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I’m a mother, not a martyr

By: Susana Muñoz, M.ED. LPC-A

“You are a supermom” – A praise most mothers hear in reference to the many roles they juggle. These acknowledgements often come during moments of chaos and struggle. While well intentioned, these praises can also feed into the construct that a supermom is nurturing yet tough and tireless. This idealization of a mother that is entirely selfless while superhuman in her abilities may lead to an identification with the role of a martyr, one who puts the needs and wants of others ahead of their own. The impacts of this can be far-reaching. The CDC reports that as many as 1 in 5 women experience a perinatal mood and anxiety disorder. While research suggests that over 50% of cases go unreported and 60% of cases can be extended beyond the perinatal period (Lamar et al., 2019).

Intensive Mothering

Intensive mothering is an approach to mothering that has been argued to be the most dominant parenting approach in North America. It has also been associated with negative impacts on mental health and a doubling of depressive symptoms reported in the child-bearing years (Rizzo et al., 2013). This approach focuses on the belief that mothers are central caregivers and essential in the role of their child’s development. It emphasizes the mother’s nurturing and selfless qualities, even if this suggests the mother should de-prioritize herself. This notion that a mother should be constantly available physically and emotionally, adds to stressors mothers experience such as role overload, discrimination at work and pressure from society. It also doesn’t take culture or socioeconomic status into consideration.

The Cost of Mental Loads

Mental loads refer to the invisible tasks and work required in managing a household, mostly taken on by the mother. They are scheduling playdates, booking doctor’s visits, making grocery lists, remembering trash day, and so much more. All these seemingly small tasks pile up. Many mothers report feeling exhausted followed by a feeling of shame and incompetence about their many roles (Lamar et al., 2019). As CEOs of the household, mothers take on a 24/7 job that leaves them with little time for self-care and feeling isolated and unsure of their identity outside of the home.

The Paradox of Motherhood and Offering Support

A mother can be resilient but also in need of support. This is the paradox that deserves to be acknowledged. Motherhood can be easily defined as the state of being a mother. What is not easily defined are the contradictions of motherhood. Where we ride the wave of feelings that are both grief and joy all in the same day. In a 2013 interview, mothers reported feeling an extreme sense of fulfillment yet feeling dissatisfied with life. Perhaps this is related to a feeling of loss in sense of autonomy. The mounting pressure to be supermom while carrying most of the mental load involved in running a household leaves little time for self-care. This fuels a cycle of guilt and self-sacrifice that can lead to a sense of being overwhelmed. It’s important for mothers and their support system to recognize the effects and stressors of being supermom and offer support. Asking for and accepting help, understanding how you feel and handle stress, scheduling self-care time, and speaking to a professional can help break the supermom cycle.

Learn more about our Mom Matters Maternal Mental Health Program here.

References:

https://www.cdc.gov/reproductivehealth/depression/index.htm

Lamar, M. R., Forbes, L. K., & Capasso, L. A. (2019). Helping Working Mothers Face the Challenges of an Intensive Mothering Culture. Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 41(3), 203–220. https://doi-org.libproxy.lamar.edu/10.17744/mehc.41.3.02

Rizzo, K., Schiffrin, H., & Liss, M. (2013). Insight into the Parenthood Paradox: Mental Health Outcomes of Intensive Mothering. Journal of Child & Family Studies, 22(5), 614–620. https://doi-org.libproxy.lamar.edu/10.1007/s10826-012-9615-z