For a long time, I thought the word “martyr” was somehow related to mother. Perhaps the few letters in common between it and the Latin “mater.” Yet the root of “martyr” is witness, or one who sees something happen.
Don’t we often, though, think of mothers as ones who martyr themselves? This evokes images of a woman stabbing herself in her own throat or heart for the good of others. Indeed, martyrs were historically people who were killed or suffered greatly for a principle or cause.
Today, on Facebook (where else?), a friend posts a philosophical question after she overhears a conversation between two divorced women who are mothers. One tells the other she is going to a music festival for four days at the end of the summer, right as the new school year begins for her young child. The question arises: is this okay, acceptably, motherly? In the comments, there is much debate. Most of the respondents are women; none want to judge; some say that self care is okay, and others say that mothers must be there.
I did not post a comment but I found myself a little on the side of the woman going to the music festival. I wondered about the rest of the circumstances, including the age and disposition of the child, and if the father or other parent could help the child get settled in school. I also recognized that I might not make this choice myself, realizing that music festivals happen year after year after year, and not everything has to happen now. Philosophically, I thought the woman should go, simply because she wants to and it’s okay, even though I probably wouldn’t have. She shouldn’t martyr herself or suffer unduly, although staying home from a music festival is not suffering.The absence of a desired experience is not akin to suffering. And yet as I write that I realize we, at this moment in history, may think of it that way. Missing out (or FOMO, as the kids say) is suffering.
One of my worst moments as a mother occurred when Jimmy was away at a lengthy conference, probably TED. A week – or seven bedtimes! – alone with three children ages 2, 6, and 9 is a long week. At the same time, I was in graduate school for a Master degree in English, torn between my two lives. There was a moment when I was on my hands and knees on the floor, picking up cooked elbow macaroni that had been flung down there off the edge of a highchair tray, and I said to my daughter Lydia, “Don’t have my life.” I hope she doesn’t remember, although here I am writing it. As the words were coming out of my mouth I was regretting my momentary bitterness.
I was not able to separate the menial task of picking up scraps from the more meaningful idea of caring for others.
In her book, The Folded Clock: A Diary, which I loved, Heidi Julavits tells about a party she and her husband went to, “where the food was very tiny.” This included tiny meatballs, tiny BLT sandwiches, and not tiny drinks. Another guest, a woman doctor, was recounting the hard year she had just had: “She works so much that she never sees her children.” She was considering a career change “to be a more present mother.” Another woman replied, “You really just have to live their lives if you want to be part of them.”
At this point, Julavits says she was trying to convey, in a “totally polite and agreeable way, Fuck off.” I love this.
She says she is “quick to rage when I think a person is implying that another person cannot be a decent mother if she has a consuming career.” Julavits says she doesn’t have a demanding full-time job, but she does have, as a writer, four or five half-time ones. Even though this pisses her off — the need to be present in your kids’ lives — she realizes it’s true. As a mother, you do have to be there. She describes a time when her ambition outstripped her interest in her family, and it affected them badly. They grew lazy, neglected their teeth, and “owned no viable pants.”
The people in our house were my fault. Our fault, but really, my fault. I’m not being a martyr. I’m speaking realistically, in a manner reflecting the consensus reality of the situation. No men at this party were standing around talking about quitting their jobs so they could be part of—sorry, live—their children’s lives. […] No men would be writing about these conversations tonight in their diaries. My husband would absolutely write about these issues in his diary tonight if he kept one. He worries about and buys all of our children’s clothing—the pants, the underwear, the sneakers, the socks. But to the greater world, these pantsless children reflect more poorly on me than they do on him. Women are responsible for the people in the family having pants.
It is hard to write about these things without telling the world, which includes one’s own family, that mothers do not really want to be martyrs. We do not want to suffer greatly or be killed. We have a FOMO.
Once, Jimmy and I were in couples therapy for a few months. Now you know. It neither made us get further along or fall behind. It was an experience. I don’t know that the therapist was good, or good for us. She talked a lot about herself, claiming that she had some helpful examples. Her kitchen, which we had to walk through to go up the back stairs to her consulting office, was a mess. She regularly mentioned her learnings from services at her synagogue, even though I am not Jewish and Jimmy, though a Jew, not religious. Once, in telling her how I had tried straightforwardly to advocate for myself over the years, I added, “I mean, I’m not a martyr.” And she, without missing a beat, said sotto voce and kind of rolling her eyes without rolling them: “Oh, you aren’t?” In that instance I realized she preferred more to be smart and therapeutically provocative than to be attentive.
Have I suffered greatly as a mother? I would say more that I have worked hard and believed that, on difficult days, the next day would be filled with the rewards. I was capable of feeling sorry for myself sometimes, as when on my knees on the floor picking up macaroni.
But, here, I’ve made it to the other side, with no macaroni on the floor of my house anymore. Every stage is just a stage.
Why would you read this? Often, readers want to know about the bounty of motherhood – really of parenthood – and not about our undignified struggles. I was disturbed, when I read Marilyn French’s In the Women’s Room in graduate school, that I had done some of what she had done, like clean up dried urine on the floor around a toilet. You’ll have to believe me when I say I do not pee on the floor. Yet also, full disclosure, we’ve had people clean our house for a fee.
The writer has to leave the reader with a way to think about a persistent question. I will say this: maternal love, or any love that’s worth it, is a hard thing. It is something you do every day. It is not waiting; it is not simply seeing something happen.