Elena TaJo (short for Taurke Joseph) was teaching medical residents the year her daughter was born. Six years later, TaJo found that her home-work situation was becoming untenable. "I personally, couldn’t do it," TaJo said, adding that her workplace was "not a mother-friendly environment." So she left her teaching position and increased her own private practice so she could attempt to balance her career aspirations with mothering a grade school-aged child.
Then pressure from the "mom culture" to be the perfect parent -- to help her daughter with every homework assignment, to volunteer at school, to cheerily answer her child’s non-stop questions – rained down upon her head. "In comparison to the mothers around me, I felt like I was not a good enough mother," she said. ". . . My sense was of mothers competing with one another. There was all this activity that I’m not certain was necessary for my child." TaJo said she tried to fit in with other moms but it didn’t quite work out as she felt suffocated by the cultural dictates of modern motherhood. "Where did I go?" TaJo asked herself.
After reading piles of books on parenting and on balancing work and motherhood, after keeping several notebooks containing her maternal reflections and after realizing that she’d begun to feel as though she’d become a martyr to her child, TaJo had a revelation. She decided to break free from her martyrdom and become, in her words, "a drop-out mom" who will "fail gloriously" when it comes to meeting current unrealistic expectations placed on parents. She no longer feels like she’s a bad mom because, for example, she says, "No," to the school bake sale, or if her daughter forgets to bring her viola to school. She no longer hates herself for craving space and time to be alone, away from her daughter.
But TaJo isn’t content to simply enjoy her own newfound personal freedoms. She wants other mothers to join her, to free themselves from their role as martyrs, and, in the process, free the next generation who are watching their mothers sacrifice themselves now and will later likely be faced with maternal guilt trips. Through the production of a short documentary entitled, "Martyred Mom Cracks Her Shackles ," and her UnMartyred Mom blog , TaJo is trying to spread her message. Through film screening workshops and casual coffee klatches in the New York City area, TaJo has been showing her documentary and leading discussions on how liberating moms from thinking that they have to care for their family’s every need will be beneficial for everyone.
"Martyred Mom" -- which features TaJo, her daughter, her husband, her mother, her late grandmother and several adult sons, as well as other moms of small children -- was originally a 54-minute documentary. But TaJo cut the film to 35 minutes after receiving feedback that some of the scenes were too specific to her life and weren’t relatable to Every Mom struggling with life-sucking, self-denying mommy guilt.
So how is the film? It’s a provocative piece of performance art, startling for its honesty. (At one point TaJo looks into the camera at 5 a.m. and says she is holding her breath because she thinks she hears her daughter coming and she knows she’s running out of her fleeting moments of peace. "My daughter, my beautiful daughter is my enemy. She’s invading my fortress," she says.) TaJo is the film’s primary harried mom who’s seen reading parenting books, as a therapist explaining that in order to regain one’s bearings moms need to let go of their martyrdom and guilt, as a dancer who sweetly races around a studio with her daughter, and as an interviewer who poses pointed questions to her subjects.
Among the documentary’s intriguing moments:
A woman told TaJo that even though both she and her husband are working parents, she’s expected to prepare the children for school and attend to their needs. "He [her husband] goes off and he assumes that everything’s taken care of," she says, while admitting that when she’s at work, "half my head is still at home." On the one morning she decided to go on strike and not see the kids of to school, she said when she got home from work, there was a bouquet of flowers waiting for her along with a note from her husband thanking her for all she does. The kicker: The next morning, she got up and had to take care of the kids’ needs. Solo.
There was a fabulous discussion about how -- after some moms give up their careers, dreams or desires for their children -- they want their dashed hopes to mean something. "We get our points from suffering," TaJo says. "We get our power from suffering." Sacrificing moms use that martyrdom as a chip to cash in later with their adult children because these women gave up their ambitions and, frankly, they believe, their kids owe them. "We pay for the sacrifices our mothers made," TaJo says. ". . . Our children pay. . . Guilt is the currency."
TaJo offers solutions to the problem, arguing that if moms don’t let go of their guilt, they’re simply going to pass it on to the next generation. "If you don’t let go, then your daughter . . . will think she has to hold up the world, that she has to bear the burden . . . To release her, you have to fight for yourself," she says. How can moms fight for themselves and break their martyred shackles? Included among TaJo’s recommendations: Intentionally losing the "mothering competition," finding and acting on your own passions, forgiving your mother and finding ways to give away responsibility.
While the film’s a bit rough in patches (lighting, audio), "Martyred Mom" has a huge heart and a strong message. In addition to the encouraging, mom-power booklet that accompanies the DVD, a pair of broken handcuffs would’ve been a nice touch.
More about the documentary and about "UnMartyred Mom" workshops can be found at TaJo’s web site .
Meredith O'Brien is the author of A Suburban Mom: Notes from the Asylum , a collection of humor columns, and the mother of three. She pens the Boston Mommy  blog about parenting for the Boston Herald's web site and teaches journalism at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.