Why Crack Your Shackles?

Let’s presume that we are all deeply and inextricably interconnected.   Ok, then what is sacrifice?   If I give to you, I receive in equal measure.  So what are we giving when we are not meeting our own needs?

I love BlueMilk‘s questions (see the last comment on the 1st attachment post) which can be applied to any mother, not just one who identifies as an Attachment Parent. And I add: if we are so tired so brain dead from not sleeping not hearing adult conversation so involved in the success and failure of our child so confused so depressed maybe so limited—what are we giving? How can our children not drink our poison?

And, if that is our condition, how do we adapt to it? When we’re suffering, we begin to value the suffering. It takes on a heroic tone, and it’s pretty hard not to think everyone should be doing it too. I first saw the results of forced altruism when I was teaching medical residents. They take such pride in suffering that it is almost impossible for them to have empathy for their sick patients.

But who in their right mind would admit, even to themselves, that they are suffering if all they hear is that motherhood is bliss? Thankfully, miraculously, people are now starting to talk about how to support mothers so they don’t have to obliterate themselves.

I must be absolutely clear about one thing. I love my daughter more than I can possibly put into words. My film is made for her and dedicated to her. Freeing myself from martyrdom has released me to enjoy her for who she is. If I weren’t trying to give her a good life, I wouldn’t be doing this.

UnMartyred Family


UnMartyred Attachment?

I send my heartfelt thanks to the mothers who posted such thoughtful comments in response to my question about Attachment Parenting. AP UnMartyred Mom tells us that the goal of AP is “to raise infants and toddlers to feel confident enough that their voices will be heard and their real needs met that they develop into capable, independent older children.” The premise that children’s confidence grows from their needs being met encourages the mother to choose the young child’s needs over hers. As Pegasus says, “My priority is definitely my daughter, and I’m happy for that to always be true. Doesn’t feel like martyrdom at all.”

But let’s get real for a minute. Not every mother is happy at every moment to nurse a baby change a diaper listen to a story instead of doing all those other things that non-parents do: chill out read a paper pee in peace sleep until you want to wake up. All of us, not just AP parents, do what we need to do, and mostly we love doing it, but sometimes, SOMETIMES we are stressed out by the combination of work demands, not enough support, and the expectations for mothers nowadays.

I include AP among the expectations that stress us out because I have heard many mothers lament that they failed to measure up to the AP model. (See MoJo Mom and UnMartyred Wannabee, for example.) While it is easy to say that we should just do what works for us, the truth is that in the uncertain world of child-rearing, we look to the experts and to each other as guides. Some of these guides exude so much morality that it is easy to feel inadequate. If you ‘should’ meet your child’s needs so that your child will be confident, then every failure to do so will be a kick in the gut.

So, I have to ask:
Is it true that the more we meet their needs the more confident and independent they will be? Not according to Jessica Benjamin, the eminent feminist psychoanalyst:

“No psychological theory has adequately articulated the mother’s independent existence. [Theories] always revert to a view of the mother as the baby’s vehicle for growth, an object of the baby’s needs.” If the child, she says, cannot see the mother’s separate existence, he will attempt to ‘tyrannically enforce’ his demands in order to continue a “fantasy of absolute control.” Benjamin is not describing a bad child, only a child who has not reconciled with the reality of another being. If the mother identifies with the child’s disillusionment, and does not “accept that she cannot make a perfect world for her child,” she will tend toward “self-obliteration.”

Is that a problem?

It is, according to Benjamin: “The child who feels that others are extensions of himself must constantly fear the emptiness and loss of connection that result from his fearful power.”

Does that sound like a confident and independent child? Not to me.

But this is just a theory, right? Right. And so is the theory upon which Sears bases his detailed advice. I’m not advocating one theory as truth but I do want us to consider the effect on mothers of these differing views.

If I believe that a good mother never frustrates her child, I will take my child’s suffering personally. If I have an easy child, I will pride myself on my accomplishment. If I have a difficult child, I will berate myself for having failed to meet her needs.

However, if I believe that being a good mother includes existing as a separate person, whose needs on occasion trump the child’s, then I will be free to help my child manage the inevitable frustrations of living in the real world.

One more thing, I understand from the unmartyred and feminist (true, Pegasus, they are not equivalent) mothers who posted, that it is possible to AP in a way that nurtures the mother too, especially when there is support from a father who is unshackled from male cultural stereotypes. If it really works for you, then you are living Benjamin’s theory too. I’m just afraid that in the world as it is—most jobs are not flexible, most mothers have to work, most fathers do not expect to share child-care or housekeeping—the Sears theory punishes Moms for doing what is actually good enough parenting.

