The Invisible Mother

The other day, I was listening to a podcast about motherhood and mental health, and a discussion about the following quote by Glennon Doyle rocked me:

“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.

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. Because if we show them that being a martyr is the highest form of love, that is what they will become. They will feel obligated to love as well as their mothers loved, after all. They will believe they have permission to live only as fully as their mothers allowed themselves to live.

If we keep passing down the legacy of martyrdom to our daughters, with whom does it end? Which woman ever gets to live? And when does the death sentence begin? At the wedding altar? In the delivery room? Whose delivery room—our children’s or our own? When we call martyrdom love we teach our children that when love begins, life ends. This is why Jung suggested: There is no greater burden on a child than the unlived life of a parent.

Glennon Doyle “Untamed”

What struck me more than the quote itself was how controversial it was. The podcaster and her two guests had differing opinions on it. One understood why people might have an issue with the quote. Another was saddened by the fact that it was controversial in the first place. After the podcast finished, I read it over and over, trying to make sense of it. What was it that stuck with me? Resonated with me so viscerally?

This isn’t the first time I have spoken about women and the role of motherhood. The impossible task of trying to be everything for everyone. I should clarify before I go any further, that I fully both recognize and appreciate that many fathers feel this in their role, as well. I know that the feeling of martyrdom for the sake of our children is not strictly reserved for mothers. However, society has engineered a situation where mothers are the most at risk. The first part of the quote is the one that makes me the saddest. The idea that we are teaching that when “love begins, life ends” is one that is hard to grapple with. It isn’t to say that being a mother isn’t important, or that your life had changed for the better when it happens because that is true. But there is a societal expectation that the two cannot happen in unison. Somehow we have equated the level of sacrifice with the level of love. Somehow as a society, we feel that mothers who give up more of themselves are those who love their children more. If this is true, working mothers are at an immediate disadvantage by doing something that isn’t directly linked to their children.

One thing is clear – how we live and make decisions most definitely rubs off on our children. Our actions show our daughters how they should (and shouldn’t) behave once they are mothers. It shows our sons what to expect of the mothers of their children. (Again, a caveat: I am talking on a visceral level about the roles of mothers, and am not meaning to disregard other forms of families). One thing I love to do with J is put together furniture. She has become quite adept at it, even putting together items on her own. If you ask her my thoughts on it, she will repeat my sentiments which are that society believes women need to ask men for help to do things like that, but she won’t need to ask anyone for help because she will be able to do things for herself. It brings me so much joy to hear her say that – to know that she can relish in her independence.

As a society, we are getting better at telling women that they can do things on their own. That being a woman should not stifle her. Being a wife does not have to define her. And being a mother does not have to limit her. And yet, there continues to be an indignity associated with women who want more than just motherhood or want to also define themselves by their careers and/or passion projects. It is as though doing so will make them less of a mother.

There is an unspoken shame that many women feel when they cannot be everything in every situation. You cannot give 100% to your children and 100% to your career simultaneously. It is physically, mentally, and mathematically impossible. And yet, I sit here wondering why do we not hear the term “working father”? Why is this definition solely reserved for women? Again, because women are set up to make impossible decisions. One that we have made to be synonymous with how much we love our children. One that is meant to pit our own self-identity against that of our identity that is tied into others – being a wife, being a mother, or being an employee.

What is the most difficult about all of this, is how hard it is to change. We can begin to have these discussions for ourselves, but breaking down years and years of society’s norms and beliefs is much easier said than done. This is not an overnight turnaround. We are stuck on this hamster wheel… spinning and spinning….. The only solution is as far as I see it, is a long-term one where we teach our sons and daughters that they can do better. We teach our daughters to be defined by the roles THEY create, and not by one single event or experience. We need to do better for them.

This is life. Love, Mom.

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