How to Overcome the Motherhood Martyrdom Syndrome

June 8, 2016

When I was in high school and college, I was plagued by particularly vicious migraines. Migraines are matrilineal, so my mom had awful and frequent migraines when I was growing up. Apparently, my grandmother got them, too.

A consistent yoga practice and healthy eating has drastically reduced my migraines. I rarely get them anymore. In fact, until my last pregnancy, I hadn’t gotten almost any at all in 6 or 7 years.

Throughout my pregnancy with Archer, I got a few really bad migraines that knocked me out for an entire day. I refused to take anything for the pain because I am stubborn and dislike taking pills. Also, most pain medication is not recommended during pregnancy and postpartum if you’re nursing, as the drugs can go directly into the amniotic fluid or breastmilk and impact the baby negatively. While there are ok pain relief options, I chose to suffer instead and stayed on the couch all day long letting Milly watch TV while I tried to heal by not moving as much as possible and sleeping.

During my pregnancy, this was an ok solution.

When you have 2 kids, this is not an option. Especially when one of them is nursing every hour on the hour and the other is a high-octane, attention-needy 3-year old.

Recently, we fell victim to the pinkeye plague in our household. Just the adults. The kiddos were spared. I’m sure you can imagine how awesome this situation was. The pinkeye affected my vision and in combination with some funky atmospheric pressure, as well as poor posture from constant nursing, I had more migraines in one week than I had had in an entire year.

After suffering through 2 particularly intense daylong migraines, I caved and decided to take pain medication. Unfortunately, the only ones we had on hand were not safe for babies or their breastfeeding mommies. So to protect my 6-week old son, I opted to suffer again, instead of seeking help.

Typical martyr mom.

We moms have a tendency to sacrifice a lot for our kids.

We sacrifice our bodies to grow and birth our children. We sacrifice our sleep by feeding our kids on demand through the night. We continue to sacrifice sleep as they grow older and start to have nightmares and need comfort and cuddling in the wee hours. We sacrifice our time when they need rides to a dance or soccer or to play with a friend or an emergency dentist appointment. We sacrifice our sanity watching Dora marathons and hand feeding our kids when they won’t eat any other way.

All of these sacrifices are worthwhile. We want the best for our kids. We want them to grow up happy and healthy and feeling deeply loved.  We want our kids to feel supported and strong and empowered to make the world a better place than it was for us.

Sometimes, though, this comes at a huge price.

We joke about how long it’s been since we’ve taken a shower. We commiserate over collective inability to get a full night’s sleep. We laugh sheepishly about how long it’s been since we’ve made the time to make it to yoga and the only stretching we’ve been getting is when we reach into the back seat of the car to give the kid snacks. We sigh and wish things were different, but we rarely do anything to change the ways things are.

Which is really interesting given that we, as parents, are 100% comfortable with creating change or taking steps to create change when we know it will benefit our kids. So why don’t we do it for ourselves?

Think of it this way: how many coffee-loving mamas either gave up coffee while pregnant or cut back significantly to support the health of her baby?

The answer: lots and lots.

How many mamas are willing to shell out big bucks for their kids to go to one week of their dream summer camp, but are uncomfortable spending even half as much money on themselves?

How many mamas have said to me, “I haven’t really been able to make it to yoga lately. I feel bad leaving the kids at home for so long with their dad.” Yes, I have actually heard this from more than one mama. I’ve also heard, “I miss yoga so much, but I don’t know where to fit it in to my busy week.”

How we choose to prioritize time is a blog for another day. Instead, I’ll keep asking the question, “why is everyone else’s happiness more important than mamas?”

The answer: because we, as moms, allow it.

Healthy self-care for moms starts with small, simple choices. Like having Ibuprofen in my medicine cabinet just in case I get another headache this summer.

Healthy self-care is telling your partner that you need to get to yoga class at least once a week for your mental and physical health.

Healthy self-care is acknowledging that sometimes the choices we make should not be at the expense of our own happiness and should support our health and those things aren’t mutually exclusive. Like choosing to go to bed earlier instead of choosing to watch tv until midnight.

Healthy self-care as a mom does not mean self-sacrifice. It means teaching our kids by example how to balance caring for ourselves as much as we care for others.

Martyrdom is not sustainable.

1. Note how much time you devote to doing things for your family during the week. Then note how much time you devote to doing things for you. It is highly unlikely they will be even. They don’t need to be. However, if the “just for you” column doesn’t have ANYTHING in it, you are running on empty. You will need to fill your tank ASAP.

2. Make a list of a few of your favorite activities. How many of them involve your kids? How many of them involve your partner? How many are just for you? Make sure to give yourself at least 1 of the “just for you” activities once a week.
Consider that many of the enjoyable activities you do during the week are not for you alone, which is just fine. In order to create balance, however, you will also need to start adding in activities that are only for your enjoyment. This will increase your mood, sense of well-being, and ultimately, your mental AND physical health.

Also, check in with how much you invest in your kids, financially. When was the last time you invested as much in your own needs or well-being? Be honest. Consider taking the opportunity to invest in yourself or balancing out how you invest your money and your time. This is a big one but worthwhile. As parents, we are trained to think that spending money on our kids is a better use of our finances, which often leaves us with little left for ourselves OR makes us feel as though we shouldn’t spend as much on ourselves because we need to save it all for our kids. Moms are especially vulnerable to this line of thinking. Most dads I know have no problem dropping big money on the things they really love or really need or really want to do. Moms hold back. As mamas, we need to realize that investing in ourselves is investing in our kids.

3. Have some good conversations with your partner about your needs. Ask your partner about what their needs are. Begin to make a plan so that both of you are giving one another support to fulfill those self-care needs. This is essential. It cannot be lopsided, otherwise there will be resentment on both sides. The only way this works is for both parties to be open, honest, and supportive.
Once you’ve done this, if your kids are old enough, have similar conversations with them. Start to teach them about the value of making time to do the things they love, as well as the value of their parents having some time for themselves to do the same.
I know this might sound like a pipe dream to some mamas, but I believe that open lines of communication as well as modeling the behaviors and actions we wish our kids to learn is how we accomplish our big, incredible dreams.

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