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.