It’s Time to Reject the Martyr Mom Syndrome

90.4% of moms report taking better care of their families than they do of themselves and a full 25% admit they haven’t done anything just for themselves in more than a year. And the dirty little secret of all of this self-sacrifice is that you are not doing anyone any favors. Not your kids. Not your partner. And least of all yourself.

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Thiago Cerqueira
Thiago Cerqueira

When my son was six-months-old, I went hiking for a week. I was struggling to settle into the new reality of motherhood and fighting to reclaim the body that had served me well for 35 years but, following a 50-pound weight gain and an emergency c-section, was at serious risk of never serving me well again. Or so I feared.

At the time, I had no idea that I lived in a society that exalted the Martyr Mom. I had an involved husband who was my partner in parenting and supported me heading off to take care of myself for a week, leaving my new son at home. Sure, I missed the baby, but it wasn’t for months — and many, many backhanded comments later — (“oh, I could never leave my baby, how did you do it” “Your husband must be a saint” “Was the baby okay?”) that I came to understand that I was supposed to feel guilty. That I was no longer supposed to take time for myself.

The failure of moms in our society to take care of themselves is epidemic. Macaroni Kid surveyed more than 8,500 moms and what we learned is unlikely to surprise anyone. Nevertheless, to see the Mom Martyr Syndrome laid out in black and white is still startling:

90.4% report taking better care of their families than they do of themselves and a full 25% admit they haven’t done anything just for themselves in more than a year.

We are doing more and more. We are wearing too many hats. We work in the home, out of the home and pretty much all the time. We are, understandably, exhausted. The most common response from moms to the question “how are you” is “busy. We wear our exhaustion like a badge of honor.

The dirty little secret of all of this self-sacrifice is that it is not accomplishing a thing. Women are more than twice as likely to become depressed as men and a huge body of research shows that a mother’s depression has significant negative impacts on their children. Moms are the self-declared food police and yet childhood obesity is at a record high. Many moms feel pressure to stay home, yet research shows that SAHMs with young children are at least as likely to be sad, angry and depressed as their working counterparts.

Living the life of a Martyr Mom is no good for anyone. Yet we continue to do it and the excuses — or rather “reasons” – proffered essentially boil down to three: No time. No money. Guilt.

Allow me to disabuse these one-by-one.

No Time

Taking care of yourself does not require a tremendous amount of time. But it does require a subtle shift of priorities. Every day, we make decisions about how we spend our time and those investments generally include some combination of family, household, kids’ activities, work, and extended family obligations — we are in the sandwich generation after all.

It is in making those decisions that there are opportunities to find time for you. Sarah, an incredible baker, physical therapist, professor, and mom was recently called upon to bring cupcakes to a party. She felt obligated to bake them. From scratch. It was an hour-and-a-half investment of her time. She arrived to discover that she was the only mom who brought home-baked goodies and realized that picking up from a bakery, or starting with a mix, were legitimate options. Of course, if baking is what you love to do, that is not the place to find a pocket of time. But I promise you, there are two hours in your week that you CAN reclaim for you.

Here are three ideas to reclaim time:

  • My daughter loves for me to watch her weekly gymnastics class. For a long time, I watched the entire class. But I realized that the class wasn’t for me, it was for her. And she shouldn’t be participating primarily to perform for me as her audience; she should be participating for herself. So now I drop her and, gasp, leave. I return early enough to watch the last fifteen minutes. 45 minutes, reclaimed for me.
  • Meal prep is a three-headed monster that can be brought under control. Plan your weekly menu, shop once, make friends with your slowcooker and reclaim the 30 minutes you spend each week “figuring out” what’s for dinner each night.
  • Say no. It’s become a cliché, but it remains a valid way to reclaim ownership of your time. At least once each week, you will be asked by someone to do something you don’t want to do. And that someone might even be your child. “I’m sorry, Sophie, I don’t want to have a tea party right now” can be an appropriate response to your child’s request – remember, you are her mother, not her on-call entertainment center.

No Money:

I was shocked that this came up over and over as a reason why moms don’t take better care of themselves. You don’t need to pay a cent for the most nourishing, restorative things you can do for yourself. Walk in the woods. Take a bubble bath. See your girlfriends. Spend time alone with your partner. Read a magazine in a hammock. Nap. Taking care of yourself is not about a weekly massage or a trip to a spa or a vacation in Tuscany, though all would be nice. It is about being willing to reject the Martyr Mom cultural messages and put yourself at the top of your list.


I was driving alone with my son when he was about four and the subject turned to his favorite “Aunt Sue,” a dear friend who was childless at the time. Out of the blue, my son said “I hope Aunt Sue never has a baby.” “Why?” I asked, assuming the answer would be something along the lines of “because then she won’t have as much time for me.” But that wasn’t it at all. My insightful son said: “Because having kids is so hard, and I want Aunt Sue to be happy.”

Yikes. What behavior was I modeling? What message was I sending? That being a mom was more work than joy?

As a society, we are not doing our children any favors by struggling to ensure that every experience they have is perfect. There is no prize for the mom who works the hardest or sacrifices the most. Rather, we serve our children by striving to be the fullest expression of our true self and by showing that they can grow up to live balanced lives in which their families contribute to their happiness.

And that is the ultimate paradox of the Martyr Mom syndrome: ultimately you serve your family better by rejecting it.

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