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Martyr Mamas and the Concrete Coat of Shoulds

Self

Are you sporting the rather unattractive coat of "shoulds" this season? Time to dump that look!

I’m sure it started earlier than this but I began to notice it when I was pregnant with my first child. “You shouldn’t drink wine, or eat peanut butter or shell fish.  Don’t gain more than 30 pounds (which I misunderstood to mean per month vs. the whole pregnancy).”  “You should read aloud to your baby in vitro so that they will be able to read earlier.” “You shouldn’t be stressed out when you are pregnant, it’s bad for the baby.”

After my first pig squealer was born it got much louder and more intense, “You should breastfeed but not too long otherwise that will be creepy.” “You should hold him all the time.” Or “If you hold him too much, you will spoil him.” When he was a week old and I was contemplating retiring from motherhood I took him to the mall and was accosted by an older woman who said, “You should never take a new baby out of the house especially not in the cold!” When I shared some of my anxiety with the husband one of one of my friends, he said, “You shouldn’t be nervous. Nervous mother nervous baby.” Thanks, that was helpful.

The war on my body began at about the same time when people would ask if I’d lost the baby weight yet (I still haven’t lost it, he’s 19-years-old). Tabloids screamed at me that famous mothers walked out of the hospital in their skinny jeans, I should do that too. I should be a calm, patient mother, dress fashionably not slutty but still be sexy enough to attract teen-aged boys (the MILF rule). I should not ever let myself go, gain weight, or walk out of the house without looking just right.

Things didn’t improve much as he and his siblings got older, “You should hire a tutor to make sure he’s ahead of the game.” “He needs private lessons if he’s going to make a basketball team.” “Have you hired an ACT tutor yet or a college counselor? You should really do that to make sure he can get into the very best college he can.” “Do you help your kids with their homework? Pack them only perfectly balanced organic lunches? Cook gourmet meals each night? You really should be able to do all of that.”

“Are you a good wife? You shouldn’t work outside of the house if you don’t ‘need’ to. A good wife should let her husband be the breadwinner and happily take on the job of house slave (kind of like Dobbie from Harry Potter).” As my children got older I realized that my job was to wait for repairmen, laundress, grocery shopper, chef, errand runner, and maid, all done during the hours my children were at school. “You should always be home for your kids after school otherwise they will be rebellious deviants. And while you are at it, don’t age at all, no wrinkles or gray hairs. You should look like you did on your wedding day. Oh, and be happy about all of this!”

And then one day I woke up and I felt as if the concrete coat of shoulds had taken over my body. I was suffocating from a world that had been shoulding on me for years and I had only one person to blame . . . myself. Although some of those shoulds were reasonable many of them weren’t, so why was I listening? Why couldn’t I ignore them and do what seemed right for my family and myself? Where was that feisty girl who wanted to be an author when she grew up, who rode her bike no handed, and wrote a letter to president Nixon to tell him that he wasn’t a very good president (prior to our knowledge that he was a crook)? Where was the outspoken feminist who went head to head with the dishwasher repairman over gender roles and who should do the dishes (that was a risky move in that I LOVE my dishwasher)? It turns out that Ms. No handed bike riding, future author, outspoken feminist, political junky, was carrying 1,000 pounds of concrete shoulds with her everywhere she went. It’s not so easy to be a pain in the butt when you have that on your back!

So I started to peel the concrete layers off of me bit by bit. I took out my bicycle (I’m 50 now so I keep both hands on the handlebars), I write a snarky blog, and I went back to a career that makes me jump out of bed with joy every single day. I looked around and noticed that I wasn’t the only one wearing the concrete coat of shoulds; lots of women are sporting the look this season. Their eyes look wary and exhausted, shoulders hunched over, and personalities that seem brittle from over functioning and lack of humor. The author Anna Quindlen wrote this about us martyr mamas, “There’s the problem with turning motherhood into martyrdom.  There’s no way to do it and have a good time.” That Anna is a wise one and clearly not wearing the concrete coat of shoulds.

So women out there, this is my call to arms for you. Take off that concrete coat of shoulds, drop the mama martyr act and start having some fun. What do YOU want to do with your life? What makes YOU tick? No shoulds, no guilt, no keeping up with the Jones family, just you and your family figuring out how to make it work for all of you. Quit shoulding on yourself and letting others do the same. Own your life, model it for your children, and start living.

This article was originally published at . Reprinted with permission from the author.

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