The Martyr Mother


I recently read the much-hyped Lean In: Women, Work And The Will To Lead by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg.

I was resistant to reading it in part due to the obvious that I am a stay-at-home mom with no aspirations to join the corporate rat race and secondly, I didn’t want to squander my precious free time reading a book that was going to make me feel bad about myself for not wanting to join said race.

So naturally I was surprised when I read Sandberg’s well-researched tome that some of her points resonated with me – a stay-at-home mom.

Make Your Partner a Real Partner and The Myth of Doing It All are two chapters worth reading, regardless of your employment status.  Sandberg raises a topic that has weighed heavily on my mind since having my first child almost seven years ago.

Sandberg describes how (mostly) women crave this idea of perfection and assume all of the responsibilities of childrearing because “they know best”.  Eventually these mothers become exhausted, irritable, unhappy, and depressed because every waking moment is spent on trying to do everything themselves.

I have seen this time and again with many women that I have gotten to know over the years.  When my boys were 4, 3 and a newborn, I had made plans to go for dinner with friend.  She had two children ages 4 and 7 months.  She had not ever been separated from her children for more than 2 hours and was sleeping a maximum of four hours a night.  She was at the end of her rope.  She called me in tears and we decided that a dinner out was exactly what we both needed.

I informed my husband that I had a dinner date.  I plopped the older two in front of the TV and the baby in the exersaucer, showered, got made-up and put on an outfit that didn’t need to be puke-resistant.  My husband walked-in and I was prepared to walk out when the phone rang.

An hour before we were to meet, my dejected friend called to say that she was not going to make our dinner.  I was sad to hear this and when I pressed for the reason she said that her husband was not comfortable “babysitting” the two kids by himself and he doesn’t know the bedtime routine.  She felt it was best if she stayed with him so that the kids schedule wasn’t messed up.

Like Sandberg, I feel like sometimes women are their own worst enemy.  Women need to be able to let go of the reins and allow someone else to do take over.  Is it a big deal that dinnertime doesn’t follow the same structure as when you are there?  Will millions of bacteria eat away your child’s skin if they skip a bath for one night?  Does it really matter if the dishes are left to air dry just this once?

“Oh, but the baby will cry!”

“Oh, but he doesn’t know how to change the diaper!”

“Oh, he feels too overwhelmed when he has both of the kids!”

Well Martyr Mothers, I would like to echo Sandberg’s sentiments . . .


Your baby will stop crying.

He will figure out how to change a diaper.

He may feel overwhelmed but he’s got this.

If you feel that everything has to be done by you, take a step back and examine why you feel that way.  Are you being too controlling?  Sandberg doesn’t suggest that you walk away from your responsibilities but rather that by acquiescing a desire for perfection comes a release, and an awareness of what really matters to you.

Perhaps I am not navigating the corporate jungle gym, but contrary my thoughts prior to reading Sandberg’s book, I am a leader.  I am leading my family and a good leader surrounds themselves with a supportive and dependable team.

What do you think?  Do you think that Martyr Mothers are becoming more prevalent?  Are you a Martyr Mother?  A reformed Martyr Mother?  

More importantly, doesn’t it drive you mad when people refer to fathers as babysitters?  It’s demeaning, no?


The Pursuit of Happiness?

I seem to find advice on how to be happy everywhere I turn.  Magazines have entire monthly columns dedicated to attaining it and numerous blogs tout the pursuit of it.

For me, the pressure to be happy can be crushing and there are times, more than I would care to admit, that “be happy” is just one more line item for supermom to check off.  There it looms on the list: above “nutritious short order cook” and below “sultry sexpot”.

Being a mother has proved to be my life riddle.  One that I am struggling to figure out.

How is it that I feel so utterly lonely but at the same time crave solitude?

Why do I want time apart from my kids but once I am alone, I count the hours to when they return?

At the end of the day, I beat myself up and wonder what is that I accomplished today?  What use did I make of my two university degrees?