Attachment and Martyrdom

I confess to a certain bias in thinking that mothers who follow the Dr. Sears method of ‘attachment parenting’ are Martyred Moms. I tend to be awed and puzzled by the devotion that I see in them. I wonder how, for example, they can sleep with their children until they ‘wean themselves,’ if ever. Assuming they are a different breed (not as selfish as I am?), I tend to stay away from conversations with them.

Here in the blog world, however, relationships are different and my assumptions get to be questioned.  A new feminist friend from Australia describes herself as an attachment parent.  Right there, I’m confused.   In a good way.

Here is what she says: “I think attachment parenting’s great weakness is a failure to adequately deal with the martyrdom trap. I don’t have lots of solutions yet but I think about this issue a lot, particularly from a feminist perspective.”

So, I’m just wondering if there are other ‘attachment moms’ out there who have thought about this. If you are doing the attaching thing (per Sears–I don’t mean garden variety attachment that we all experience) and you are not a martyr, could you explain how you do it?

R&R, or Relapse and Recovery

Did you enjoy my glowing report of the film screening at Rockland Parent Child Center? Well, it was all true! And of course Mamapalooza was fabulous! and Staten Island Film Fest Reloaded was fascinating! Exclamation points are all warranted!!

Here is the back story:

May was a Rough Month.

I must begin with an obvious problem. I admit that I feel happy when people like what I’m saying and agree with me. Yet my mission in life seems to be to speak things that some people don’t want to hear. Yes, you could predict some trouble there. Naturally, I’m working on losing my attachment to self and identity, and when I do, baby, wow, I’ll really be free!

In meantime…my post On Narcissism generated an ongoing stream of hateful comments, which I didn’t post but which nevertheless nibbled away at me. For example, comments like “You should do all your patients a favor by quitting your job and staying home to damage your child full-time” and “your daughter appropriately ignored your tedious self-congratulation” and “you used a bogus interpretation of research on therapy to justify taking your daughter to task for failing to serve your bottomless narcisstic (sic) needs” did end up bouncing around in my head.

Worse, I began to actually try once again to put my child’s needs before mine. (During a month of screenings and email forums and network opportunities, this was particularly challenging.) My daughter, at 11 years, responded sensitively by upping every ante. And is it just my town, or does every school have 6 performances/ceremonies/events that occur in May?
Proud Parents

Well, anyway I tried to do it all, and ended up crabby and miserable, failing to meet either of our needs. It was a rough rough month!

I recovered though. Reality knocked on my door and I let her in. Here’s how it happened:

  • I fell and required medical attention. “Wake up!” Reality said.
  • At a screening, a woman told me that she and her sisters got relief from their childhood misery only when their poor mother was working on an art project. “You aren’t alone,” Reality said.
  • I reread Jessica Benjamin (soon to be reviewed here but in the meantime let me say that she is brilliant and convincing in her argument that the Mother must be more than an object who meets the child needs).
  • After the amazing conversation following the RPCC screening, I rushed to my daughter’s spring concert, caught the end but missed her part. She wept publicly. Wept. Knife through the heart. And here’s where Reality really popped: Several mothers who witnessed the tears did not look at me as if I were a monster. Instead they said, “oh come on, [name of husband] never makes it. At least you had one parent there.”

I empathized with my daughter but I did not apologize. I asked if there was any way I could make her feel better without taking blame. We ended up just holding each other, both a bit sad and angry but close once again. I didn’t put anyone’s needs before anyone else’s. Isn’t it true that we are interconnected? Isn’t it true that all needs co-occur? Isn’t it true that we give what we receive?

If it is, then I can be UnMartyred.

Women’s Groups Crack Shackles!

If you’ve been reading, you know that I’ve criticized groups, apologized to groups, been fired from groups, renounced groups, and re-entered groups on my terms. Sort of . So it was with some trepidation that I offered to show the new cut of my movie, Martyred Mom Cracks Her Shackles, to a group of mothers (and their partners) from the excellent Rockland Parent Child Center.

Well, let me tell you I learned a few things. First off, groups rock! I’ve complained about feeling restricted in groups but now I see that groups also can give permission to speak–especially semi-therapeutic groups who just finished watching a movie featuring a gut-spilling mother/therapist. Thank you to Katie, my co-facilitator, for encouraging me to go through with it.

We heard a dream of a woman being consumed by her breast-feeding babe. We heard about the agony of guilt. We heard about painful choices and the enormous pressure to mother in just the right way. Several women identified with the line about my mother: “She gave me the antidote to her mother. It was poison to me. ….is that what we’re doing?” We try so hard to do better than our mothers did. What came through so strongly was both the power of the love for our children and the immense frustration at having to give up so much in order to give them what they need, or what we think they need.

