In our first world society martyrdom is more insidious than the lick of flames on skin, the sizzle as fire catches hair. If you don’t count what can happen on social media, we don’t have public disembowellings. And the causes we sacrifice ourselves for are often not great, necessary, or noble.
Martyrdom today is working until midnight every night doing a job you hate until it breaks you, without investigating your options. It is smugly telling your mothers’ group that you breastfed your baby as your cracked nipples dripped blood, because you were doing what was ‘best for your baby’. It’s going to work even though you’ve got the flu, because you believe you are indispensable. It is having Sunday lunch with your extended family every week even though it drains you emotionally.
Most of us fall into the trap of martyring ourselves for something at some stage. I did so early on in my career.
I’d secured a job in the UK (my second in veterinary practice). The practice was geared to quantity over quality. Consultations were booked in five-minute time slots, with extras ‘fitted in if necessary’. I am a perfectionist, the opposite of quantity over quality. I wasn’t a square peg in a round hole. I was a dishwasher trying to force myself through a cat flap! I blamed myself for not being suited to this position but persisted as though I could punish myself into suitability. And when I burnt out and finally resigned six months later, I collapsed in a heap, and dramatically declared that maybe I wasn’t meant to be a vet.
Twenty years of self-knowledge and experience in the veterinary industry tell me it was not the wrong career, just the wrong job. I should never have taken it or stuck with it for as long as I did. And I should also never have subjected my husband to nightly complaints about my day, without doing anything to change my situation.
There is a special brand of martyrdom that deserves its own category: The martyrdom of motherhood. It is based on the flawed belief that to be a ‘good mother’ you must sacrifice all your time, energy, happiness, and health for your children. The only excuse good enough to stop is death.
Let me be clear: Martyrdom is not the unconditional love for your children that makes you run into a burning building to save them.
Rather it’s the corrosive effect of small, daily, unconscious decisions that wear us down. Or it’s the conscious decisions we make to sacrifice ourselves for something we perceive as critical, but it really isn’t. This form of martyrdom also teaches our children by example that once they become parents their welfare is worth nothing.
At its worst the martyrdom of motherhood allows resentment to creep into your relationship with your children. And if you get thoroughly sucked into it, it leaves your self-esteem knotted tightly to everything your children do…and (for me) that is too close to dysfunctional parenting for comfort.
My earliest experience of being a martyred mother taught me a harsh lesson.
Before I had my first baby I was filled with useless information. My religiously attended prenatal yoga classes had impressed on me that any baby who bypassed its mother’s vagina on the way out, would be disadvantaged. Thirty-three hours of sleepless labour followed by a caesarean section because my baby was not going anywhere, and then being landed with a psychotic episode (in part) courtesy of the sleep deprivation I’d put myself through, taught me what a crock of faeces my preconceived ideas were.
I had martyred myself for something that not only didn’t eventuate, but that made absolutely no difference to the outcome I wanted: a healthy baby (who is now nearly twelve and still in excellent health, even though she never traversed my vagina).
Since that first time I have learnt (the rough way) that to indulge in the martyrdom of motherhood, is to have my risk of a Bipolar episode sky-rocket. So I try to avoid it.
Of course, the choice to sacrifice ourselves needlessly is not confined to parenting. As we turn each new corner in life, a fresh opportunity for martyrdom is born. And one person’s happy, sustainable choice is another person’s hellish road to burnout. It’s tricky.
Sometimes it’s easier to climb our metaphorical pyres because we believe ‘it is the right thing to do’ than sit with the discomfort of stopping long enough to ask:
‘Is this right for me? Is this worth burning for?’
But we owe it to ourselves and our families to ask just that.