The first time a friend called me a martyr, I hung up on her. I was hungry, exhausted, and driving through rush-hour traffic during a snowstorm. My friend asked how things were going, and I exploded.I vented about the challenges of balancing a husband in grad school; managing my autistic son's therapies; meeting the needs of my precocious 4-year-old; teaching college-level classes; finding time to write; doing housework (which I hate); and all the other things that filled my days. I ranted, complained, bitched, and cried in a breathless rush of words that left me feeling better for having said them.
My friend's only reply was an assertive, "I really think you're being a martyr here."
I open up like this, and she reduces it to martyrdom?
I was furious.
But my friend's comment nagged at me long after the phone call. Because I love her. I trust her, and I respect how she makes time for herself among her very busy work and family life. She's been a part of my life for two decades, and she knows me better than most people. She's unequivocally on my side in almost everything. So, why would she respond so dismissively to my rant?
Was I a mama martyr?
I'm certainly not above a pity party, and admittedly, I struggle with the concept of putting my own oxygen mask on first ("Those little lungs need air more than I do!"). But I've never seen myself as a martyr. In my mind, martyrs are victims, broken figures from my religious childhood, or gloomy wretches from psychology texts, but not me.
I mean, I teach college. I wear mascara. I liaise with all my autistic son's many therapists. I take my children to museums and the zoo. I write novels. I have friends. I follow Stacy and Clinton's rules when I shop. I make my husband laugh. I mail packages. I listen to serious non-fiction books on tape. I remember birthdays and do my own taxes. I grade papers, do laundry, pay bills, make dinner, read to my children, call my mother, attend professional conferences, buy artisanal bread, go to coffee with friends, network the special needs community...
Did I mention I only sleep about three hours a night?
I'm proud to be the woman who does all that. I even feel a bit like Superwoman after seeing that list.
Superficially, I have all the traits: I often wear faded, off-brand yoga pants with kid-sized peanut butter handprints on them; my four-inch roots are usually pulled back into a messy ponytail; my nails are either perpetually chewed off or long and unfiled; I am still carrying a lot of the weight I gained during my two pregnancies; I will give my kids the last apple in the fridge even if I've not eaten all day; and my schedule is overwhelmed by my children's activities.
Psychologically, I meet most of the mama martyr requirements as well. I'm frazzled often. Stress makes my chest hurt, and I won't ask for help until the washing machine's already broken, dinner's burnt, or the IRS is sending me nasty letters about errors in my tax return. I make excuses for some of the things I let slip because I'm doing too much.
Ok, so I'll say it: I'm a mama martyr, even if I struggle against that label. Somehow my (toxic) need to do everything has moved me out of Superwoman's cape and into Tony Soprano's mother's shoes.
Where did this need to do it all, be it all, and have it all originate? The answer came to me one day while I was teaching "What's Wrong with Cinderella" by Peggy Orenstein. In this essay, Orenstein notes that one of the products of second-wave feminism was that girls were told over and over again "You can do anything!", but this has backfired and many girls are now consumed by anxiety, stress, and the need to do everything.
I get this, and "Jamie can do anything" is the mantra of my life. In high school, I balanced getting A's with traveling soccer, drama, ecology club, volunteer work, creative writing, art, dating a boy in a punk band, and this list (like most of my lists), goes on and on. In college, I scaled back on extracurriculars, but worked three jobs while studying. I delivered my first son during my Master's program and was back in the classroom three days later. As a new mother, I hit the ground running, and I've not slowed down since.
So, what's the answer for a woman like me? Financially, I can't take on less work; my children really do demand a lot of my time; and I'm gratified by the creative work and advocacy I do. I don't care all that much about appearance, but I like to look put-together enough that people don't say things like "You look exhausted!" as soon as they see me.
In an effort to rein in some of my more self-destructive impulses, I'm now living by these five simple rules, which will hopefully help me be a mama martyr no more:
Admit I have a problem. I am trying to be very, very honest with myself lately, and this means I have to see the good with the bad. In all my achievements, I have to see the strain they cause, I have to see the ways they pull me in different directions, and I have to admit that I can't do it all.
Focus on what matters and prioritize. With some honest reflection, I've realized much of what I do is for other people or for kudos that I don't care about. I've started reflecting more on what matters to me on a daily, weekly, and long-term basis, and I try to direct my time and energy into these activities.
Ask for help. This seems so simple, but it's hard to put into action. Asking for help sometimes doesn't occur to me. My husband and I actually have fake dialogues where I practice asking for help. It's ridiculous, I know. But it's also necessary.
Make time for myself. Exercise helps with physical and psychological health. I'm so out of shape that it's taken me six weeks to be able to run two miles, but I'm getting better at it. I look forward to exercise time and as I get into better shape, I find I want to take better care of my appearance in general. I also take one morning a week for myself. It's just a few hours, but in that time I listen to my own inner voice and do things that I like to do.
Say no. To something. To anything. Work, life, kids, household stuff, deadlines, blaring alarm clocks—these will always be there, but occasionally I say "no." There is power in this refusal, and it makes me feel like I have control of my life.
I'm sure I'll come up with more rules, but for now I'd like to think I'm a recovering mama martyr. Some days I slip up, but then I take a deep breath and remember even Superwoman can't be saving the world all the time.