I remember one fight my parents had when I was teenager not so much for the content but for something my dad yelled at my mother in the heat of the moment – it went something like this: Oh, just climb up higher on your cross, Mary – because no one can match the sacrifices you make.” It stopped my mom cold – in part, I think, because my father’s mother was the class martyr-type and my mom was doing everything in her power to avoid becoming that way as well. I don’t remember her response but I do remember thinking this remark was terribly funny, and trying not to laugh. The majority of my parents’ fights ended with the decision – regardless of where the checking account stood – to go out for a drink and a burger – water under the bridge, so to speak. They have been married for 40 + years so obviously, this approach has worked well for them.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve witnessed more of the martyr-like behavior many people are capable of, and actively tried to avoid it. It’s so much easier to start “keeping score,” as the priest who married us put it, than it is to to remain open and generous in a marriage – if you have kids, the temptation to “count” what you’ve done versus what your partner has done only increases. But finding virtue and feeling superior based upon your daily to-do list doesn’t make you happy, and it can put a serious dent in your relationship.
One of the more insidious side-effects of martyr-like behavior is how hard it is to dig yourself out of that way of thinking once it starts. It is rare for me to reference one of my former posts in a current one, but as background for the rest of this story, you might want to reference my last post.
A few weeks ago, when our family was going through a particularly stressful period of care-taking for my mother-in-law, and we were trying to balance her surgery and recovery with the rest of our lives, I could feel myself on the verge of martyrdom. Partially because of Ian’s particularly hectic work schedule in October, and partially due to long-determined notions my in-laws hold about gender roles in the household, I found myself doing what felt like way too much – way too much for a normal person, let alone a six and half month pregnant person. I was handling everything from getting up with G in the middle of the night (she was suffering from the stress in the household like all of us were) to cooking dinner to physically caring for my mother-in-law, all the while trying to keep up with my job.
So I did what I thought the most anti-martyr thing to do would be, and turned to Ian and asked for help. In the midst of our struggle, I felt very proud of myself – asking for help instead of accusing him of not doing his share felt very grown-up and smart, marriage-savvy. So I was more than taken aback when he told me in so many words that he was at capacity as well, that he had nothing left to give to the situation. His response seemed so patently unfair in light of fact I had done the hard thing – asking for help – instead of the easy thing – accusing him of not carrying his load.
Friends, it wasn’t our best marriage moment. It’s possible I may have stormed out of the car in the middle of a parking garage, leaving him to park and find me. It’s also possible he was so appalled by my behavior that he DIDN’T follow me. I’ve also heard a rumor that we took over a patient waiting room on his mother’s floor and scared away any other potential patient families with the heatedness of our conversation.
One thing about being married for thirteen years – we’ve developed an excellent shorthand for difficult conversations and within an hour and forty-five minutes had ourselves relatively sorted. We succeeded in avoiding any further, large arguments but didn’t have time to talk things through enough to prevent the spiral of martyrdom thinking I started falling prey to. Every time I had to prepare a proper dinner for Ian’s parents, every time I did a load of laundry that I thought should be Ian’s responsibility, every time G rejected joining us at the dinner table because she could feel the palpable tension, I blamed Ian. It almost felt like falling down the proverbial rabbit hole -I could see what was happening but felt powerless to stop it. I was beginning to feel like my mother-in-law would never get better and our lives would be distilled in this one particular moment forever.
Thank God for those few moments of clarity, when by hook or by crook I was able to pull myself out of my doomsday thinking and realize what was happening. It was during those moments when I was able to refrain from attacking Ian and his family and instead take the proper self-care steps necessary to avoid becoming a married martyred mommy. Here is what I did – I’m sharing them on the theory that they might help people tempted to travel down the insidious score-keeping path to martyrdom.
(1.) I sent out an S.O.S. text to my friends, requesting play dates so G and I could get out of the house. I wasn’t comfortable leaving her at the house, what with my in-laws propensity with leaving blood pressure medication and heating pads around the house. My beautiful, beautiful Pittsburgh friends responded with speed, warmth and understanding and within hours G and I were at our favorite park – she conquering the big kid swings while I cried on my friend E’s shoulder.
(2.) I listened to my mom and relied more on take out and less on preparing dinner each evening. G and I tend to eat dinner alone quite often, especially this time of year when Ian has to attend so many events, and as my pregnancy progressed I grew less concerned with exposing her to new flavors and more interested in broccoli cheese soup, bread and fruit cocktail. But my in-laws are used to a proper dinner every night (and in a way, I get this – in a new world full of rehabilitation and hourly medications, it was the true north they could hang on to) dinner from canned foods wasn’t going to cut it. Instead of relying so heavily on preparing dinner, though, Ian and I instead flooded them with the ethnic flavors from our neighborhood every other day, relying most heavily on the American-Italian for which our neighborhood is known but also throwing Japanese, Vietnamese and Chinese their way as well. Sure, this month my pocketbook is a little (okay, a lot) tighter – it kept the dishes to a minimum, gave my father-in-law something to look forward to, and got dinner on the table.
(3.) I stopped working from home. I had permission from my boss to work from home for a few days in order to assist my mother-in-law with bathroom trips and make sure both in-laws knew how to use the coffee maker, the television remote, etc. I also thought it would provide me a little extra time to run the dishwasher and clean down the bathroom. They, however, mistook this flexibility for much more than it actually was. I can’t say I blame them on this – neither of them has ever had the opportunity to work from home so I am sure it is difficult to appreciate the boundaries I needed to set in order to meet my deadlines. I found myself growing more and more frustrated until one day I realized – hey, I have an office. I can go to it. And so I did, and I am certain all of our stress levels dropped considerably.
(4.) I made future plans. I’ve felt a little restless this pregnancy – less inclined to nest and more desirous of evenings out with friends. Some of this has to do with the holiday season, I have no doubt – but I’ve also been missing a bit of the independence I had finally acquired after G turned two. I miss really sweaty workouts – dance classes and hot yoga – that made my body feel like it was returning to itself, and I miss having a couple of drinks with friends over sushi. As I put it to Ian the other day, I’m looking forward to the time when the highlight of my day is NOT getting home from work so I can change into maternity leggings. So now I’ve already had one dinner with one set of amazing friends, and I have another looming with my work friends, and I’m even considering the notion of hiring a babysitter so Ian and I can have a few nights out prior to our second child’s birth.
(5.) Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I did not ever let G see my frustration with her grandparents. My own mother had lots and lots of issues with my paternal grandmother, and while I can see now as an adult just how broken that relationship was bound to be from the beginning, I was aware much too early about my grandmother’s preference for her other grandchildren, and how badly she treated my father, and I don’t think I needed to be quite so cognizant at such a young age of such adult brokenness. I believe G’s relationship with her grandparents should develop and flourish without anything but minimal guidance and rule-setting for me (the first two years of her life were guided by the rule – No boats, no bacon, no bourbon before bedtime for the grandparents, if they wanted to spend time with her), and even during periods of frustration, ANY outlet is better than my daughter, when it comes to her grandparents.
I’m not sharing these tips to show off how highly I think of myself, or anything along those lines – rather, I’m sharing them on the chance that other Sandwich Days women are experiencing similar situations, and may not want to travel down the easily accessible, but fraught with peril, path of marital score-keeping.