Martyrdom and Motherhood

This is a post that’s been rolling around my brain for ages now. I’m still somewhat hesitant to write it because, you know, I can never make any guarantees about who will read it, but all I can ask is that if you know me in person, and know my family, try not to judge me and understand that a whole bunch of mitigating personal information is being excluded here.

I am beyond frustrated with cultural constructions of motherhood as self-sacrificing. Some of the things that got said in the never-ending Hathor thread about Ice Age have tipped me over the edge. My responses stuck with the most obvious reason to find this frustrating: if we are constantly reaffirming the idea that once she becomes a mother, the life of a woman’s child is more important than her own (and praising/emphasizing parental unselfishness disproportionately based on gender), then we are continuing to insist that her contributions are not valuable in their own right and encourage her to give up whatever personal goals she has/had in order to focus on the children and enable them to make awesome contributions in the future. Her value is purely indirect. I could start a long list of consequences associated with this attitude and methods that our society uses for reinforcing it, but that isn’t the point of this post.

I’m personally in the category of women who find this message frustrating because I’m far from confident I’ll ever want children (in fact, I’m fairly certain that I don’t, but never say never) and I’m not impressed with those who tell me I’m delusional, naive, misguided, selfish, or just plain wrong about what I want in life. But I’m also frustrated because some women who do have children internalize this message to mean that whatever they do, it must be because of their genuinely self-sacrificing nature. As though once they became a mother, some switch inside them flipped and they successfully turned off all ‘selfish’ impulses, acting always and only based on the interests of her children.

This is a manifestation of internalized sexism, because women who believe this have bought into the notion that they can only find value through their children, and in their natural human quest to be valuable, they have thrown themselves whole-heartedly into the martyr complex in order to access any kind of value at all.

Being a human being–having a Self–involves wanting things for oneself, including wanting validation, affirmation and a sense of personal value. And giving birth doesn’t suddenly eradicate the human being within a woman, but if she’s internalized these messages, then she has to use this new way in order to meet those human needs. And that places some heavy demands on the child/children who has/have now become the external manifestation of her Self. In a dysfunctional situation, the woman who has over-internalized/embraced the idea as a mother, all she wants is to see her children happy ends up pursuing that goal in reverse–she demands that her children be happy because it’s what she wants. She can lose sight of the lines between what her children actually want and what she wants them to want as externalized extensions of her own desires, or between genuine, giving love and manipulation that ultimately turns back around onto her.

In a healthy situation, a parent is able to find that validation and affirmation of Self in other sources, because of course it’s natural and human to want those things. So being told that one’s identity as mother, one’s value as a person, is inherently tied up in sacrifice means that sacrifice becomes the only way to have any kind of Self at all…which actually means it can end up being pretty selfish.

Which means that mothers who can’t let go of control in the lives of their adult children are justified because that’s “natural” for mothers. When mothers are invasive or overly critical, it’s something that we, as adult children, need to understand and accept as part of their psychology. Guilt-inducing, passive aggressive statements about how no one ever appreciates a mother can’t be called out, no matter how much appreciation one shows, sometimes for even the most basic demonstrations of respect. Boundary violations can’t possibly be the result of any kind of actual personal wishes, so they must be reconstrued as attempts to help, and it’s unfair to point them out as boundary violations.

I realize there’s the alternative, neo-Freudian tendency to over-blame mothers for anything that’s wrong in a child’s life. I also realize that raising a child, and the time, effort and emotions that go into that act over the course of years and decades, is an experience that shapes and defines identity in extremely complex ways. But the much-maligned “martyr complex” of some mothers is not something they stumble upon accidentally, and the construction of this mother-pedestal is not just destructive to those of us who find ourselves disinclined or unable to climb up onto it.

So actually, I kind of do think that the consistent portrayal of mothers as willing to sacrifice themselves for their offspring is a bad thing, and not just for the women who don’t actually want to sacrifice those lives. But then, I guess that’s why I’m an evil, baby-eating feminist.


13 thoughts on “Martyrdom and Motherhood

  1. Jay says:

    I’ll try to outline a few thoughts:

    –Mothers should not feel that once they have children, motherhood is the sum of their identity: Agree.

    –Mothers are often pressured into this role (as mother-and-nothing-else) by society at large: Agree.

    –This tendency (to pressure mothers as above) is destructive, to women in general (and, less so, to the children they raise): Agree.

    –Affirmation of the idea that once a woman becomes a mother, she should value her children’s lives more than her own is part of the societal construct that builds this idea of “mother-and-nothing-else”: Disagree (see below)

    –Emphasizing parental selflessness disproportionately based on gender DOES contribute to this “mother-and-nothing-else” concept: Agree.

