An Elegy To Womanhood

In her 2020 memoir, Untamed, author Glennon Doyle speaks of the profound martyrdom that women endure through motherhood. She talks of motherhood as being marked by martyrdom done in our children’s names, living as if “she who disappears the most, loves the most.” A deep conditioning that she defines as being as old as time, leaving us to prove our love by slowly ceasing to exist. This is a fate we know too well. If we have not been her ourselves, we then know well the woman who has shadowed her career and drowned her aspirations all in the name of motherhood. A martyr, indeed. Yet, we would be fooled to think that the terrible burden of self-sacrifice begins with motherhood. Don’t we know it to be at the very center of the female experience?

Self-sacrifice is commonly understood as the act of giving up one’s own interests or wishes in order to help others. Those who engage in that act do so precisely because they see the interests of others as outweighing their own. And, like many widely destructive ideals, it is learned and it is learned early. From a young age, we nurture girls’ caring side, teaching them that to love is their ultimate purpose and then we ask of them that their love be at the service of others. Soon, the little girl who cares for her dolls becomes the community caretaker. The teenager who everyone describes as kind-hearted becomes the woman in an abusive relationship. The young adult who babysits regularly becomes the deeply devoted mother with disposable ambitions. Let us not see them as different, for they started as the same child.

Way before they are faced with the choice to become mothers, they have emulated the behavior of a martyr to whom self sacrifice is a duty. And, for each one of these children, we know a statistic. According to the FCA, an estimated 66% of caregivers are women. And we know the United Nations data showing that one in three women have experienced physical or sexual abuse form an intimate partner. And as to the array of mothers who live on their legacy of martyrdom, no statistic could do justice to their experiences.

Martyrdom has been woven into the female experience so much so that to be woman is often to be anything other than oneself. Yet, this is just the beginning of our rendering of the female experience as so difficult to live. Beyond that, there exist an array of conditions that question her worth, reduce her status, and threaten her livelihood. We are left with a society that praises women for engaging in the very act that erases their existence. And when they turn to look for who they are, they find that they have lived lives at their own expense with a burden that was never only theirs to carry. Still, despite bending to the demands of being a partner and again to those of being a mother, women know just how to stand straight.

We talk of these women as our saviors and as our community pillars, but at whose expense are we accepting their saving? Is it not ironic that our survival is dependent on their lives never truly beginning?


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