I sometimes have difficulty recalling anything before I had children.)  But once I did have kids, shopping for Mother’s Day and Father’s Day cards for my parents became a big deal — one that absolutely required Kleenex.

This year, as usual, I was crying before I finished the first card. Honestly, it had me at “Happy Mother’s Day.” But then it hit me: I didn’t have anyone to buy a card for. My husband had already bought one for his mother (what a thoughtful son she raised!), and my moms are both gone.

The short story: My birth mother died when I was two and a half, and my paternal aunt, who raised me, passed away in December. Obviously, I never purchased a card for my mother, but I always gave one to my aunt. Whether it was a card made with construction paper and crayons as a child or a dozen roses sent as an adult, she was someone I wanted to celebrate.

This year I’ll be celebrating her a little — actually a lot — differently. My husband and kids are taking me to a gospel brunch at The House of Blues in Chicago. It will be a first for all of us, and my children, frankly, seemed a little dumbfounded when we told them about it. But there are few things I can think of that are more uplifting than a gospel choir.

I’m looking forward to a new experience with my kids this Mother’s Day. And while I didn’t have any cards to shed tears over in the checkout line, I can guarantee the ones my children give me will get the waterworks started. It’s OK, though. They’re worth every tear.