The Moment I Realized I’d Become a Martyr Mom

martyr mom martyr mom

It happened just the other morning. My butt had been glued to the rocking chair for over three hours straight, starting with my baby’s third wake-up call of the night at 4am. I had nursed and rocked and burped and bottle-fed and re-diapered and I was exhausted. I handed the baby over to my husband so I could pump for her next feeding. But as he held her (all I needed was 10 minutes!), her cry pierced the air again.

I knew that cry. She wanted me. Not my husband, not a bottle, and not the pacifier he tried to sneak into her mouth. Me. No substitutes, please.

“I’ll take her,” I said weakly to my husband, fatigue overtaking my body. “But man, I really have to pee.”

He looked at me strangely. “Well, go to the bathroom then.”

The cries, though. I shook my head, holding my hands out wearily. “Just give her to me,” I said.

Again, my husband looked at me like I had lost my marbles. “Just go,” he repeated.

“I’ll go later, just give her to me,” I said, my tone sharp. He handed her over wordlessly and I settled back down into rocking chair, resigned to another session of feeding, burping, and soothing. It could be as long as an hour.

Looking back, I am cognizant of the fact that I was being a bit ridiculous, but here’s the thing: In that moment, it felt harder to walk away and go pee than to stay. I could not find the energy to extricate, all I knew was that I didn’t want to listen to my baby scream any longer. In my mind, it just wasn’t worth the effort required to put my needs first, however small they were.

At the age of 33, after having birthed five children from my body, and after the years of cries and whines and tears and tantrums and snacks and socks missing and forms to be signed and clothes outgrown and knees scabbed and middle-of-the-night wake-ups and ill-timed interruptions and all the rest… it had finally happened, or maybe it happened long ago:

I realized I had crossed the line into becoming a “Martyr Mom.”

I had heard enough about Martyr Mom to recognize her when she showed up in me. I’d sigh loudly in the direction of my husband, hoping he’d ask me what was wrong, I’d insist “I’m fine” when he’d remind me I didn’t have to hold the baby all night. Martyr Mom reared up in me when I found myself burning with jealousy over the moms who got to do things like go to a workout class or get their hair done, while I couldn’t even seem to find the time to go to the bathroom. My Martyr Mom was strapped for time, resources and energy like most other moms — but the defining characteristic was that instead of acknowledging the season of life I was and finding a solution when something wasn’t working, I’d just stew silently and burn up inside with resentment. Because why bother, right? It seemed like even when I did acknowledge that I needed a break and took action to craft a plan, it was torpedo-ed anyways, leading me to wish I had never tried in the first place. Sometimes, like that morning in the rocking chair, it just felt easier to give in to everyone else’s demands — on my body, time, and energy — rather than try to take some space for myself and just end up disappointed.

That’s how the loop continues.

But that day, that very moment, with my husband looking at me like I had suddenly sprouted a second head, I decided I’d had enough of being Martyr Mom. It was getting old.

I had a little talking to myself. With a baby and four other kids, a husband with an unpredictable and busy work schedule, and no regular childcare help, I had to be realistic. But I could also stop being so passive and victim-y. For example, maybe I couldn’t take a whole day for myself, but certainly my husband could take over for 30 minutes a day so I could have a walk. Maybe I couldn’t fit in a whole gym session right now while my infant was so young, but I could find a mommy-and-me yoga class. Maybe I couldn’t keep up with homemade meals every night, but I could find a way to stop beating myself up over chicken nugget nights when they did happen. Most importantly, maybe I could stop acting like every single waking and sleeping moment of our children’s lives was somehow my responsibility, despite the fact that my husband had never, ever put that on me. (Seriously moms, why do we do this??)

So, the first Saturday after that, instead of waking up and automatically resigning myself to another day of schlepping and laundry and wiping crumbs off counters, I left.

I told my husband that I’d be dropping in on an exercise class — and the key was letting him know, not asking him, because hello, his kids too — and he happily waved me out the door. In my mind, I’d built up taking a break as this huge, impossible thing, when in reality, it was truly just that simple. I said I was leaving and I walked out of the door with a wave. Well, a wave and my pump.

It was only for a few hours, and it was only for my class, a coffee in the sunshine and some grocery shopping (alone!), but I did it. I took the first step towards banishing Martyr Mom, even though in a lot of ways, it was harder than just giving in to her.

When I returned home, feeling more refreshed and calm than I had in a long time, I had more energy and patience. I knew that, finally, I was doing the right thing for myself and for everyone — even when my daughter rather heartbreakingly asked me why I had “ran away” from them. (Mom guilt is so real, folks.) No matter what, I realized that I was so much better for having allowed myself to take a break, even when it was difficult to do. And I vowed to do more of it.

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Chaunie Brusie is an OB nurse turned writer and author of several books. Her work has been published everywhere from The New York Times to The Washington Post to Parents magazine. After two miscarriages, Chaunie founded The Stay Strong Mom, a community of gift boxes for loss mothers, with proceeds donated to families who need help paying their medical bills after a pregnancy loss.