At the end of the day, I am amazed by the magnitude of what I have contributed to our society: three small boys, who are learning to be thoughtful, compassionate members of the community.

There are days when I am deliriously happy and days that I feel as though I am clawing my way out of a black hole.

Today I didn’t feel happiness.  I felt claustrophobic, torn apart, pushed beyond the limit of exhaustion.  As I write this, the boys are tucked into bed and not a minute too soon.  My patience now sags like a hyper extended elastic band.

Hard days come with the mothering territory and when I feel less than sure, it’s not to the experts that I turn.  I seek solace from those elbow to elbow with me in the trenches and Glennon Melton’s Don’t Carpe Diem tops my list.

Am I happy every day?  No.  Am I happy most days?  Yes, and that’s good enough for me.

Life’s not a glossy magazine, folks.  If it were, I’d have better hair.


photo credit:

The Mom Cave – Like a Man Cave, With Scented Candles


That'll do. Thanks.

Last Monday the Globe and Mail’s Hot Button Blog ran a post on “Mom Caves” which they call the answer to the “Man Cave” phenomenon – instead of sports memorabilia and leather recliners, think cushy chairs, aromatic candles, and Sex and the City on repeat on the flat-screen TV. The best part? It’s all for you, mom, and there are no, I repeat, no sticky, unidentifiable crumbs anywhere (unless, of course, you’ve left them there yourself).

It turns out, the concept of the “mom cave” is one of the hottest trends in decorating. The brainchild of New York-based designer Elaine Griffin (with a little help from U.S. home decorating store Home Goods, otherwise known as Home Sense in Canada). According to this article, the mom cave is the place where, says Griffin “the woman who nurtures everyone goes to nurture herself”. A mom cave, she submits, has “a place to sit, a place to store things, a place to work and a place to visit” although, the first rule of mom cave appears to be that entry by non-moms is by invitation only.  Your mom cave doesn’t have to be a separate room; it can be a corner, a nook — even the landing at the top of the stairs. But, it should allow for storage and a place to work because, says Griffin, “unlike men, women relax by doing things”.

Good idea? Shannon over at The Bad Moms Club responds by saying that a part of her thinks this is the best idea ever. Peace and quiet. Sunlight. Coldplay. And then, she says, “The other part of me snorts. Loudly.”

Loud snorts because, like so many of us, she’s barely got enough time to go to the bathroom by herself, let alone dedicate time (and, let’s face it, money, else Home Goods wouldn’t be involved) to decorating a room (or nook, or cranny, or niche) for use by only one person. For me, as much as I love the idea of having a room of my own (thank you, Virginia) there are already parts of my admittedly not-very-big house (no spare rooms, here) that I feel as if I rarely enter, if only because I’m too busy generally to enjoy them for their stated purpose (to wit: the room with the TV).

So, I’m torn.  I’d love my own office space, and I’d decorate it (or not, knowing me) as I see fit.  But I already spend enough time out of the house, so hiving off a separate space that is just “mine” seems unnecessarily indulgent. But what really rankles, is the idea that a woman’s personal space must be miniaturized, set apart from the business of the rest of the house.   Setting up a cute and fashionable (and, if you check out the Home Goods ad, awfully pink) nook in a corner isn’t quite, I fear, what Virginia Woolf had in mind. If this space is supposed to be where I go to recharge, why does the idea of it leave me feeling diminished?

Plus that, there’s a lock on the bathroom door. And I have candles, wine and books, all of which are much cheaper than redecorating.

Twenty years is NO blip!

Ms. Timson’s remarks about possibly the greatest challenge facing many families today seem somewhat banal.  The tone reeks of that “friend”.  The one who has done everything before you and when she was smack in the middle of it, it was a full-on crisis but now in retrospect, that experience was “a nothing”.  It is always her current life-stressor that is the true crux of it all, the ultimate test and the paramount drain.  Currently for Timson, it is finding ways to fill up her hours upon hours of free time.

