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Finding Yourself In Motherhood: Ending Maternal Martyrdom

I was fascinated to learn that a baby’s DNA stays within the mother up to 30 years after the baby is born. This discovery is a testament to the phenomenon that a mother knows at her core once her child is born: she is fundamentally changed and her sense of self is now tethered to her child. Fathers experience their own shift in responsibility and aptitudes for caretaking, however, the impact on a woman is physical, instinctual, and primal. This drive to nurture often places the child’s needs above the mother’s and creates a precarious imbalance that many mothers struggle to manage.

After giving birth, a woman's brain circuitry becomes acutely attuned to her baby's needs, fostering increased maternal anxiety that promotes caretaking. Within this process the mother-infant dyad becomes a single, interdependent, and synchronized entity. This level of preoccupation with the baby may cause loving friends and family members to wonder if mom is taking things too far, and in any other context this level of preoccupation could be considered unhealthy.* These biological changes have been sustained through generations because they keep babies alive.

Findind Yourself in Motherhood: The Antidote to Maternal Martyrdom

While the spike of anxiety decreases with time, the sense of attunement and preoccupation a mother experiences doesn’t fade. These nurturing superpowers drive a mother to extend herself far beyond her capacity to ensure the health and wellbeing of her child(ren). Throughout time, this has benefitted the broader culture and ensured survival, but we’re finding ourselves in a moment of crisis, where women are attempting to manage the full-scale maternal urges with the various other roles they carry.

From the moment we are born, we are taught how to fit in at home, at school, into other social groups we are part of, and how to fit in to cultural ideologies including those that promote the continuation of patriarchy and capitalism. We internalize all of these messages and unconsciously use them as unspoken rules to live by. Mothers are particularly crippled by these expectations and often find themselves trapped in a cycle of meeting external expectations and the needs of others at the expense of their own well-being, a phenomenon I call Maternal Martyrdom. While it is simplistic to say that a mother’s needs and a child’s needs are in competition, most women carry a sense of guilt or shame around meeting some of their most basic needs. The needs of the child or family are almost always centered while the modern mother is often overextended, worn out, depleted, isn’t having her needs met, and feels guilty that she’s not doing better and that she’s not doing more. It’s not sustainable. Many mothers are adrift, focused on all of their obligations and duties, and without a sense of who they are and what they need.

Oh, mother, you are so important. Your needs matter. The work of caring for yourself is not selfish. It is the foundation for the house you are building.

The last thing you need is to have self-care added to your list of things to feel guilty about not doing. While it is important find activities that are restorative, a bit of pampering or relaxation is not a solution to this problem. Self-care can serve as a release valve for all the pressure that is building, but it isn’t the real work. The journey to reclaiming selfhood involves untangling from external pressures, prioritizing personal needs, and embracing authenticity. There are numerous ways to embark on this journey and it doesn’t always require therapy. There are so many amazing resources for self-discovery available - feel free to message me if you’d like me to share some of my favorites. There are times, however, when childhood events and circumstances leave a deeper mark and the process of untangling becomes more complicated.

As a therapist I love to take folks on this journey, but the difficulty most moms have centering their needs can become a roadblock. There are so many pressures involved in early motherhood and, although this transition tends to heighten awareness of unmet needs, there often isn’t the emotional space needed to do some of the deeper work required. As a new mother, it may not be the time to do the work, but don’t leave it undone. Without the deeper work of healing, you can’t meaningfully interrupt the unhealthy patterns or beliefs you’ve inherited from the culture, your family of origin, or the traumas you’ve experienced. These bits of unprocessed shadow show up in outbursts of anger, controlling behaviors, insecurity, and anxiety that guides how you parent. Being a healthy, present, and grounded parent is a legacy for your children and will have a far bigger impact than the cleanliness of the floors or whether you cloth diaper. You will never regret prioritizing yourself in this way and your family will be better for it.

*It’s important to distinguish this normal heightened level of anxiety from disordered anxiety. Women who are predisposed to anxiety may find that this boost in anxiety pushes them into an unmanageable state with intrusive thoughts and even into obsessive-compulsive type behaviors. If you are uncertain whether the level of anxiety you are experiencing is healthy, it’s always a good idea to seek support from an experienced perinatal mental health specialist.

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