Hello, Plague. Goodbye, Martyr.

Posted by in Everyone Needs Therapy, Family Issues on Feb 12, 2012

Since becoming a parent, I have heard — probably a million and one times — about a dynamic in which when the mom gets sick, she puts her head down and powers through, and when the dad gets sick, he crawls into his cave and rests. And admittedly, this has been my reality. When I get sick, I don’t see rest as an option. How else will the children get fed, the house tidied, my clients satisfied? I never take naps unless my body shuts down and I collapse. Jon, on the other hand, will retreat to his man cave to rest when ill.

This scenario makes me grumpy and resentful. On Wednesday afternoon, the plague descended on our household as Violet started feeling fever-y. As the evening wore on, I started to feel anxious, knowing well that I would need to keep her home from day care on Thursday. I started feeling extra anxious when I realized I had not been alone since Monday.

On Thursday, Jon woke up with a scratchy throat. He decided to call in one meeting from home and otherwise take it easy. Violet did, in fact, need to stay home. And despite both of us being home, call notwithstanding, Jon rested while I took care of Violet. And watched my e-mails stack up. And missed several calls. And cancelled my dinner plans. And grew increasingly resentful with each passing hour.

Violet’s fever broke (or so I thought) Thursday afternoon and on Friday morning I took her to school. She was not, however, her usual happy self. Nor was Laurel as she tearfully trudged off to school. I found my anxiety mounting again — I had a sinking feeling that both schools were going to call me to tell me the kids needed to come home. I was frustrated that Jon was not reading my mind and doing what I wanted him to do — specifically, to show me that my work mattered and to stay home and split the day with me. Or better yet, offer to take over entirely on Friday to make up for the crap that was my Thursday.

And then I had a realization. I was a key player in this annoying dynamic –- unfortunately, in the role of enabler and martyr. I wondered whether men are more realistic about self-preservation and simply take care of themselves when needed because that seems the quickest route to repair. I wondered whether women –- in their wiring as caregivers –- are primed to be martyrs, to put themselves second (or third, or fourth…) and not ask for or state what they need. I mean, admittedly, part of me still would rather have Jon read my mind and offer instead of my having to ask, but that is not his job. I am a strong, competent, and vocal person and if my needs are not being met I need to say something about it. Furthermore, from a pragmatic standpoint, my income matters in our household so I am justified in feeling protective of my work hours.

Mid-day on Friday, Violet’s fever returned and the school called for me to bring her home. But my enabling and martyrdom was over. I had anticipated Violet coming home (and was planning on picking her up early anyway), and also suspected that Laurel would need some extra TLC after school, so in the morning I emailed Jon and told him I wanted to stop perpetuating this dynamic (we had talked about it for a bit on Thursday night), and asked him to cancel his afternoon clients and come home to help me. I had hoped to dial in for my afternoon meetings and then Violet threw up all over me while I was talking to my business partner Morra. In one of the many moments reflective of why I love working with Morra, she said “Go take of yourself and the kids -– everything here will be fine!” and hung up on me.

As it turned out, I did not end up working Friday afternoon. Violet was in a very bad way and Laurel returned from school with Jon feeling like crap. Jon and I hunkered in as a team, trading up carrying around Violet (who, uncharacteristically, needed to be held constantly) and tending to Laurel. Things continued on this way into Saturday, and though I was tired, I felt energized by my renewed perspective. Telling Jon what I wanted and needed in real time (vs. after 24 hours of festering) made things so much easier. Also, I had had horrible visions about Violet’s fever raging and needing to take her to the hospital and discovering that she had gone blind. Somehow, knowing that I could ask for help when I needed it, and realizing what a blessing Laurel and Violet’s typically excellent health is, made it easier for me to take care of what was important right in the moment –- without resentment and with more tenderness and good humor.

And yesterday afternoon? Feeling a scratch in my throat, I decided to take a nap before my body shut down and collapsed. And I was a million times better for it. Though it has sucked to say Hello, Plague yet again this winter, it’s been excellent to say Goodbye, Martyr.


  1. Feb 12, 2012

    Wow, we can all learn from this. It takes maturity to let go of self-righteous indignation, especially when you have a little right to it. In the end, it doesn’t help anyone and hurts future communication. But it’s so hard NOT to resentful when the assumption of “mom will take care of it” persists no matter how many times one communicates one’s needs. Or, that taking over is sharing the workload, NOT doing you a favor. It’s one thing to expect someone to read your mind (not fair), but when you state your needs clearly and openly, and the same situation keeps coming up…then what? At some point, I just feel like a chump.

  2. Feb 13, 2012

    Good for you speaking up. Too often, we expect mind-reading, when all we need to do is ask.

  3. Feb 15, 2012

    My own marriage has been so much happier once my husband pointed out how unfair the passive-aggressive martyr approach is. Also, he reminded me that I often lose sight of the things he is doing to contribute to the household (e.g., he wasn’t surfing the internet like I had assumed, he was managing our finances.)

    We now have a standing agreement that, if I want him to do something, I just have to ask him and he will do it (or tell me when he will, or why he cannot). No fair expecting him to read my mind. And wow, has it worked wonders! Anytime I start feeling like it’s all unfair and all on my shoulders, I now take it as a signal to find something I can ask my husband to help with. You can either get angry that you have to ask every time, or, you can just ask and get the help you need — and I personally prefer the latter.

    Good luck managing this challenging dynamic!

  4. Feb 16, 2012

    Actually, we have this dynamic in reverse in my household, so I can say that at least anecdotally, it’s not necessarily that the female is always the martyr. Although I will say that even though I’m good about expressing my needs and taking a break when I’m sick, I do feel very guilty about it!

  5. Feb 20, 2012

    I love this! Especially you wondering why your husband could not read your mind :) Communication is such a plus in a marriage! My hardest lesson was this and asking for help! Glad I am not alone! :)

  6. Feb 20, 2012

    I often feel like the reverse happens in our household… not so much with illness, where we both ask for what we need, but in general. My husband doesn’t ask for what he needs and then he storms around looking put-upon. I’m glad you did something about it, because from the other side, I find it SO frustrating. It creates a dynamic where I ask for what I need, but then feel guilty that he’s somehow having a harder time. If we were both vocalizing our needs, we could balance them out. I could know when he’s feeling more stressed/tired/sick and balance that against my own needs. I think we, as women, are not only typically wired to put everyone else’s needs first, but to make that all somehow make sense by deciding that no one else can do it as well. My husband is just as capable (and sometimes more so) of caring for sick kids (or healthy kids when I’m sick). Giving him the space to do that without judgement has given me the freedom to be sick and take breaks when needed.


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