One night when my kids were small, we hosted a dinner party. A friend came into the kitchen with me to open a bottle of wine.
Continuing the conversation from the table, he asked me, “What is your dream?”
It was the most profound thing anyone had asked me in years—and I couldn’t think of an answer right away. There was no time for dreaming; I was just doing my best to survive every day. The only answer I could come up with was, “To raise happy, healthy, well-adjusted kids.”
“No, your dreams. Every parent wants healthy kids. What do you want that’s just for you?”
I had no idea.
We returned to the table and flowed back into the conversation, but the question came back to me over and over after that night.
Before I could discover my dream, I had to come to the realization that I was becoming my mother—a Martyr Mommy.
It’s a complicated cycle that I’ve done my best to make sense of. I’m certain there isn’t a one size fits all explanation, but this is what I have learned from my experience.
The Martyr Mommy cycle began for me, with the learned behavior from my mother. We live what we learn, and no matter how unhealthy, our mothers are the most powerful feminine influence in our young lives. Without even trying, they teach us how to be women with their actions. I believe that some people are astute enough to catch this pattern before they begin repeating it. Unfortunately, I got married and had babies way before I knew who I was or what I wanted out of life.
I began emulating my mother without knowing I was doing it.
Somewhere in my early years, I also learned that love is not something that is given freely or without conditions. Love is something that must be earned. The other side of that coin was a deep belief that I was not worthy of love. Because I believed love was to be earned, and felt undeserving of it, I began a life of people-pleasing behavior. I would venture to say that most Martyr Mommies fall into the “people pleaser” category—we will jump through an endless number of hoops if it means we will find acceptance, validation, or something that even resembles love.
What happened for me was a complete abandonment of self. I didn’t know who I was, so I tried desperately to be someone who was worthy of love and acceptance. I cooked and cleaned and organized and volunteered myself into oblivion.
What was even worse is that I didn’t have my own belief system. I was very easily influenced, since I wasn’t grounded enough to know what was right for me. My boundaries were all screwed up. I didn’t know how to listen to my internal guidance, so I listened to everyone else instead. Unfortunately, everyone else could never tell me who I was. I had to figure that out on my own.
When I started to get burned out, after years of the martyr life, I was filled with resentment toward my ex-husband. I felt like he didn’t appreciate any of the things I did for him. Couldn’t he see everything I had sacrificed? I had done everything I could imagine to try to earn his love, but I never felt truly loved in that relationship. I now realize this was largely because I wasn’t even myself then. How could he love me if there was no me?
I now understand that in part, all the chaos of the cooking and cleaning and over scheduling the kids and all the unnecessary busyness in our household was an intentional distraction from the misery I felt inside. I didn’t know how to be still. I didn’t want to be alone with my thoughts. I didn’t like the weak woman in the mirror, and had no idea how to change her.
I learned that there is no prize to be won; no matter how much distraction we pile into our calendars.
I learned that watering myself down for the comfort and acceptance of others is a huge disservice to myself.
I learned that I deserve to have dreams, chase them, and make them come true.
I learned that I am worthy of unconditional love, that is given freely simply because I am me. It is not something I can earn with household chores, or gourmet dinners, or by any other means.
I learned how to put myself first, I mean, take really good care of myself. I take the time to eat well, exercise, meditate, write, spend time with friends, and do all the things that make me happy. I am a much better person. When I was stuck in that mess of people pleasing distraction, I never felt like there was time for me to do anything for myself. Now, I know that taking time for me is not optional. I put it at the top of my list instead of the bottom. Because when I take good care of me, I am more present in every other area of my life.
We don’t have to be martyrs anymore, sacrificing our well-being, happiness, or sanity for others. No matter how much we believe the world will fall apart if we stop taking care of everything, it won’t. Our egos let us believe that we are the only ones capable of doing what we do, but that’s just not true. And, there is no reward for breaking our necks trying to make everyone around us happy.
I challenge all my fellow recovering martyr mommies to start putting yourselves at the top of the list. Give yourself permission to take some time for you. Delegate some chores. Ask for help.
Find some time for stillness in the chaos of your day and see if you don’t just start to love yourself a little bit more in that space.
You are worthy of your time, attention, and care.
When we get to that place of loving ourselves and feeling really sure of who we are, we find the answer to that magical question: What are my dreams?
Author: Renée Dubeau
Apprentice Editor: Tammy Novak / Editor: Renée Picard
Image credit: Mr Hayata at Flickr