Mums don't have to be martyrs - reframing self-care

I came across the term 'mum martyr' this week on Pandora Sykes' podcast. She was exploring the idea of rethinking self-care and I wanted to share how it made me reframe how we look after ourselves. It reminded me how much I feel a need to talk about how much I have done in a day. And how I feel that, if I'm not so exhausted I pass out the second my head hits the pillow, I feel I could have done more.


My friend surprised me this week, and I was sitting on the sofa drinking a cup of tea as both my children were napping. Rather than just enjoy that lovely moment, I had to justify how much I had got done before I sat down and explain the baby was unwell so was having an extra-long nap.

"Mothers have martyred themselves in their children's names since the beginning of time. We have lived as if she who disappears the most, loves the most. We have been conditioned to prove our love by slowly ceasing to exist."

- Glennon Doyle, Untamed

As a family worker and counsellor, I have seen first-hand how much women can lose themselves in the process of having children. When I was pregnant with my first child, I was so focused on not letting that happen but, after two children (like so many mothers), I've slipped back into that need to feel I've sacrificed everything before I get a bit of time for me.

"On one hand, being a martyr is about experiencing pain and destroying yourself for the sake of others. On the other hand, it's about seeking glory, and paradoxically, your glory is in your smallness." - Dr Pooja Lakshmin, M.D. 

It's easy to blame society for a mother's struggle. But acknowledging that we put a lot of this on ourselves, and we do have some control over the pressure we feel could be a really empowering message; a message which can help us to see how we can change things and feel less stressed and overwhelmed.

Even if you are good at making time for yourself, are you feeling guilty about it? Are you forcing yourself to do it because you think it will make you feel better, and then just feel even more overwhelmed before or after?

Look at things you do that make your life really hard and see if there are any options to make them easier.

  • If you want to go for lunch with your friends and your kids won't sit still, can you give them an iPad without feeling guilty that you should be engaging every second they are awake?
  •  If you're really tired do you need to cook your child a fresh meal every day? I'm sure you're not eating nutritious food at every meal, so why are we so hung up on it for our kids.

Putting yourself first is about recharging your batteries. If you feel like you haven't got time to do that, try and think of small ways to make time. A small change I made was not trying to have dinner with my children every day.

Feeding a baby and a fussy toddler, I barely even get to taste my food and dinner. Eating when they are in bed means me and my husband actually get to have a conversation. Mondays and Thursdays we now have family dinners, and I can't explain how much pressure that took off me. Getting dinner ready every day with two hungry children crying was pushing me over the edge.

"Guilt is not about the choice in front of you. It's simply a familiar place for your brain to go. Guilt does not need to be your compass. It can just be a feeling that's there."

How to tackle maternal martyrdom

If you want to fully understand how maternal martyrdom is impacting your life, try keeping a running log of specific situations in which you've gone to stressful lengths for your family or partner. Write down if your efforts were acknowledged and make a note of how long any feelings of appreciation lasted.

Then, keep track of how you felt about yourself after the event and any changes in behaviour toward your family. We all resent when we are not being appreciated and we take that resentment out on the people closest to us. Make a separate list for instances in which you make a point to take a shortcut, and keep track of your thoughts and feelings and, most importantly, your family's response.

Practice looking at your weekly schedule and finding one situation - however small - where you can exert control and communicate your boundaries. Make micro-decisions and choose small moments of self-care that lead you to a sense of relief in your body. For example, when faced with the choice to bake for a school trip or spend the evening watching your favourite Netflix, take the opportunity to take a minute and pay attention to your body.

Which option leads to a release of tension in your shoulders? Or is associated with a sigh of relief in your throat? Choose the option that makes your body feel more relaxed. These small steps each build on the other. The more connected you feel to your body, the easier it is to make larger decisions from a place of clarity.

There are so many things I worry about that I know my husband wouldn't even give a second thought. And, although I do know I unfairly carry the mental load, it was helpful to be reminded that I have some control over this. 

"What a terrible burden for children to bear - to know that they are the reason their mother stopped living. What a terrible burden for our daughters to bear - to know that if they choose to become mothers, this will be their fate, too." - Glennon Cole

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Brighton, BN42
Written by Natasha Nyeke, MBACP, Couples, Fertility, Maternal mental health,Attachment
Brighton, BN42

Natasha Nyeke is a Person Centred Counsellor who specialises in working with parents supporting a wide variety of issues including, fertility and miscarriage, anxiety and postnatal depression, attachment issues, re-emergence of childhood issues

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