BUSY IN BRISTOW: This Mother’s Martyrdom Misses the Mark

PARENTING/LIFE COLUMN by Kathy Smaltz 

Mothers make the best martyrs. This is because we take pride in our innate tendency to nurture. And a lot of us have gotten into the prolonged habit of putting everyone’s needs on equal footing with or ahead of our own. It is my contention that it all starts with the innocuous handbag.

Go ahead … test my theory: the next time you’re at Harris Teeter with your children, disappear behind the Dale Earnhardt Jr. beer display and push your oldest into the aisle to ask a nearby woman for a tissue. She has one and will gladly offer the entire pristine pack to your progeny in your absence.

The next time you’re out with your husband, ask him for anything that cannot fit into his fist-sized wallet, and he’ll turn back to you and ask Why-Don’t-You-Have-It-In-Your-Alaska-Size-Purse?

If your husband is out alone with the kids because you actually decided to go to yoga, meet up with the girls, or work late that night, he will turn to his mother/sister/oldest daughter/co-worker/mere acquaintance/and-if-need-be-stranger to meet his (or your children’s) needs, most of which can be met within the confines of said purse.

I have had countless mothers in the community proudly announce that they pulled a lasso out of their pocketbooks to pull one of my hapless children out of a tar pit while the children’s father stood at a distance talking to the other cave-dwellers about Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s latest lap time.

Let’s face it: mothers across the country are proud of their super power abilities and emergency provision purses. And those of us who are prone to Martyrdom are more than happy to give up coffee, free time, meals (who needs the calories anyway?), bathroom breaks, and even breathing to make sure our martyrdom doesn’t go unnoticed.

Are you doing what you really want to be doing with your life, or are you – like me – living either an adaptation or a worn-out version of your original dream that, conveniently, allows you to feel safe, or gain the approval of someone other than yourself?

If you never feel guilty for enjoying the work you do outside of the home, or for staying home – with your graduate degree – to take care of the children and house instead of earning more money to make your family even more upwardly mobile, or for going to that yoga class in the middle of the day or for buying “too many” fast food dinners during the course of a busy week, or for putting out cereal bowls at 6 p.m. when you didn’t reach the roast you’d planned to make and basketball practice starts in less than an hour, then please … stop reading here. This week’s column isn’t for you.

This week’s column is for the guilt-prone martyr moms who – even when they fight against the biological or societal wiring that says YOU-MUST-DO-MORE – feel that somehow, somewhere, they have fallen short.

If you’ve managed to advance beyond this feeling on a daily (or hourly) basis but you sometimes feel it thud like an aftershock in the undercurrent of your soul, read on.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading and listening on this subject lately, and I am beginning to believe that it takes more than a few generations to change centuries of hard wiring. Two years ago, I got into a friendly argument with my father about this when he said, like it or not, women and men are not equal. Women are biologically programmed to want different things from men. Because of this, women are fooling themselves in their pursuit of careers, especially male-dominated ones. (We were on a long road trip, and his throwback thinking only made that part of the journey much longer, trust me.)

I argued valiantly, and in my memory of it, I even won that particular battle, but this morning, I can’t remember on what basis, because as I turn 42 and see my youth recede (far) behind me and the rest of my years stretched out (if I’m lucky) to no more than equal those I’ve already lived … as I finally “get” what people have been saying about how quickly the kids grow up, as I see my baby boy’s head reach my shoulders and his right foot wearing one of my socks that got mixed in with his in the laundry, as my youngest turns 7 and her entire jaw structure fills in around these interloper adult teeth, and my oldest is so solidly rooted  in the world of deodorant, hair gel, and all things Middle School, I realize – with horror – that this really is my one and only life. It’s happening right now. Passing before my eyes. No do-overs.

When I realize that, I ask myself if I’m spending my time well. If I were told I only had one year to live, what would I change first?

I think about the fact that when one of our kids complains that he isn’t getting to do something he wants, I remind him, “You are one of six people in this family, and we each need to take turns.”

So why is it I feel so guilty taking mine?

Everyone needs the far-reaching items in Mom’s handbag: our kids, our husbands, our pets, the house, extended family, our friends and social network, our co-workers, supervisors, and yes, of course, gulp, we need them ourselves.

I believe it all started (or escalated) when that tiny life kicked inside of you and you realized it depended on you, and solely you, for well, everything. It was a humbling, yet powerful feeling.

Or maybe it was when you adopted that precious little baby and she looked up into your eyes in all her defenselessness and you thought about her beginnings and how much you longed to give her more, more, more. It was a daunting, yet inspiring proposition.

On a related side note, no matter how hard I tried to create gender equity among our children, the boys dropped their dolls and picked up twigs out of which to fashion guns, using acorns for ammo. My girls begged for nail polish in the Target aisles even though I never wore any myself. Both the boys and girls played with the toy kitchen for awhile, but as we ran out of room downstairs, it ended up in the girls’ bedroom because they played with it more, and although Youngest Daughter enjoys pushing her brother’s Hess trucks around for a few minutes, she drops them in short order for her heap of stuffed animals.

I have – in all my forward thinking feminism – decided women and men are different after all. I think it takes generations to change social norms, and I am proud of the scores of younger women behind me who I’ve had the honor of watching grow up from high school fresh(women) to college graduates, entrepreneurs, team leaders,  editors, doctors, lawyers, lobbyists. I do not want to let them down. However, it may be they can balance their lives more efficiently than I have – with more wisdom, greater grace.

In these past two years I returned full time to the classroom, my husband and I have had the extra income to start – in earnest – college funds for all our of our kids, and with tears in my eyes, I heard our financial planner say that we’d not only have enough to fund at least 50% of four years of four kids’ college, we’d also be able to retire comfortably, and we’d even leave a legacy.

Legacies are important. But I’m not at all sure that our kids – after they’ve buried us and sold the house – are going to be happier about the stockpiled investments than they’re going to be about having had energized, attention-giving parents throughout their childhoods … a mother who led a fulfilled life based on her primary talents and passions rather than the supplemental income her more employable talents and passions provided.

My two sons are almost as tall as I am, and they still need me. My daughters trip over themselves getting off the bus after school in their eagerness to hug me for the first time that day … on the days I get home in time for them to do that. I just put in for personal time so I could go to work late on our twins’ 9th birthday because I can’t bear the thought of waiting all day to hold them and wish them a Happy Birthday.

The wheels of life are turning, and I am once and for all truly tired of scrambling to get out of their way lest they flatten us all. Lying to myself so I get the gratification of being a martyr is no longer an option. There are too many words in my brain’s quay waiting for my fingers to tap them out into existence, and most importantly – I have already missed too many mornings at home.

Busy in Bristow is a parenting column not meant to advise, but to share the journey of parenting though both the good and the bad, and to explore what parents themselves learn throughout the process of raising their children. Most of it is true, save some hyperbole now and then.

Like many moms, Kathy drives a mini-van full of booster seats and Disney/Pixar DVD’s. When she’s not chauffeuring her kids, ages 11 and under, to activities, she teaches, writes fiction, poetry and this column about the challenges and rewards of being a mom to school-age children. Kathy has a MFA in writing and has taught writing, language arts and gifted education. 

© 2014, Bristow Beat. All rights reserved.

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