What I could really use from Timson, instead of her insistence that 20 years of my life will simply be considered a blip in retrospect, is some survival tactics.  How did she struggle through the storm and still remain so smug?  Turn off the Blackberry?  Unplugging the computer?  Slip the cabbie a twenty and tell him to let the grandparents off at the doctor’s office?  Bale at the office when a big deal is coming down the pike because the clock reads 6 pm? Doesn’t sound so realistic to me.

I agree with Timson when she says that the real issue is not balance.  Any mother can tell you that balance went the wayside the second the umbilical cord was cut.  But I am afraid that separation is murky to define.

I am very fortunate that I could choose to stay at home with my children but with that came a hefty price.  Living on one salary, for one.  However, my greater struggle is seeing the disappointment in my husband’s eyes when I tell him excitedly that today his baby walked for the first time, or that our son scored his first soccer goal today. This is the reality that I live with.  It is an aching void within him that he lives with.  It is not that my husband doesn’t choose to be present at events in our children’s lives, but he can’t be in two places at the same time.

When he is home, he makes every effort to be present for the boys.  He is conscious to turn off his Blackberry and very rarely does he sit in front of the computer while the boys are awake.  But does anyone really work from 9-5 pm anymore?  We live in a fast-paced, technologically plugged-in world.  Living is expensive.  Jobs are scarce.

I see mothers cringe when their Blackberries vibrate at birthday parties or end-of year school picnics.  They slink away in their crisp suits and high heels to hush the constant buzz.  Recently, a friend who works as a lawyer was denied partnership because she wasn’t billing her pre-mat leave hours.  She agonized over how to solve the problem of how to give 100% to both her job and her family.  Her boss met with her and very matter-of-factly told her that it is possible to “have it all”.  Like he was sharing a great secret he told her the solution that provided his wife with both motherhood and partnership: hire two nannies and the promotion will come.

In a way it is unfair.  This generation of mothers was sold a bill of goods: The You Can Have It All bill.  We got educations, postponed babies in favour of building a solid career so we would have adequately proved ourselves before maternity leaves. Instead we are straining to re-establish ourselves amongst childless women and women with multiple caregivers. Meanwhile our responsibilities outside the office have exploded, exponentially.   I don’t want to sound gender biased, as this goes for a lot of men too.

I think that if you asked any number of my friends, including my husband, they would tell you that striving for work-life balance is not, as Timson suggests, a catchphrase for avoiding personal responsibilities, but is quite the opposite.  Seeking out ways to have more work-life balance or work-life separation (frankly, a matter of semantics to me) is absolutely a reflection of someone who is acknowledging the enormity of their personal responsibilities.

First Person Voices

I am grateful for the presence of the first person voice on the pages of our national newspapers.  In our house, it’s The Globe and Mail.  

When I read the editorial page, I am annoyed at the anonymity of the editorials.  I know that it’s an age-old convention not to have by-lines with editorials, but I like to have a person linked to the words.  The idea that there is such a thing as objectivity has long been exposed as a fiction, so I appreciate the explicit and thoughtful use of the first person voice in the newspaper. 

In the Globe, Karen von Hahn was my paragon of the first person done right.  She takes a simple anecdote from her life and she expands upon it to tell a bigger story, a story always tethered to the concrete details of raising a family in Canada in the early 21st century.   This is one of my favourite from last year, about renting summer cottages.   And this one, about a road trip with her son.  She is now writing a column for The Toronto Star.  I miss her in my Globe.

Of course, I often disagree with what the columnists write.  Leah McLaren’s stories do not speak to me.  Russell Smith is often entertaining but has a snobbery that I find off-putting.  Margaret Wente ususally makes my blood boil, but I appreciate her no-holds-barred articulation of her opinions.  It’s refreshing to be challenged and spurred to action by thoughtful writers. 