As the discussion continued, the women’s voices became stronger. Encouraging words flowed: “you don’t have to be perfect…I worried so much and she turned out to be ok in nursery school driving with her father at a playdate on the monkey bars in college…let them clean it up…follow your passions…be proud of what you do at home…”

I asked who would take responsibility if the mothers let go. And that’s when I really learned about women and community–what car pools and play dates are all about. When I asked, “but what if you work more hours and always feel indebted to the other mothers,” I heard “hey, it’s really no problem to throw another kid in the car,” and “it’s a karmic thing…I can’t always be even with every family but we’re all interconnected.” Yes.  Is that really true?

My favorite moment was when a Dad who was helping out at the free childcare next door entered the room with spit-up on his shoulder. He said to one of the mothers (in a cute way): “hey, this is your kid’s spit up on my shoulder.” She jumped up. There was a rousing sound from the group. “What? Sit down. He spit up already… what do you need to do about it now? Let him handle it!”

She sat.

I smiled.

I will eat!

I’ve been busy, preparing for events this month (see the news box on the right), and answering the fascinating comments on the posts: Divided We Stand and On Narcissism. So I’m posting sort-of a re-run. Here’s an essay I wrote for Mothers Movement Online, reproduced here in case you never visited. I must warn you that it is long–longer than a readable post (and there are no pictures), so come back later if you need to. Here goes:

Crack Your Shackles, Martyred Mom!
I want to be a feminist mother but I am shackled by guilt, enslaved by a cultural and familial legacy of martyrdom. My culture tells me that I am not a good mother unless I unfailingly put my child’s needs before mine. My family history hints to me that my worth is measured by my suffering. As my husband says of his mother (a holocaust survivor), a martyr is a hero. Of course I want to be a hero. I strive to achieve the ideal and I feel guilty when I fail to measure up.

And yet, when guilt is my master, I cannot be a whole free woman. When guilt commands, I rush to get home by the time school is out even when my work is not done. When guilt twists its knife, I express avid interest in my daughter’s story even when my mind is on the unfinished work. When I obey the guilt, I push myself to be a better mother than I actually am.

But who is this Better Mother that I try to emulate? She is my cheerful neighbor, whom I hardly know. She is the woman on the magazine cover, smiling as if to invite me into her arms. She is the mother I always wanted.


Yes, we are both victims and perpetrators of the inflation of the mommy ideal. When I set out to break free, I ran smack into my own doomed vow to surpass my mother. If I could live my ideal, I would show her and all the women around me that I am not so damaged. But I couldn’t do it. And that is what saved me.

Throughout my life, I have noticed that real change happens when I come face to face with the inevitable impossible. It was impossible for me to surpass my mother because I had become my mother. No, I didn’t look like her. I was assertive while she was apologetic and diminutive. I was flashy while she was subtle. And most important, I was super-attentive to my child while she was, I always claimed, so self-absorbed that she missed my cues, dissed my desires, and confused her needs with mine. If I could attune perfectly to my daughter, if I could adjust myself to her, if I could meet her needs, then surely I would vanquish my Bad Mother. So I did not realize at the time that I was replicating my mother’s insides.

I indulged in this intensive approach to mothering when my daughter was a baby, persisted when she was a toddler, then a preschooler. But then I hit 40, and a realization hit me. As a professional psychologist, I was nurturing everyone around me, but something very big was missing. For one thing, a long dormant desire to perform was surfacing. I had started on the path of an actor years ago but took a turn toward a psychology career. Now I found myself in dance class again, wanting attention again. All around me, I saw women pouring themselves into their children, gathering to pick them up from school, volunteering in their children’s classes, devoting their evenings and weekends to homework and kid activities. I couldn’t keep up. And increasingly, I resented the demands of the school, the expectations of the other mothers, and the relentless interruptions by my child, who had learned, from me, to assume that any utterance mattered more than my unbroken train of thought.

While sometimes mothers around me would complain good-naturedly about this state of affairs, no one seemed to question the importance of this level of self-sacrifice. Anything less would be self-absorbed and bad for the children. Privately, gradually, I was beginning to question this idea, and I began to write about my experience and to read various perspectives on mothering. Where, previously, I sucked up Penelope Leach and Alice Miller, I now hungered for feminist literature, including Phyllis Chesler (Women’s Inhumanity to Women), Douglas & Michaels (The Mommy Myth), Anna Fels (Necessary Dreams), and Jessica Benjamin (The Bonds of Love). It became apparent to me that we were all making a fatal error. The odd thing was that, despite the clarity and consensus in the writing, it did not penetrate into my experience or the experience of the mothers around me. I cancelled my plan to write a book and sunk back into my dilemma.

And then one day…there was my daughter, dressed in a princess outfit, wielding a sword, saying, “I am King!” I picked up a camera. That scene, and how I worked with it, prompted the change that finally helped me crack the shackles of martyrdom. My daughter was beautiful and powerful, and she was sapping the life out of me. But when I picked up the camera, I picked up my power. As I filmed her and then mothers brave enough to talk about the price of sacrifice, I put myself back into the picture. I put my mother back into the picture, and with her, recovered my self.

