Shedding the martyr's mantle

Posted: Friday, January 11, 2008

"I give, and I give, and I give ..." Yes! Yes! That's just how I feel!

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I have this set of coasters (a gift from my husband) called "Messages from Mom." Whenever the Martyr Mom Mood strikes I am reminded of my favorite of the six coasters, a vintage photo of a youngish blond mother with a strained smile and a hurt look in her eyes repeating my mantra, "I give, and I give, and I give ..." And I pretty much always have to laugh at myself. Which is much better than stomping around the house asking why no one appreciates me.

So what is it about the X-chromosomed that makes us so quick to slip on the martyr's cloak and then to find it a comforting, if not altogether comfortable, fit?

"Don't give up all the things you like to do."

That advice was given to me by the mother of an older child just months after the birth of my daughter.

"Really, the time they need all of you is so short and then they have their friends and activities and you're left to restart your life. Always take some time for yourself."

She said she learned this lesson the hard way and just wanted to spare me the trouble.

In the blur of those early years of parenting I forgot her advice. Time for myself? Like that was going to happen. Maybe if you count commuting or trips to the laundromat. There's the martyr, in case you didn't recognize her. I was pretty good at it.

My daughter was three the first time I threw off the martyr's mantle. I decided to sign up for an evening class through my church. Wild and crazy, I know. But the idea of doing something for myself, not a 'Mommy and Me' class, was sort of a minor revolution for me. Or perhaps a personal revelation. I loved my Wednesday evenings. It felt totally indulgent to drive home from work, change into jeans and a t-shirt, grab my journal and spend three hours with ten people who got to know me as an adult woman rather than as someone's mom.

Years later I was debating about taking a night class. I was trying to write regularly but I just couldn't seem to find the time. There was always another sock to pick up or another child to drive to an activity.

"I give, and I give, and I give ..."

"That's it," I decided, "I'm doing it." And I registered for an upper division memoir writing class. All through that winter I got up early, made a pot of coffee and sat at the kitchen counter reading the assigned memoirs and writing my stories. And, you know, suddenly I didn't care so much about the dirty socks. I was engaged in a way that I hadn't been for years and I loved it.

I was reminded of my mom when my siblings and I started, in turn, to leave home for college. Mom took up tennis. I remember her moving efficiently around the kitchen in her tennis skirt and court shoes. It brought out a different side of her - she talked about "her game" and was happy when she did well. A favorite family story is that my mother missed my younger brother's induction ceremony into the National Honor Society because she had a tennis match she didn't want to miss.

"Hey, where are your priorities?" we kids all wanted to know. We saw it as just a trivial tennis match but who knows what all it was to her? Maybe she was trying to shed her cloak and prepare for her last child to leave the nest.

I completed the memoir writing class and signed up for poetry and fiction. It was a writing workshop and we got to know each other pretty well. For the last class of the semester, our professor planned a celebration, of sorts, where we would bring food and each read a section of our work out loud. I was looking forward to it.

And this is where fact becomes stranger than fiction. My daughter's induction ceremony for the National Honor Society was scheduled for exactly the same day, exactly the same time as my final writing class.

Suddenly, I felt a little more forgiving of my mom's decision to play that tennis match.

• Carol Prentice is caught in the middle of life, work and family in Juneau.

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