With this column, Timson, I think, wrote something deliberately provocative, and her off-handed dismissal of the enormous work of childcare and elder care as a “blip” was ill-considered.  This is not a model of thoughtful first-person writing.  True, she wrote her story, her take on the time crunch from her vantage point of too much time on her hands, but her mistake was not to put more emphasis on herself.  I would have liked to have read about the great stretches of time she has now and what she does with them.  Details.  With a different angle, she might have written the article in a way that would give hope to those of us up to our middles in the care of others.  “I have been there, too, fellow travellers, and I have survived.  The time crunch will not last forever.”  She might have lit a beacon on the horizon to which we could drive our thoughts.  Instead, she just drove me away.

1Mother: I Don’t Think So

Drawing from Mirlande Jean-Gilles

Judith Timson declared in the Globe last week that work-life balance issues are a “bore”.  I’ve read quite a lot about work-life balance but I must say I have never heard it described as boring before, which I suspect is why Timson wrote it this way.

Her point is novel, but otherwise there’s not much to it.  She acknowledges that life is tough for people, especially women, who have child and elder care responsibilities –  “with parents of young children smack in the crucible” – but then advises that it’s “episodic” and to basically get over it.  It’s just a “stage”.

What I want to ask Timson is how exactly she defines a “stage”?  Childcare responsibilities are heavy at least until a child is, what, eight or ten years old?  Is a decade a stage?  What if you have more than one child?  What happens if your parents need help before, during, or in addition to the children?

In law school, I had a twenty-something friend who lovingly forewent parties and meetings to make dinner for her aging parents.   Fifteen years later, she is doing more of the same.  And what about my 60 year old work colleague who is consumed with arranging care for her reluctant 90+ year old mother?  Neither of these women have children, but if they did…?  Is 20 or 30 years a life stage?

Timson’s identification of the real issue also annoyed me.  The heart of the matter, she suggests, is that we fail to adequately separate work and the rest of life.  We ought to unplug from the office when we’re not there.  Okay, I can get behind that.  Parents can certainly find more meaning in their family time by being present and turning off the hand-held device.  Sure.

The thing is, I already do this, all the time.  I’m not even tempted to check my work email.  I write a personal blog on being mindful, for heaven’s sake.  But guess what?  Being present when I’m with my kids doesn’t solve the problem that I’m often not with my kids.  The tension between providing for and spending time with my kids is still sitting pretty in in the middle of the room.

What I do believe, and I wonder if Timson was trying to get at this, is that while family-friendly work policies can make a huge impact on an employee’s satisfaction and sense of life balance, it’s not a cure-all for the fundamental tension between work and family.  Teleworking and reduced hours can’t remedy a basic unease with being away your family, if what you really want is to be at home more.  That’s a burden that employers can’t take on and it’s where, after the supportive workplace policies are implemented, the trouble really lies.

But does this make work-life balance a bore?  Not to me.  To me, airbrushing the child and elder care responsibilities that can define a third of one’s lifetime as an “intense blip”, as Timson puts it, is a little… um… dismissive.  So is her pat remark that “kids grow up, parents sadly die”.  By this, I think she means that her kids have grown up and that her parents have sadly died.  Timson has oodles of time now.  So the issue isn’t necessarily that work-life issues have suddenly gotten boring – they’re just not relevant to Timson anymore.  That’s fine, I guess.  But the distinction ought to be made.

Because for those of us boiling away in the crucible, still looking our 20 or 30 years of life “stage” straight in the eyes, work-life issues remain intensely interesting.

At Issue: Work-Life Balance

== At Issue is a monthly feature at 4Mothers where we all weigh in on a common topic or theme.  We’ll give you the topic (and any accompanying links on the Monday of the last week in the month, then post our respective views from Tuesday to Friday.  Please join the discussion! ==

Here’s the article that will inaugurate 4Mothers first “At Issue” roundtable.  We’ll be back here tomorrow for the first of four mother perspectives…