Why Self-Sacrifice Is Hurting Moms + How One Mom "Dropped The Guilt"
Why has maternal exhaustion become a badge of honor? How has it become socially acceptable, even admirable, to give so much that your body and soul are prematurely dying from lack of rest and spiritual replenishment?
This feels like a new cultural trend, but is it, really? My mother and her mother and her mother's mother all believed that they didn't matter. Why is that? Why is being a mother openly viewed as one of the most undervalued positions we can have, yet so much of human development is attached to the health and well-being of the mother?
We see and define motherhood in ways that are contradictory and self-defeating. Once I became a mother of two, my life began to reflect those deeply held cultural beliefs around motherhood to an even greater degree. Eventually, I began to refer to it as Dying to Be a Good Mother syndrome.
Dissecting the culture of self-sacrifice.
Whenever I mentioned how exhausted I felt, I heard the same reply, "You've got young ones at home. Of course you're tired." Desperate for new ideas and solutions, I searched online, only to find mommy bloggers semi-joking about "mommy juice" and "wine o'clock."
At one point, I noticed a social media post from a famous billionaire entrepreneur, who's also a mom, bemoaning her perpetual exhaustion while essentially blaming it on motherhood. I wasn't just disheartened; I was infuriated. She seemed like an empowered businessperson, yet she, too, was buying into the idea that motherhood is about chaos and suffering. This idea is so deeply etched into our definition of what a "good" mother is that no amount of money or status or outside help can solve it. I remember seeing her post and thinking, Is buying into this culture of self-sacrifice really the only way to be a "good" mother? Is mental, emotional, or physical depletion really all there is for us, as moms?
Even while navigating my days consumed by guilt about not doing enough for my own kids—no matter what I did, it never felt like enough—I felt increasingly overwhelmed by how our broader culture was positioning motherhood as a kind of torture. The message was clear—if you weren't perpetually exhausted or in constant, desperate need of caffeine and/or wine, you must not be doing enough. If you weren't sacrificing your own needs and desires for your kids, you were failing. Being a "good" mother caused exhaustion, maybe even required it. It was fine to complain about it, even joke about it, provided you understood that this is what a "good" mother does.
The more aware I became of this message, the more I noticed it. Years earlier, a woman I looked up to told me that I needed to buy the cheaper shampoo now that I was a mother of two. I'd done as she suggested and bought the less expensive shampoo, only to find it disappointing and my hair lackluster. My hair has always been my beauty fun zone, something I enjoy that makes me feel like me. I remember wondering, Why should I sacrifice something that makes me feel so good just to save 10 or 12 bucks? I soon went back to buying the "expensive" shampoo and, for once, didn't feel guilty about "treating" myself.
However, that one tiny act of rebellion couldn't overpower the million others that did center on self-sacrifice. Drawing energy from what felt like sparse reserves, I kept on working, teaching, and giving more, desperate for validation from the world around me. As I dove deeper into the health and wellness world, I secretly yearned to be the "perfect" marathon-running mom, the meditation-and-green-juice mom, with her own business, too. I was trying but also failing. As my meditation classes grew in size, I still couldn't overcome my anxiety enough to make a green smoothie from scratch. Having grown up in a house where the kitchen was primarily for food storage, rather than actual cooking, the mere thought of shopping for ingredients and making a green smoothie for myself, in my own kitchen, felt impossibly overwhelming.
Taking a step: I took back my mornings.
Even as I became more passionate about taking a stand for mothers who were taking care of themselves in whatever ways they could, there was no denying that I still wasn't happy. Physically, mentally, and emotionally, I felt weighed down by a heavy blanket of misery that began morphing into a quiet, yet undeniable, sense of desperation. Was this what motherhood was about? If so, I didn't want it. I'd never wanted to feel this way. There were so many days when I badly wanted to break down in tears, too weary at a deep soul level to "make it all work" for another single second. My kids were amazing creatures, and both of them had fully captured my heart, yet secretly I wondered how much more I had to give. Even as I grew more passionate about our need to self-nurture, I wore my fatigue like a badge of honor, a sign that I was at least in the running to become a "good" mother.
This feeling of always being too many steps behind only grew as Calvin did. The closer he got to becoming a toddler, the more energy he had. The more he could move, the more he insisted he needed to. He was in nonstop, full-on action from the moment he opened his eyes to whenever he finally closed them.
Prior to this point in my life, I'd never been a morning person. I wasn't in the habit of jolting out of bed or going from zero to 100 in seconds, yet with Calvin, that seemed mandatory. It rattled me deeply, fraying my nerves and clipping my patience. As someone who's always been highly sensitive to noise and energy, I felt perpetually out of sync with how fast and loud my home life was becoming.
Finally, I decided I'd had enough. Starting every day in a panic was wearing on me. Bryan (my husband) often received the brunt of my anxiety; I was beginning to resent starting every day off on the wrong foot. Now fully immersed in the online health and wellness world, I'd heard several industry leaders talk about the importance of adhering to a morning routine. It was time for me to create one for myself.
That decision to make what amounts to a simple daily change has proved hugely valuable. Over time, it has also become a habit that I still rely on to start my day. As with nearly everything, from eating to exercise, meditation, and more, I do best when I let myself be flexible. I'm not rigid about habits, and I don't do well when I try to stick to one routine for too long. That may mean that I'm really into meditating for a period of weeks or months, only to discover one day that journaling is calling to me instead.
While the idea of staying open to your new yearnings and desires may seem appealing, in a culture that often defines success as always doing more, better, my need for flexibility can feel, or even look like, failure. Am I less of a meditator because I don't practice every single day? Am I less of a runner because sometimes I go on yoga kicks, and less of a yogi because I sometimes prefer to go running? Am I less disciplined because my morning routine on Thursday may differ from what it was on Monday?
As I've renegotiated my relationship with the idea and practice of my morning routine in the years since beginning one, I've had to accept the fact that my idea of a successful morning routine means having one at all. To me the goal is to create mornings that nurture me spiritually, emotionally, and physically. How that happens, and how that changes from one day to the next, no longer bothers me.
Whether you do better with this more flexible approach or a more consistent one, I encourage you to begin looking at your own mornings. How can you make the start of your day feel more fulfilling?
Sleep Like Before You Had Kids.
Receive your FREE Parents' Guide to Getting a Good Night's Sleep
Heather Chauvin is the author of Dying to Be a Good Mother and the host of the Mom Is In Control Podcast where she reveals her most vulnerable truths about womanhood, marriage, parenting, living through stage 4 cancer and running a successful business without burning out. She is also a leadership expert, drawing from her professional experience as a social worker and her life experience raising three boys, Heather created a signature approach to help her clients create and enjoy sustainability, profitability and ease in business and life.