Joys of motherhood: I refuse to be a martyred mother

joys of motherhood: happy mom playing with young son at home

You don’t have to look far to find odes to all the sacrifices mothers make. We talk about all the things mothers give up, the trials we endure, the obstacles we overcome. And that’s true. Moms are awesome and we give up a lot. But you know what we don’t talk about enough? The joys of motherhood.

What message does this send? In our silence, we make the joys of motherhood less meaningful and we elevate the sacrifices.

Related: America Runs On Sacrificing Mothers — And That’s Not OK

If we don’t sacrifice our time, our bodies, our goals, our needs, our relationships, we feel like we’re not mommy enough. As a new mom, I struggled a lot with breastfeeding. The struggle is an understatement, actually. I hated him. Breastfeeding was bad for me, bad for my mental health, bad for the mother-child bond. I knew from the moment my son was born, probably before I even gave birth, that I didn’t want to breastfeed. Yet I endured. Because I was also told from the moment my son was born – probably even before the birth – that motherhood meant I had to make sacrifices. That I should put my needs last. That I should endure.

I believed that was what it meant to be a mother – to sacrifice your own needs, your health, your body, your emotions, all of it, until you were dry – for the sake of your child. That is, after all, the message we send to mothers, isn’t it? That if you don’t put your needs last, if you don’t sacrifice yourself, then you are not a “good mother”.

Well you know what? It’s absurd.

Parenthood is inherently filled with sacrifice, and motherhood is hard enough as it is. Let’s stop complicating things by celebrating unnecessary self-sacrifice.

Because as soon as I stopped breastfeeding, an incredible thing happened: I found more joy in motherhood. Feeding my son has become something pleasant and peaceful. The mother-child bond grows. Today, this baby is a teenager and all that formula has done him no harm. It also didn’t harm his little brother, who I bottle-fed from the start.

Over the years, I have deepened this philosophy: I refuse to favor the sacrifices of motherhood over the joys. And there are so many joys.

Parenthood is inherently filled with sacrifice, and motherhood is hard enough as it is. Let’s stop complicating things by celebrating unnecessary self-sacrifice.

There is no reward for constantly putting your needs last. We don’t get awards for being a mother martyr. And perhaps most importantly, our sacrifices and self-imposed hardships are not helping our children.

A few years ago I wrote a article in the Washington Post which still goes around. I wrote there: “I don’t want my children to consider me as a sort of martyr who sacrifices himself; I want them to know that I love them with all my heart and that they are part of a family – as well as a larger community – which means their needs can’t always come first.

Finding the joy and pleasure of motherhood looks different for everyone. But it starts with getting rid of that one-size-fits-all approach to what it means to be a “good mom.”

My kids are now in the teen and tween age group, and I believe that more than ever. As they discover their place in the world, I want them to know that they are special and amazing, and everyone else is too. I want them to know they are loved unconditionally, but unconditional love doesn’t mean not loving me. I work to teach them that with great privilege (and as cisgender white men they have immense privilege) comes great responsibility. And I want my children to know that I loved being their mother and that being a mother has been a great joy in my life. Difficult, yes – as any meaningful relationship sometimes is – but also an absolute delight.

Finding the joy and pleasure of motherhood looks different for everyone. But it starts with getting rid of that one-size-fits-all approach to what it means to be a “good mom” (i.e., putting yourself last). If we are to raise children who are compassionate, independent, and respectful of others, we cannot continue to prioritize the sacrifices of motherhood over the joys of motherhood.

However, the sacrificial character of the martyred mother persists. We tell ourselves that we cannot “have everything” even if the world keeps telling us that we should be able to “do everything”. And we are completely exhausted. Motherly’s 2022 State of Motherhood Survey found that 49% of millennial mothers report feeling exhausted “often” or “always”, and 66% of mothers have less than an hour of time to them every day. Although levels of burnout reported in Motherly’s 2022 State of Motherhood Survey are slightly lower than last year, according to The New York Times, a new report shows two-thirds of working parents meet definition of parental burnout. What’s even more alarming is that the report’s authors say it’s likely to persist even beyond the pandemic. We’re so exhausted that research confirming parental exhaustion and predictions about its longevity don’t even phase us anymore. We are too exhausted to care.

Related: The State of Motherly’s Motherhood

Something has to give. For me, that has meant taking a KonMari approach to life and parenting. Does it bring me joy? If not, do I really need to do it? Does it really help my children? Does it really benefit our family? Or is it a kind of useless self-denial?

Of course, there are non-negotiables that don’t make me happy. Invoices must be paid. Children get sick. Anger must be calmed. But too often we put things in the necessities pile because that’s what the world tells us we should TO DO. We should have a career and attend all school events and sports games. We should finding time for self-care while cooking nutritious meals for our family every night. We should feed our marriage and also put our children to bed every night. But that’s just not possible. With all these conflicts should, we prepare mothers to fail. Or feel like failures.

Once I started throwing shoulds and self-sacrifice, I got to see all the joys – and dare I say, the pleasures – of motherhood. I exercise every morning, so my husband carpools. I have a career that I enjoy, so sometimes I miss some of my kids’ baseball games. I volunteer for causes I’m passionate about, so I don’t help out at PTA events. And I really like spending time with my children. Being their mother is a pure delight.

Our children are the center of our lives, they are our great loves and I am amazed at how much love and true admiration I feel for their mother. How the hell did I get so lucky?

Raising children is hard work and an absolute joy at the same time. And it’s time for us to stop celebrating the sacrifices of motherhood at the expense of the joys.

essays, tips for parents

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