    (Clarification of the last 2 points: I believe mothers should value their childrens lives more than their own, and sacrifice for them. I believe the exact same of fathers. I hold parenthood–not motherhood specifically–as a sacred trust, and that once you have children, your life does not belong to you anymore. This does not mean you cannot have a life…it means that in structuring your life, you must place your children first.
    Additional: while both mother and father should place children ahead of their own welfare, they should not place them ahead of the welfare of the family as a whole, or of them as a couple…the husband-wife unit is just as important as the whole family unit, since they form the base of it.
    Summary: all people–men, women, and children–in a family should have their own identities, and these identities should encompass all their roles…as men and women, husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, boys and girls, members of a family, and individuals. Emphasis of one of these aspects as all-encompassing (like motherhood) is bound to be destructive to self-identity.
    End digression)

    –Once a woman has children, she does not stop “being a woman” when she “becomes a mother” (I’d add she does not stop “being a wife”, either, which is another mistake some women make). She must encompass motherhood into her identity, not let it eclipse her identity: Agree.

    –Some mothers’ overcontrolling behaviors, especially toward adult children, are a natural outgrowth of this “cultural brainwashing” that a mother’s identity is tied up in her children: Disagree, tentatively.

    (My own mother tended to be fairly controlling, and–this is guesswork, but pretty accurate, I think–resented my wife because my wife became a more important part of my life than my mother. But my mom is not one of these “my whole life is my children” mothers…though she may have been when she was younger. She works, she volunteers at church, she gardens, she does gift-parties…she has a hell of a lot more involvement in her own life than my father does…all he has is work, pretty much. So I don’t understand the continuing desire for control/involvement…it’s not like she DOESN’T have her own life…end digression deux)

    –The portrayal of women as willing to sacrifice themselves for their children is a bad thing, culturally (I assume that’s what you meant): Disagree.

    (clarification: I believe we should portray both parents as willing to sacrifice themselves for their children…do you watch Heroes, by any chance? How do you feel about the behavior of Noah Bennet?

    I feel we need to encourage parents to sacrifice for their children–not just the ultimate sacrifice, but little sacrifices as well–because I feel parenthood is failing in America, and is seen more as an unwanted burden rather than the joy it can be. Hand in hand with this “kids are a burden” attitude is a view that children are not more important than “self”, and I feel this leads to bad parenting…if you’re not willing to sacrifice for your children, for the love of God, DON’T HAVE THEM. You will not raise good kids without sacrifice, and a lot of it. End rant)

  2. purtek says:

    Long outline. 🙂 But seriously–glad you have some blog-time these days, you definitely help me to strengthen my positions (both by shifting the positions themselves and forcing me to form better arguments).

    I guess one point I should make is that these messages and their use by (some) controlling mothers are certainly not the alpha and omega of cause-and-effect when it comes to destructive parenting. I think I also need to clarify this idea that the controlling behaviour is a “natural outgrowth”, because I don’t think it is. I want to be sympathetic and not overly critical of the women who internalize the message that their value comes from this self-sacrificial behaviour, because I am well aware that when it comes to bucking socializing messages, saying “just stop doing that” is far from helpful.

    But the martyr status is a mechanism that can be used to manipulate children, and I do think there comes a point when mothers damn well need to be told to stop it (this is a quibble on the “natural outgrowth” issue, basically saying that it can definitely be avoided in individuals, though it may be difficult).

    You’re also right that parenthood is a responsibility and a position of trust of enormous proportions, and that “kids are a burden” is a bullshit attitude (as well as one with obvious abuse potential). So I should say: all parents absolutely have to be in the space to adjust their lives according to the needs/best interests of dependent children. Every decision should be considered as a family decision, not an individual one. Radical mental shift required all around.

    But when I say that it’s not okay to make children more important than self, what I’m worried about is messages that make the motherly sacrifice mean the absolute eradication of self. Not just in practical terms, but in terms of the storyline the mother constructs for herself about why she does what she does. If she’s sees herself, on a subconscious level, as a martyr, then that means she has “killed” all of her own needs and desires in order to meet the needs of these others (her children). Except that she hasn’t–that would be impossible, assuming she’s not actually dead.

    So here’s the data: She’s sure she’s a “good” mother. She’s being told (and she believes) that if she were a truly “good” mother, everything she does would be for her children’s benefit before her own. She’s a human being and sometimes does things that are primarily for her own benefit (depending on her emotional health, perhaps a lot of the time). But in order to fit with the certainty that she’s actually a good, self-martyring mother, she has to insist that the things she does for her own good are not actually for her own good, but for her children’s.

    So the children have now become her self, against their will, when of course they’re actually selves in their own right. And you won’t raise good kids without enough self-esteem not to make them your unitary source of value, either.

