While chatting with a group of moms, both new and seasoned, full-time working and stay-at-home, I felt a sting of guilt and a fear of judgement when disclosing my family’s decision to restart our biweekly house cleaning service since COVID-19 hit in March. My mind raced about whether or not I am being indulgent. Do I really have justification for this expense? Why can I not take on this task for my family by myself? I must be an incapable mother. On my oldest son’s first birthday, I remember spending all of my time and effort focused on planning a perfectly themed Dr. Seuss birthday party (which was very much not perfect)...for a ONE year old. Evidently, during my planning frenzy, I forgot about his actual birthday and I was reminded by someone who commented to me “ what are you doing with him tomorrow? You don’t want to be with him on his ACTUAL birthday?” Guilt again. Why did I not think to plan something that day too? And still more guilt years later when I planned several friend activities, sans kids, on the same weekend and I was told “that’s so nice of your husband to let you do that. You’re really lucky” as though I was being overly indulgent again by taking time to myself. This same piercing motherly guilt that creeps into our lives over and over again with seemingly no relent in sight.
Where is all of this guilt coming from? Why are there so many triggers? And why does it seem to automatically accompany motherhood? My guess is as good as yours, but guilt is a big part of the invisible mental labor that most mother’s experience. Everyone preps us for the labor of childbirth; the endless possibilities and the excruciating physical and emotional intensity. But no one prepares us for the invisible labor of managing all aspects of a family. The labor that is child-centered, emotionally overwhelming, and financially taxing. Even still, in today’s progressive world, this labor primarily defaults to mothers. We are given the task of doing the impossible. We are to be independent women who shatter the glass ceiling and follow their dreams, while also being great mothers by being all self-sacrificing for the benefit of our children and family. Most women I talk to express feeling as though they are falling short in all things in an effort to be everything. Guilt, guilt, and more guilt. But being all self-sacrificing and depleting our buckets until we lose ourselves is not an inevitable aspect of motherhood. We don’t have to be martyr moms. The paradox of taking on a martyr identity looks like this; on one end it is all about the pain and loss of ourselves for the sake of someone else and on the other end it is about seeking praise and admiration for this loss. Martyrdom presents many obstacles in the way of motherhood. Mothers become angry and helpless in their effort to be everything to everyone.
By now y’all know that self-care is one of my big soapboxes. I jump at any chance to encourage it. And I stand by the benefits day in and day out (even though I’m not the best at practicing it all the time). But there is such a thing as performative self-care which is much less about actually taking care of yourself as it is about adding to that neverending to-do list running through your head 24 hours a day. In turn this creates yet another opportunity for more guilt. So what do we do? We set BOUNDARIES. Here comes my other soapbox. Setting boundaries is not something that comes naturally for many of us because unfortunately this culture encourages minimal to no boundaries at all. Boundaries are a non negotiable in parenthood. In order to set boundaries, we have to be able to identify how we feel, what we think, and what we need. At the core, setting boundaries is the act advocating for ourselves NOT losing ourselves. We have to acknowledge, accept, and respect our thoughts, feelings, and needs. Our needs are just that; necessities. Setting a boundary is a way of expressing those needs. No one is going to do that for us despite how much we like to think our spouses will read our minds. No one knows what we need, how we feel, or what we think until we tell them. This is a gift only we can give ourselves.
So then what needs to give? Is there a way to adjust the expectations we have for ourselves to do it all and be it all? Absolutely! Not so shockingly, many of our friends and family are more than willing and happy to help, they just need to know what they can do. But for some reason we hesitate to ask, feeling as though we should be capable of doing it all on our own. We can’t. Ask for help and then accept it. This especially applies to our relationships with our partners. They cannot read your mind, I promise. Imagine this, I have depleted myself once again and reached my breaking point, so I lash out at my husband telling him I need more help around the house. In a genuine effort to help, he takes over the grocery shopping that week. But he comes home with 2% milk instead of organic whole milk. How dare he? Cue more resentment, frustration, and anger. The more specific we are about the help that we need, the better. PSA, men do not naturally take on the invisible mental labor that women do. This does not mean that they do not care or that they are not capable. It simply means that their minds are not wired to think about some of the things that run through our minds as mothers. So, we have to communicate. Share the responsibilities and running to-do list by communicating them. Capitalize on each other’s strengths to make an even better team when tackling daily family management. Maybe that means you make the grocery list (very specifically) and he does the grocery shopping. Or maybe that means you let those specifics go (gasp!). Or better yet, order Instacart and then all he has to do is go pick it up. This is a win win. You are making it easier on yourself by making it easier on him. No shame in that game!
Mamas, you are not required to lose yourself that beautiful moment you become a mother. You do not have to be a martyr mom. Do not lose sight of yourself. Your feelings are hugely significant. Your thoughts are beyond meaningful. Motherhood is hard, no one is challenging that fact. You deserve to have your needs met. Give yourself that gift.