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Motherhood & Martyrdom: Why Moms Become Martyrs & Professional Tips

Lia Avellino, LCSW
Parenting Writer
By Lia Avellino, LCSW
Parenting Writer
Lia Avellino, LCSW, CEO of Spoke Circles, is trained as a relational and somatic psychotherapist and supports individuals and groups in being real and vulnerable.
Stressed mother busy with two children, Parenthetical franchise
Image by BONNINSTUDIO x mbg creative / Stocksy
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In mindbodygreen's parenting column, Parenthetical, mbg parenting contributor, psychotherapist, and writer Lia Avellino explores the dynamic, enriching, yet often complicated journey into parenthood. In today's installment, Avellino explains why so many mothers become martyrs.

So many of the clients I work with in therapy and support circles at Spoke are mothers who have been taught to self-deny. Many moms have become the modern martyrs—parents who sacrifice their resources against their own self-interests. Martyrs say no to their own needs, in order to support others or stand behind a principle. They are known to minimize their own accomplishments, break their backs for others but expect nothing in return, and devalue their need for self-care. 

Ironically, martyrs are revered—women are often idealized for having little to no needs—but they aren't liked. Think about the critiques given to modern-day martyr moms. Not to mention, the negative connotation around the phrase "martyr complex."

So, why do so many mothers sacrifice themselves in favor of another? 

Why mothers are pulled to become martyrs

The reason so many moms naturally become martyrs is that there's significant overlap between femininity and what it means to be a martyr.

Many of the martyr's ideal qualities align with those put forth by the tenets and pressures of femininity. To be successfully "feminine" means to defer to others, anticipate the needs of others, and define the self in relation to others (mother, daughter, sister, wife, and so on). The risk of not being "good" is very high for mothering individuals—being critiqued for not doing "enough" and therefore not being "enough."

And yet, the cost of being defined in relation to others is that one doesn't live in line with her own needs and wants. 

Somewhere along the way, we got the cultural message that value being "child-centered expert-guided, emotionally absorbing, labor-intensive, and financially expensive" was the right way to parent.

We begin to feel guilt if we outsource child care to a community member or babysitter. We believe we should be straddling the jungle gym alongside our toddlers, not sitting with adults on the sidelines. We worry that we aren't being supportive parents if we don't sign up our kids for several extracurricular activities; therefore, we continue to sacrifice ourselves on behalf of our family.

Perinatal psychiatrist Pooja Lakshmin, M.D., writes about the conflicting messages her mothering patients receive: On one hand to be self-sacrificing and on the other hand to find personal meaning and succeed as professionals. 

Have you considered that this style of parenting is a cultural norm, not necessarily the best way of being for you and your family? Have you noticed that being a martyr might keep you doing more work (without payment, ahem), enabling others to do less work? Who does your martyrdom truly benefit—is it your kids or a patriarchal and capitalist society that taught you that you are worthless if you are not working for others?

How do we model living more freely in ourselves, gaining clarity on our own thoughts, feelings, and desires, so that eventually our children do the same? 

Here are 4 steps to hanging up the mother martyr identity 

Here are ways to move past the martyr identify and embrace your own needs.

Validate the martyr in you

In a culture that doesn't welcome the anger and dissatisfaction of women, no wonder she only gets to express the pain of her sacrifices through complaints and passive-aggressive comments. I interpret statements or behaviors that communicate "look at all I've done for you" as indirect cries to be seen because she hasn't been permitted to scream at the top of her lungs: "This is too much giving for me, and I am angry about it!" 

To this end, it's important to recognize yourself and all you have done to be who others needed you to be. To honor that you are working so hard to gain the approval of others, because you have been taught that your value only exists in relation to how it's externally appraised.

To recognize that you have an underdeveloped self, unclear of your own stance, because you have had to be so attuned to the needs of those around you in order to get recognition and become a "good woman." This is how you played your role right, this is how you've remained in good cultural standing.

Becoming a martyr wasn't your fault, but it is your responsibility to question the price you pay for bearing this identity. What do you give up when you are constantly bending over for those around you? How might this actually harm, not help, your family? 

Begin to write the guide book to you

When we are constantly deferring to others—their preferences for food, activities, schedules—we inherently tune out of our own. After enough time, we lose complete contact with our inner voice. The good news is, that voice is always there; it's just buried under the demands and echoes of others.

Instead, ask yourself:

  • What does my body feel like when I am doing right by me?
  • What are the memories/images that come to mind when I think about living in line with my authentic self?
  • What movie/book characters do I admire for the way they live their lives?
  • What steps might I take to embody these qualities?
  • And most importantly: Am I willing to give up the approval of others for the promise of living with more ease in myself? 

Spend time with these questions–even if answers don't appear immediately. With enough inquiry, the quiet voice inside you will become louder and harder to ignore. 

What in your body lets you know when you are approaching your limit?

Our bodies are generating signals all the time that let us know if we are moving in the right or wrong direction for our unique selves. With having to pay attention to so much—children, work, household responsibilities, caretaking of our parents, etc.—we learn to disregard these messages.

In reality, it's listening to them that will help us live in more alignment with our personal truths, which allows us to form stronger bonds with others. Think about it: If we take ourselves (our ideas, feelings, needs) out of the relationship to remain connected, then we aren't in a genuine relationship.

Here are some things to consider:

  • How can you tell when you're reaching your limit of giving?
  • Do you feel resentment or irritability, want to roll your eyes, experience shortness of breath, or want to cry?

These are all signs that you might be giving from a place of depletion, and instead of giving more away, it might be time to ask to receive. 

Ask for help

As simple as this sounds, it's one of the hardest things for many of us to do.

Growing up in an American culture that values individualism means that many of us feel like a burden or that we are doing something wrong by asking for support. In some collectivist cultures, parents actually train their children to be dependent rather than independent. What happens in your body and in your mind when you say the words "I can't do this anymore" or "I don't want to do this alone."

Notice the judgments or fears that arise, but consider not believing them to be true. Martyrdom is really about taking on the weight of the world, when what we may need is to offload some of it to others. 

Healing happens in connection, and pain thrives in isolation. Separateness is at odds with our biology; research shows that when we are in pain and are holding the hand of someone we love, we actually rate the pain lower. Whose hands can you hold as you recover yourself? 

Lia Avellino, LCSW author page.
Lia Avellino, LCSW
Parenting Writer

Lia Avellino, LCSW, CEO of Spoke Circles, is trained as a relational and somatic psychotherapist and supports individuals and groups in being real and vulnerable. She believes that deep and intentional connection is the balm for healing and that we all have what we need within us to find our way. To this end, Lia has committed her professional life to bringing the science and ethos of therapy out of the clinical realm and into community spaces. In her role as the Advisor of Head and Heart at THE WELL, relationship columnist for Well Good, and facilitator & media commentator, she uses experiential learning frameworks to empower people to work through issues that are meaningful to them.

She graduated with distinction from Columbia University and has received awards for innovative research and excellence in the provision of therapeutic care to underserved populations, while managing a national component of President Obama’s initiative to reduce teen pregnancy across the nation. Her writing and commentary has been featured in GLAMOUR magazine, The American Journal of Sexuality Education, Best Life, ABC’s The Tamron Hall Show, Cosmopolitan, Men’s Health, CNBCs MakeIt, Motherly, and more. Lia lives with her husband and 3 children in Brooklyn, NY.