On The Praise Of Maternal Martyrdom

Why Do We Praise Maternal Sacrifice Instead of Trying to Fix The Conditions That Make It Necessary? 

We've all heard many a successful person thank their mother for the sacrifices she made to raise them. This praise usually follows the story line of mom completely giving up any career or educational aspirations she had in order to raise her children full time, and is usually followed by an approving round of applause from the audience. I can't help but think at moments like this: "But what if mom didn't want to make that sacrifice? What if mom, while obscenely in love with and proud of her children, also secretly resents the fact that she was forced to give up everything to raise them?"

While we've come a long way since the days when women were immediately fired upon informing their boss of their pregnancy, we still have a long way to go when it comes to providing the type of support that is necessary for the modern family. 

If the roles were reversed, and it was in fact dad who had to give up all of his hopes and dreams in order to raise his children, would we still applaud? Or would we bemoan the fact that a father had to make such a hard decision when he should have been able to have both children and a career? Would we ask what we as a society can do to ensure that fathers don't have to make such a harsh sacrifice? We often see fathers having to stay home to take care of their children as a social and economic fluke to be remedied because of a stale economy or some other social phenomenon, but we don't blink an eye when mothers are the ones who make the sacrifice. In fact, mothers are universally praised for doing so regardless of whether it was truly their choice or not. 

Here's a question: If we were told that a mother cried herself to sleep every night for the life she knew she would never have, would we still applaud? While that may sound harsh, the reality is that more often than not, fathers are not faced with having to accept the type of personal and professional sacrifices that society expects of mothers.

When I talk about sacrifice, I'm not talking about a mother who decides to stay at home with her children permanently or for the first couple of years because that's what she wants to do. Because that is a choice, and a legitimate one at that. I will never disparage any parent who decides that staying home with their child is the best thing for their family.  That is their choice to make. Period. 

What I'm talking about when I talk about sacrifice are the mothers who have no choice but to forgo continuing their education because they have no reliable and safe daycare. I'm talking about the mothers who have no choice but to stop working because private daycare is too expensive. I'm talking about the mothers who are forced out of jobs (and ultimately, careers) they love by people and policies that offer no support to someone responsible for a family. And, let's face it, society still puts the overriding burden of familial responsibility on women.

Let me be clear, I'm not saying that being a parent should not entail making sacrifices. Quite the contrary. The definition of parenting is sacrifice. Of time, of sleep, of energy, of opportunity, etc. Anyone who thinks otherwise is living under a rock. And I'm not saying that fathers are immune to sacrifice when they have children. 

What bothers me is that we continue to expect and to praise women who give up things that are important to their identities to raise their children, but we do not place this expectation or this burden on men. This public martyrdom of mothers contributes to the sexist notion that a woman's only true calling in life is to have and raise children. And it implies that women who don't make that choice (when they have one) are somehow lacking. 

I'm not trying to minimize the importance of parenthood by any means, but a human being can be (and is) more than just a parent. It's possible to be a parent and a painter; a parent and an architect; a parent and a nurse, etc.. But, as a society, we aren't interested in policies that help women maintain their identities outside of motherhood. In fact, our policies (or lack thereof) seem to do everything possible to pigeonhole women into only that role. Think lack of paid maternity and paternity leave, sick leave, and flex time. Think lack of subsidized child care. Think wage gaps and mommy tracks. All of these primarily affect mothers and their ability to care for their families.

Lack of paid maternity leave means that women who need to stay home to care for newborns and to heal risk losing their jobs and financial security. Lack of paid paternity leave sends the clear message that, from the moment a child is born, it is the mother and not the father who should be the primary caregiver, regardless of whether that is the desired family dynamic. The ongoing wage gap between men and women almost always leads to the woman having to stay home when family finances determine that is necessary. Working mothers who, prior to having children, were rising stars in their chosen profession, are often placed on the "mommy track," where they see their already-lower wages fall and chances of promotion disappear. And because the onus of familial responsibilities is still largely placed on women, the fact that they have to leave early to pick up children, or take them to doctor's appointments, are convenient excuses for employers to lower pay or fire employees. 

The result? Women are often pushed out of the workplace because they no longer feel welcome and/or they are too exhausted from trying to be everything to all people.

Instead of constantly praising mothers who are forced to make this sacrifice (the reasons for which are legion), why don't we work on changing laws and instituting policies that will truly support families so that women are not constantly faced with having to choose between abdicating entire parts of their identity and having children?