    As for Heroes: watch it, love it, have critiqued it several times on Hathor, and have very complicated thoughts about Noah Bennett (because he’s an awesome character). I went on too long here, but I’m also interested in what you say about women no longer being “wives” once the “mother” icon becomes the more important identity-marker…among other things.

  3. Jay says:

    “…what I’m worried about is messages that make the motherly sacrifice mean the absolute eradication of self.”

    Oh, total agreement. Trying to eradicate the self (or trying to persuade members of a certain gender to do so) is bound to produce failure (and a messy, uncomfortable failure, at that…I’m reminded of a sign put on some high voltage wires: “this will not only kill you, it will hurt the whole time you’re dying”)

    “But in order to fit with the certainty that she’s actually a good, self-martyring mother, she has to insist that the things she does for her own good are not actually for her own good, but for her children’s.”

    Ah…isn’t that, like, projection or something? I slept through most of my psych courses. At any rate, it’s hardly a healthy state of affairs.
    And there’s the flip-side of this…mothers who don’t buy into (or can’t convince themselves) that everything they do is for their children, and thus feel like failures as mothers because they’re not selfless enough…that’s not exactly a good outcome either.

    “As for Heroes: watch it, love it, have critiqued it several times on Hathor, and have very complicated thoughts about Noah Bennett (because he’s an awesome character).”

    Sweet. 🙂

    “I went on too long here, but I’m also interested in what you say about women no longer being “wives” once the “mother” icon becomes the more important identity-marker…”

    Oh, just something I’ve noticed (and discussed, with my wife)…a situation wherein a woman may have a good, healthy, romantic relationship with her husband, which abruptly dies when children enter the equation…because the “mother” role completely washes away the “wife” role.
    Please don’t think I’m blaming unhappy marriages on the woman (in all cases)…but this can be, I feel, a contributing factor to strained marital relations. I at first thought it might have been a factor in my own, but I’ve discussed it with Casey, and her responses, combined with changes I’ve seen in her behavior, lead to believe it was not.

    And I’m not sure what causes it…part of it is the fact (as you’ve noted) to associate mothers more withe their children than we do fathers; hence, it is far more likely for a woman to take on that “mother” role to the exclusion of others (not that men don’t dump their “husband” role for much more frivolous reasons, in some cases).

    I think I’m rambling now. If you want to discuss further, you know where I am.

  4. BetaCandy says:

    I think there’s a very distinct line between self-sacrifice and martyrdom. Now, with the caveat that we’re not talking about women physically killing themselves but rather eradicating self in a way that’s not so much better than literal death:

    Martyrdom is when the sacrifice was not absolutely necessary; you chose to do it, in order to make a point. When mothers truly give up something, unnecessarily, for their kids, the end result can only be damage. Either mom isn’t the whole person they need as their female role model, or mom actually isn’t available because she’s so busy martyring herself for your sibling, or you feel like you owe her your whole existence and then some, and if she wants you to be both a porn star and a cult leader, you’ll kill yourself trying because she earned it through that sacrifice. (My grandmother was one of these – my dad was the result.)

    Self-sacrifice is a much more healthy thing, as long as it’s within reason (I liked Jay’s paragraph about the kids coming before the parents, but not at the total expense of the parents.) My mom was a big self-sacrificer, partly because of cultural conditioning and partly because she blamed herself for giving me the father I had – she saw herself as owing ME, not the other way around. That’s the big, huge, glittering difference IMO.

    And the self-sacrifice thing is still troubling even when it’s not mixed up with martyrdom because it IS so gendered in our culture. I agree with Jay that parents of both genders should do some self-sacrificing (but never in order to be OWED), and if our culture agreed we wouldn’t be having this discussion.

  5. purtek says:

    Martyrdom is when the sacrifice was not absolutely necessary; you chose to do it, in order to make a point.

    As per usual, Betacandy–this hits at what I was trying to say, with many fewer words. It’s the making the point that’s the problem. The martyr issue is just one of many weapons that can be used and it’s one that gets taken up by some women who are dysfunctional. The problem is the dysfunction, not the sacrifice, and it would be there in a different form whether we sanctioned this meta-idea or not…but one of the additional by-products of this cultural sanctioning is that we can’t even discuss the dysfunctional form of it because mothers are self-sacrificing and saintly and that’s inherently wonderful and criticizing your mother is akin to devil worship.

    Or something. I may currently be overcaffeinated.

  6. BetaCandy says:

    No, that’s exactly it. My grandmother (just grabbing a handy example) constructed this myth that she had sacrificed everything for her younger son (my dad) because he was so special and so on. But I think the real damage came from everyone around them buying into it. The neighborhood, the local church people, etc. Everybody admired her. More to the point, they wouldn’t believe a thing anyone said against her. So she was free to commit every atrocity she cared to because she played the prescribed gender role.