I couldn’t become a feminist mother until I understood, from the inside, what mothering had taken from my mother. In the movie I ended up making, I say: “My mother ate me up, but she apologized for it. Chomp. Sorry. Chew. Sorry.” and so on. All my life I had been furious about the chomping. But now I understand that it was the apology that was the problem. Now I understand her hunger and how limited was her buffet. When she apologized to me, she injected the guilt that prevented me from being able to satisfy myself. To be a feminist mother, a woman needs nourishment, and not just from her children.

My mother was not able to tell me what she needed, not in words anyway. But she showed me. I saw her unhappiness in her expression, which she tried to hide but revealed in self-portraits that she drew. Through her art she taught me the truth and the value of truth. When I picked up the camera, I picked up her wisdom, and learned a way for us to be intimate at last. As she writes in her poem, Not Yet But Almost:

…the times ahead will be rough.
But I’ll wait out the loss.
I’ll wait for recovery, and rediscovery,
until we can know each other anew,
through the brush stroke, the key stroke,
the camera’s eye.
Through the pain, the laughter, the play
of the singular labor of art
we will wind our way
to the truth of the heart.*

I am making my way to the truth of the heart, Mommy.

Without social action, we have no hope of expanding the buffet. But, without internal change, we will not be able to eat. To become a feminist mother, I learned to disobey the guilt. Guilt informs me that I am not enough; I need to do more, be more, before I can take what I need. I now say, it is enough to be not enough. I am flawed and I am adequate. I will eat.

A feminist mother is an UnMartyred Mom, a woman who shows her children by example that a woman can experience fulfillment, can have an excellent life. A feminist mother joins with other mothers to embrace the full splendor of our varied lives and to improve our world. Let us face ourselves, come together, and dance the mothers’ movement toward freedom.

*Full text of my mother’s poem and much more can be found on the website Martyred Moms.

Divided We Stand

By now, I’ve written so many posts on women’s groups that I’ve decided to add a category. Why is it so important? As study after study has shown, we humans thrive when we have social support. We are tribal creatures. And the really freakish thing to me is that simply the number of friends we have is predictive of health and happiness. So it all comes down to being popular, which is what any middle school girl can tell you.

My middle school daughter, Vita, was having a conversation with her friend during an interminable car ride yesterday.

Friend: “Are you a girly girl?” Vita: “no.” Friend: “Are you a sporty girl?” Vita: “no.” Friend: “yeah, I think I’m a mix. girly girl and sporty girl and some other things. I’m kind of girly when it comes to boys…” My daughter is not answering, but her friend is working out her identity. She is categorizing herself in a way that fits her personality and that will promote conversation. Unfortunately for her, since Vita has little interest in talking about boys, the conversational bid was ignored. I worried about the silence for a while but they seemed comfortable with it–with the help of some electronic devices.

The night before, I’m having drinks with 2 friends, both working mothers. working mothers!? Just by using the term, I expose all manner of assumptions and cultural values. Of course, all mothers work, really hard, at something. Very few of us are sitting around on our duffs, indulging in bonbons, and watching the tube. Either we are making a living, or we are doing something else. But, sitting with my friends, we join as working mothers to complain again about the unfair demands of the schools and the all-too-ready collusion of the “stay-at-home” mothers.   stay-at-home?!–see comment above.  But, listen!  Some SAHMs have actually advised my friend that her child would be damaged if she did not attend an event that was scheduled during the middle of the day:   Graduation from Social Studies, Part 1, or something along those lines.

As per my conversation with my sister-in-law, I bemoaned the cultural values that cause women to compete with each other on mothering styles.  Of course I have my opinions.  As a militant but still conflicted UnMartyred Mom, I really resent the implication that hovering is the best mothering.  But I know that if I did not have a career that reminds me of my effectiveness, I would sure put all my achievement needs into mothering.

What is mothering, anyway?  Most simply, mothering means having a child.  In that sense, we are all full-time mothers.  But mothering also means the jobs that we do as mothers and home-organizers. We vary in how much we like or value those jobs. I like to clean, bake, and talk at length with my child, but I hate hate hate field trips.  Why can’t we collaborate?

So many reasons.

At this moment in our civilization, we women are deeply divided; some of us breast feed, some don’t; some let our babies cry, some don’t, and on and on and on. And yet we have to stand together. The more value is placed on women’s work, the more we can exchange services fairly. If it is all legitimate, we can all feel good about what we choose to do. Until then, it really isn’t ‘choice.’

Let’s start here.  We can stand together by supporting the right policies and politicians.   We can stand together by noticing when we contribute to disrespectful criticism.  We can stand together by learning to disagree openly instead of covertly.  And we can stand together by supporting each other’s different paths.