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Mother as Martyr

Mothers are often both martyrs and assassins in the eyes of female children

AJ Kelly
AJ Kelly

Have you ever lived with a housemate—especially male—and gone on strike from cleaning (again) because you’ve done your fair share of housework thus far and every time you ask them to help out you’re reduced to an argumentative pain to live with? A downer? Too strict? It then feels like the only answer is to live in a dirty house, unless you want to play mother, martyr, with your precious time on Earth stolen by cleaning up after other people. We never want to be taken advantage of, nobody does, which shows how insidiously mothers are forced into such a role.

It takes a sadistic type of misogynistic society to influence girls to aspire to the job of Mother Martyr. She de-escalates dad, copping jabs silently so the children can sleep. Her time is spent in service to the family, but the kids don’t listen to her anyway so she uses the old “wait until your dad comes home!” to get some order. She’s got to be selfless and sexy and, after all of that, after doing absolutely everything she has been conditioned to do obediently, 21 percent of men cheat anyway.

All of the romance, courting, and affection showered on women before marriage is a dance choreographed by the patriarchy with the ultimate goal of convincing women to make a lifetime commitment to the family. Before she knows what’s hit her, it’s too late. The baby’s here. Dad’s at the pub, asleep, at work, at football, watching football, or has taken off. Less than 6 percent of dads parent alone, yet 20.2 percent desert all of their minor children. Furthermore, men are more likely to have close friends than women are, which reflects the freedom to socialize that fathers who do stay are afforded. Close friendships are something Mother Martyr often relinquishes if she wants to achieve ultimate family devotion.

“Men are healthier when married and even live longer than men without spouses. However, heterosexual women are happier without children or a spouse.”


There’s a darker side to being a mother in a heterosexual relationship that’s not advertised honestly in romantic comedies. Wives are killed most often in family murders. A Harvard survey of 130,000 American adults found that men are healthier when married and even live longer than men without spouses. However, heterosexual women are happier without children or a spouse. Men aren’t naturally more interested in children and marriage, they just benefit from having a Mother Martyr to dote on them. Locking a woman into marriage and children gives a man more personal freedom, more health and happiness, despite the “ball and chain” jokes.

Mothers can also be assassins to daughters, especially to lesbian daughters. Women are conditioned to enforce patriarchy themselves and, if that conditioning isn’t combated with some class consciousness, it festers and explodes on the female child. Mothers, across time and culture, are often the first people to teach patriarchy to their daughters, just as their own mother taught it to them. Little acts of assassination play out every day in the underhanded comments about how you need to lose weight, the “you look pretty” (but only said when you’re wearing makeup), how Mother Martyr cleans up your brother’s room but tells you to do yours because “girls are clean,” how she might even pick your brother’s side in a childish argument just to get you used to being trampled on by men your whole life. Those experiences aren’t exclusive to lesbians, but it is intensified when you come out as one: “but I want grandchildren! I want marriage! I don’t want you to start dressing like a man!” After all the suffering Mother Martyr has been through, you’re not giving her what she felt was a guaranteed payoff.

“Mothers, across time and culture, are often the first people to teach patriarchy to their daughters, just as their own mother taught it to them.”


As much as Mother Martyr suffers, and even vocally resists her place in the house, she wants you to follow suit. Is it simply lobsters-in-a-pot? Does she not want you to escape? Does she not want to be shown the way out or else it’ll crumble all she knows? Is it too painful to realize what she’s been subjected to? I’m not talking about lesbianism, I’m a strong believer in that being a term for females who are only same-sex attracted, I’m talking about having a life less reliant on men. I get it. I get what is marketed as a dream often turns out to be a nightmare, and I can’t think of anything more demonstrative of that than the experience of many heterosexual mothers. Like Ann Snitow says in Feminism and Motherhood: An American Reading, there is nothing wrong with the desire for children. There is nothing wrong with having children, either. It is natural for many women and men. However, as long as patriarchy exists, the heterosexual mother often suffers the most due to the role’s traditionally suffocating dependence on the husband and the home. As mentioned, she’s usually the first person to inflict suffering on her female children as well, perpetuating the misogynistic expectation to re-enter the same violent cycle of becoming Mother Martyr.

Women are expected to enjoy motherhood. It is naturalized as a part of the socially constructed, gendered expectations enforced upon our sex. Snitow found that editors of a collection of essays about the decision to mother, Why Children?, discovered mothers unhappy with motherhood refused to be interviewed about it. Mothers who kill their (or other people’s) children are still unfathomable to society, they’re viewed as much more monstrous than men. Women who desert their children are more incomprehensible than violence against women, evident when many women were sexually assaulted at Doha airport to check they didn’t recently give birth to a premature fetus dumped in a bathroom. In that case, many women getting assaulted was a fair trade to punish the (not found) woman who “abandoned” the fetus. While having children has been on the decline over the last hundred years, as long as patriarchy exists, the privatized nuclear home will be a battlefield for women and girls.

“Maybe Mother Martyrs become Mother Assassins, attempting to kill off any sign of resistance in their daughters, to protect the child from the fate she fears will befall women who sidestep patriarchy’s demands.”


It’s okay for female children to get angry but, with a radical feminist lens, we shouldn’t forget that Mother Martyr can’t be seen defying the expectations placed on her. For her own safety, she often needs to surrender to the nuclear cult, she needs to stand up straight and salute to her shouting superior. If patriarchy is the war then men are the army and each father is given a higher rank to shout at inferiors and drop bombs. Perhaps it’s safer to be a prisoner of war, like Martyr Mothers, than in the way of air strikes, alone and destitute. Perhaps that’s a lie intended to keep females submissive, keep them pledging allegiance. Mother Martyr is taught she needs to do this so she’s not left unanchored in the unknown or, worse, dead. Men know what to say to keep them there. Unanchored can be freeing or terrifyingly unsafe and if you’ve been manipulated into thinking you can’t take care of yourself then you sure as hell won’t feel free without being docked at a port. Maybe, Mother Martyrs become Mother Assassins, attempting to kill off any sign of resistance in their daughters, for this exact same reason: to protect the child from the fate she fears will befall women who sidestep patriarchy’s demands.

The Mother as Martyr (and Assassin) is not the fault of women, it’s not the fault of these mothers: the role, the icon, is a tool to maintain generational, particularly female, subservience to patriarchal ideologies. The mother who insists her healthy-weight daughter lose weight, wear more makeup, and help clean, despite the son sitting on the Playstation with coke cans and chip packets sprawled around him, is a traumatized individual finding comfort in the ideology of the oppressor.

Females taking control of reproduction, resisting the privatization evident in the nuclear family, reimagining the ways we can raise children collectively and among happy, unrestrained women, is one of the most powerful ways to curb the subservient conditioning of all female children. It’s a powerful way to combat patriarchy’s interjection on parenting, its stronghold on the way children are raised to perpetuate misogynistic power dynamics, and to raise more females with the confidence, the bulletproof vest, to wage war against patriarchy.

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AJ Kelly

AJ is a woman-loving writer who enjoys ruffling misogynist feathers.