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


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.

Renouncing Groups

In the original version of Martyred Moms, one of the last scenes features me talking to two close girlfriends, saying: “I need to hear your voices in my head, telling me ‘it’s ok.'” (That was really difficult to punctuate!)

My consultant and collaborator in film, Matthew Polis, challenged me to cut the scene because he said the audience doesn’t need to see me seeking reassurance after I’ve figured something out. I cut the scene. I appreciate the advice of clear-thinking men because women, I among them, can become deeply confused in the murky waters of social expectations.

When I am in a group, my desire to fit in with the group is equal in power to my desire to resist its assumptions. Caught in paralysis, I am unable to marshal my usual humor and authority, and sometimes end up feeling like a wooden puppet.

I hear women talking about other women; I hear myself judging women who make different “choices,” and then I come back to the point I made in an exchange with Andi Buchanan: we judge each other because we don’t have power, because we don’t really have choice.

To be quite specific, it is not possible for two parents to have meaningful careers in our culture. Most of the professional occupations, at least in the New York area, require 40-80 hours per week of dedicated effort. The school day runs from 8:30 (ish) to 3 (ish), unless there is a holiday, or a half-day, or a snow day, or one of many celebrations to which parents are expected to go. True, we can ‘choose’ to use child care, have a nanny attend the parental gatherings at school.

But, if you are a woman, there are staggering financial, emotional and social costs to caring about a career enough to hire help for the kids. It is definitely not ok in my neighborhood to be a slacker mom. And, you know, despite my militant position, I want to spend time with my daughter. I just wish I could believe that what I give is enough. And when I see other mothers picking up their kids instead of letting them take the bus, or volunteering for stuff, or cancelling a work project, or otherwise putting the apparent needs of children over their own, I feel guilty. And critical. And I wish I could fit in.

So I renounce my desire to belong. I renounce my search for a tribe. I’ll go my own way and let it hurt.

A New Generation

Let me introduce you to Sabine and Joey.
Sabine&Joey (eyes closed)
Sabine and Joey, being silly.

Sabine, web designer for Martyred Moms, brought her boyfriend Joey to a screening of the movie in January 2006. Joey, a filmmaker and socialworker, was moved, to understate a bit. To my question on the message board, ‘what would you do differently now that you have seen the movie?’ he responded:

“I would enroll myself in a ballet course. The film not only made me desperately WANT to be a Martyred Mom, but I wanted to take a dance class. As far as what I would do differently…hummmmmm…. make sure that I raise a child with as much love, care and consideration as the filmmaker does. The film operates as a subconcious vehicle for family awareness. An animal once thought “extinct” has now been resurrected by the joys offered with the spirit captured with the filmwork.”

And here is Sabine’s response:

“Seeing the film made me realize everything my mother had to go through while she was running a business with my dad and was taking care of my sister and me. I even had a talk with my father very recently about motherhood and I learned things about my mother that were completely new to me. I feel so much more respect for my mother now. Everyone who has kids and parents should see the movie! ”

And then the most remarkable thing happened! Within 2 months, they were pregnant. They are due to give birth to their little girl on December 6th. Here is an email from Sabine last week:

“Due to your blog I went to Amy Tiennen’s web site about a week or so ago and ordered her book. I started reading the first chapter on the early stages of motherhood, some of them were a bit scary: attention usually completely goes to the baby, while the mother is suffering from pain and exhaustion from birth. General lack of sleep the following months. Complete social isolation, etc. However, she does offer quite a few good tips on getting help. Although I am probably not running out right away and try to meet all mothers in my neighborhood, it’s good to know what is possibly facing us. May be smart getting started to be prepared for the additional family member. I believe if we can share the task as much as possible (breastfeeding may be a bit tough), this should be a happy process, where we can grow as people and learn more about giving, interacting and see the miracles of an unspoiled being. Let’s see what will happen… these are the thoughts of the mom BEFORE the baby has arrived…”

Will Sabine be Martyred? Or will Joey help her do it differently? Stay tuned……..

“How did it go?”

asked Vita, upon wakening this morning, thereby answering her own question. She was asking about the big Martyred Moms event at Anthology Film Archives last night. Of course, the night was sensational, but even more important was the news that my daughter has learned to ask about the grownups. She did not stride into the room with announcements as she used to do without exception. She tenderly asked how it went. First thing. Do you get it?

As for how it went, it was amazing to show the movie in such a classic setting, in the company of so many accomplished filmmakers. As usual, Martyred Moms started conversations, loosened lips that kept talking into the night. I’m enjoying the reverberations, except my head hurts a bit.

at AFA with matthew
At Anthology Film Archives with
Matthew Polis, collaborator

walking with Joey
walking with Joey, filmmaker

at the bar
with Katherine (filmmaker) and Mayra (band leader)