    This is all reminding me of my post about Rebecca on the Books@THL site. Maybe not so much the post as what I was thinking about when writing it.

  7. […] C.L. Hanson posted about Ice Age, it generated a lot of discussion about how a mother sacrificing herself for her child could be a negative stereotype. I decided the whole topic was worth a post, since there are several […]

  8. […] When people stumble over here through a search engine, one of my most frequently hit old posts is Martyrdom and Motherhood. Usually, it’s people searching telling strings like “manipulative mothers” […]

  9. […] times about the martyr complex in individuals and why it’s so damn destructive (most notably here), both to the individual who assumes that role and to the people she purports to be trying to help […]

  10. […] That half of the dichotomy is never allowed to make mistakes, and it reminds me, again, of this old post of mine about the impact of that self-sacrificing mother image, the playing out of the pressure for […]

  11. Mitzy says:

    Much of this all sacrificing mother is NOT the mothers fault. I have seen over and over men who, once wife has become mother, USE the “responsibility” she feels towards her children to their advantage to scoot on down the road doing whatever, as clearly a good mother wouldn’t abandon her children to go find out what bad guy is really doing when he says he is “working late”.

    Motherhood has a degree of isolation at its core for many women. The norm for society now is working mothers, a mother that doesn’t have to work, but is a stay at home is by virtue of minority of mothers that do, isolated.

    Add to that mix a husband that USES her isolation and her sense of responsibility to “pull a fast one” and who constantly “reminds” her of her “duties” of motherhood and also uses the existance of his children to work too long hours oft as an excuse to not be home helping and you have the beginnings of a PERSONAL and conflicting double bind many mothers find themselves in.

    Motherhood in many ways is a damned or you do or damned if you don’t state of being in our society that STILL ulitmately expects, make that demands more of mothers, while still only giving fathers a politically correct nod, in the assessments particularily if there is an overburdened or abused mother or children. MOTHER is always an easy target of blame and accountibility.

    The stay at home mother in my opinion gets it the worst. From men, women and society at large. So a woman who choses to or can or wants to devote to her children all her resources (not to mention making things a bit easier on herself too) is condemned for all her choices. This type isolation can and does lead to some weird outcomes for the woman and the mother in her………..these conflicts created NOT by the woman/mother herself but moreinflicted by our changed society, can manifest in some weird outcomes for a mother and her children.


  12. Mitzy says:

    Clarify, society devalues mothers while ultimately holding them responsible. We need to fix that.

    Anyone who has never been “mother” cannot possibly feel the sometimes horrific “pulls” and conflicts that go on within, to not sacrifice her total self but far too often she is left with few choices and must tread a very thin line of “acceptibility” in everything she does.

    I think we expect far too much of mothers, while giving them little support. Many factors contribute to the syndromes we are now seeing in women and children in RECORD numbers.

    Women in general seem to have bought into the supermom syndrome with little or no support anywhere.

    The best illustration of this I can give is to look at a footrace. A man can use ALL his resources to race, whereas a mother usually is trying to run the race with one or more children in tow. She may have half a chance at keeping up with a man, but ONLY if she leaves her children behind. She is now expected to keep up while not abandoning her children.

    This is the dilema many women who must or chose to work, for their own personal reasons face, yet no one not even society at large is willing to “level the field” by giving her a handicap, BECAUSE she is also a mother.

    Should we expect the same of fathers? Should we offer handicaps to fathers? YES, unfortunately until many things shift……… it or no society in general STILL has unrealistic demands and expectations of the WOMAN/Mother. Maybe because in family with father the “head of household”, and mother next in line she is the last “buck stop” till we get to the children. Meaning responsibilty and accountibility for the children’s welfare falls far too often unfairly on her shoulders alone.

  13. purtek says:

    Mitzy, I think I was pretty clear that I saw this particular kind of behaviour as an internalization of a lot of cultural pressures/attitudes, and I totally agree with you that the “supermom” pressure is alive and well. I don’t envy mothers having to deal with it, stay-at-home or otherwise.

    However I also think that it’s dangerous just to say “but it’s not the mother’s fault!!” in response to the behaviour I’m criticizing here. Old-time gender essentialist arguments depend on a “just in your nature” point of view, and I don’t think it’s really any more beneficial to oversimplify into a “all my actions are what I’m socialized into”.

    I’m not sure that’s what you were saying, or if you just find my article problematic from the perspective of a mother. My point, however, is that the “pressures to sacrifice her total self” – fuck, any kind of message that “sacrificing her total self” is a good thing are seriously harmful, not just to her, but to her children. I genuinely believe that, I don’t think I have to have been a mother or have felt these pressures in order to understand why it’s a fucked up attitude.

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