You’re pregnant; maybe you’re in the first trimester. Maybe the second trimester. Perhaps your due date is any minute. Or maybe you’re adopting and in the midst of home visits or paperwork. You’re probably scared, excited. Worried. Everything in between. You’re in for the ride of your life. You have no idea. Nothing can or will prepare you, because motherhood is an exhilarating journey of exhaustion, joy, sorrow, laughter and immense, incredible gratitude. It's a gate you pass through, never to go back. "Go see a movie now while you can!" Well-meaning people will suggest. "You'll never have a moment to yourself again!" And they are somewhat right, but the sacrifice and self-neglect mothers perform isn't entirely necessary.
Motherhood is a forever job, and the role of mom is never ever retired. We are our children’s perkiest cheerleaders, their loudest advocates, and they are forever our joy. But between all the worry, the love, the tears, the fears and the laughter, sometimes we forget about us. The woman who existed before them. Before pregnancy. Before motherhood. There is almost a silent obligation to forget about personal needs, and this intentional neglect is indoctrinated as a definition of motherhood. The need to be last is so rooted in the role of "mom" — the definition seemingly carved out for us, and before us — that mothers who don’t sacrifice every detail begin to worry if we haven’t sacrificed enough. Mommy martyrdom isn’t a myth, it’s a lifestyle. And it’s wrong.
A study titled “The Role of Maternal Self Care in New Motherhood” published in the journal Midwifery examined women’s perspectives on self-care by conducting focus groups of new moms within Allegehny County, Penn. According to the study, self-care included exercise, allowing the baby’s father or a family member watch the child and eating out at a restaurant. The focus groups revealed two diverging beliefs on self-care. Per the findings, “In one conception of effective mothering, self-care was of primary importance. On the contrary, some women associated a sometimes extreme form of self-sacrifice with new motherhood.”
There’s sacrificing your life for your child’s life when they are in peril, and then there is sacrificing a part of your identity because you think you don’t matter, that you shouldn’t matter.
While some mothers had financial or other challenges that affected self-care, the engrained self-sacrificing nature of motherhood that some mothers use to define their new role cannot and should not be ignored. This extreme self sacrifice is, in essence, the belief system that grounds the title of Mommy Martyr. But it has a toll on mothers. As a study published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health found, "having a third child was associated with significantly more missing teeth for women, but not men." The researchers concluded that pregnancy's effects, and the tendency among women to prioritize their children's health over their own, both contributed to the trend. Women self-report spending six hours breastfeeding a day in the early weeks, and the National Institutes of Health in the UK warn that "women often lose 3 to 5 percent of their bone mass during breastfeeding." Meanwhile, couples with children are likely to be twice as dissatisfied with their relationship as child-free couples, per a study published in the Journal of Personality & Social Psychology. Mothers are caught between devoting their time and energy to their children and to their partner. But what about themselves?
There’s sacrificing your life for your child’s life when they are in peril, and then there is sacrificing a part of your identity because you think you don’t matter, that you shouldn’t matter… or be seen. All sacrifices aren’t inherently similar, but in motherhood they are treated as one in the same. Curling your hair has somehow become adjacent to personal vanity, because those five minutes are viewed as time not spent as mom, being mom. The message is clear: go all in or nothing. Anything less means failure as a mother, and as a woman.
Mommy martyrdom is garbage. It isn’t real. There is no such thing as the perfect mother, the perfect woman or the perfect human. And you know what? Spending 10 minutes before the kids get up to put on makeup, style your hair or take a private moment isn’t a fault or a weakness — it’s healthy, and it’s real. And, in so many ways, it’s an act of self-preservation.
Dr. Alexandra Sacks, reproductive psychiatrist and author of the upcoming book How Come No One Told Me?, delves into the complicated dynamics of maternal identity in an article titled “A Birth of a Mother” for the New York Times. The pressure to be perfect is one of the many burdens that cause new mothers to create a fictional idealized vision of motherhood…and this vision is one that no woman can possibly mirror.
“There’s also the ideal mother in a woman’s mind. She’s always cheerful and happy, and always puts her child’s needs first,” Dr. Sacks writes. “She has few needs of her own. She doesn’t make decisions that she regrets. Most women compare themselves to that mother, but they never measure up because she’s a fantasy.”
The pressure to live up to this fantasy also plays into a new mother’s identity as a woman. Many mothers struggle with balancing their identity pre-baby with their new identity as a mother.
“When women find themselves feeling lost somewhere between who they were before motherhood and who they think they should be now, many worry that something is terribly wrong, when in fact this discomfort is absolutely common,” noted Dr. Sacks in her article for the Times.
While new mothers can be told over and over again that this perfect mother doesn’t exist and that it’s ok to struggle with identity, the burden of time — or lack of time — often keeps many moms in the vicious supermom cycle. An article in the Daily Mail cited a poll by TVBed.com that revealed that mothers have mere minutes to themselves each day — 17 minutes on average. And about 75 percent of the 2000 mothers in the study revealed that they “felt they lived their lives entirely for other people.”
Motherhood is sacrifice, but motherhood doesn’t have to mean self-neglect.
So here’s the challenge for moms everywhere: focus on self-care! Every day carve out a small bubble of time for you. When the kids go down for a nap or head to bed... that’s your time. Do something you love; read a book, watch an old movie. Paint your toenails. What you do doesn’t matter, just make it something for you.
Understand that motherhood won’t mean the end of “you.” Not now, not when the baby is walking or when they say goodbye and head off to college. Yes, the identity crisis of the pre-motherhood you and postpartum you will collide. You may struggle with who you’re supposed to be as "mom," and this is normal. But understand that who you are is whatever and whoever you want to be, and if you want to be the mother who dresses like Anna Wintour, then be that woman. Your identity is important… beyond motherhood.
Motherhood is sacrifice, but motherhood doesn’t have to mean self-neglect. As a mom, you’re also a priority. Know that it’s ok to care about fashion, and about your appearance. It’s also ok not to care. You can mom in a mini skirt. Or ripped denim.
There will be days when you look at other mothers and wonder if you are doing everything wrong. Use positive traits of other mothers as a source of inspiration, not for competition. This pregnancy, the adoption, this baby, the role of mom…it will change your life. You will forever be mom to your baby, but you’ll also still be you. Never forget that you matter, too!
Check out Romper's new video series, Bearing The Motherload, where disagreeing parents from different sides of an issue sit down with a mediator and talk about how to support (and not judge) each other’s parenting perspectives. New episodes air Mondays on Facebook.