Married to a Martyr

Starfoxy continues her turn as a guest at BCC.

One of the joys of being a part of a marriage, or family is ease with which I am able to take joy in the happiness of my loved ones. It is a pleasure for me to work for something that makes my family comfortable. Frequently the work and sacrifices family members make for each other are seen as tokens of affection. The classic O. Henry story of the young couple exchanging gifts obtained through personal sacrifice is an excellent example of this sacrifice-equals-love mentality.

This past October conference Elder Christofferson spoke at the Priesthood session and told a story, which impressed my husband enough for him to tell it to me when he came home:

Years ago, when my brothers and I were boys, our mother had radical cancer surgery. She came very close to death. Much of the tissue in her neck and shoulder had to be removed, and for a long time it was very painful for her to use her right arm.

One morning about a year after the surgery, my father took Mother to an appliance store and asked the manager to show her how to use a machine he had for ironing clothes. The machine was called an Ironrite. It was operated from a chair by pressing pedals with one’s knees to lower a padded roller against a heated metal surface and turn the roller, feeding in shirts, pants, dresses, and other articles. You can see that this would make ironing (of which there was a great deal in our family of five boys) much easier, especially for a woman with limited use of her arm. Mother was shocked when Dad told the manager they would buy the machine and then paid cash for it. Despite my father’s good income as a veterinarian, Mother’s surgery and medications had left them in a difficult financial situation.

On the way home, my mother was upset: “How can we afford it? Where did the money come from? How will we get along now?” Finally Dad told her that he had gone without lunches for nearly a year to save enough money. “Now when you iron,” he said, “you won’t have to stop and go into the bedroom and cry until the pain in your arm stops.” She didn’t know he knew about that. I was not aware of my father’s sacrifice and act of love for my mother at the time, but now that I know, I say to myself, “There is a man.”

While I have no issue whatsoever with the larger message of the address– that men and priesthood holders should be willing to sacrifice personal comforts for other people and their own spiritual well-being– something about this story just bugged me to death. The mother and father were both being good people, and were displaying love for each other through their sacrifices, things I shouldn’t have a problem with.

I couldn’t figure it out for the longest time, until I put myself in the place of the mother, and imagined that my husband had been going without lunches for a year to get me something that I needed. I realized that I hated the secrecy involved in skipping lunches for so long without her knowing. “Ideally,” I thought to myself, “if I really needed the machine, my husband and I would sit down together and decide how we could save up enough money to get it. At that point if my husband said, ‘I don’t really feel hungry most days at lunch, I could go without easily enough.’ I would be fine with that.”

This is, I think, where I’m very different than the mother in the story, she probably wouldn’t have been fine with that. Her husband guessed that she would insist that things were just fine and she didn’t need any machine, especially since she was hiding the trouble she was having from him in the first place. The two of them were *both* being secretive, and one secret sacrifice led to another.

The initial inclination is to remove the secrecy, to insist that husbands and wives tell each other of every need, problem, and urge to sacrifice that comes up. To insist that they work through everything as a team. The problem with this is, in order for it to be effective, we have to get past the idea that it is always noble to ‘take one for the team.’ Always taking the martyr role upon yourself denies the opportunity for your spouse and loved ones to see you genuinely comfortable and happy. In short, we have to be willing, at least occasionally, to let our family members choose to make a sacrifice for our behalf.


  1. P. Anderson says:

    A thought that occurred to me, that I couldn’t quite work in, was that perhaps there was a very good reason this story was told at the Priesthood session rather than in the general sessions. Women and Mothers seem especially prone to take personal sacrifice to uncomfortable extremes in ways that men don’t.

  2. Every person I have discussed this with, regardless of demographic, has considered this anecdote rather unfortunate. You have a guy that knows his wife is frequently suffering, for what? To do his ironing? Iron your own dang shirts – now that is what a man would do!

    I do agree with your analysis regarding secrecy.

  3. J.Stapley, That’s what I kept thinking through the story. He stopped eating so he could get his wife a machine to iron. He’d rather starve then iron? He could’ve kept eating and maybe ironed his own shirt. Would’ve saved money, time and the secrecy.

  4. J., Why do that? just wear wrinkled clothes. “that is what a man would do.”

    And people don’t believe there is a generation gap…

    I mean, really, If I told my mother I was going to do the ironing, or that I was going to save up money to try to help her out, I think she would actively try to stop me and I would never be able to help her. In fact, having secretly purchased my mother a new dryer for Christmas one year when I was a freshman in college, I know that is what she’d do.

    So I really liked this anecdote. I do think men need to suck it up a bit more and, dare I say it, stop buying boats, PS3s, and sports cars for themselves while telling their kids they need to find a way to pay for college or their wives to get a job becasue there is not enough money to go around.

    I say this as a hypocrite, but nontheless.

  5. I have to agree I also thought, I think Mr. Sensitive can iron his own shirts. My mom has many medical issues and while she does do as much as she can around the house, the brunt of the housework falls on my dad, after his 40 plus hour work week. I would think after major surgery and continued pain using her arm, which was obviously known to her husband and the rest of the family, the husband would have stepped up a bit. But I know, different times.

    As to secrecy, I think as the nature of relationships in general have changed over the years, with women expecting to be treated more as a partner, perhaps we expect more open conversation with our spouse/significant other than couples did in the past. Women aren’t told to refrain from burdening hubby with her silly women’s concerns after he comes home from work anymore. At least not in my family and social circles.

  6. P. Anderson says:

    J. That was my initial reaction too (and what about the kids? Didn’t they have hands too?), but my husband countered it with the idea that she both wanted and needed to feel useful to the family, which is a feeling I can relate to. Her need to feel useful was probably exacerbated by the fact that her treatment was expensive, and was a drain on the family finances.

    However if they had been able to have frank discussion about it from the start, then he could have ironed his own shirts, and they could have found something different she could do for the family that wasn’t excruciatingly painful.

  7. Upon telling my dear wife about this story, she had the same attitude toward the husband. In reading all of your comments, I find myself laughing out loud for all the truth in the discussion.

  8. P. – I, too, agree with your thoughts on secrecy/deceit.

    I appreciate it when my husband tries to make sacrifices for me, but it drives me crazy when he isn’t totally honest. One day soon after we were married, I bought a pecan sticky bun from a pastry shop for us to share (being students at the time, TWO buns would have been out of our budget). My husband told me that he didn’t like pecans, so I got to eat the whole thing myself (yum!). After that, I never made or bought anything with pecans since he didn’t like them. But just a few weeks ago, at my mother’s home, he gobbled up a slice of pecan pie. It turns out that he DOES like pecans; he just told me that he didn’t so that I could eat that sticky bun by myself.

    If he had just said, “I’d rather you eat the whole sticky bun. That would bring me more satisfaction than eating half of it myself,” we could have been enjoying pecans together all this time.

  9. This does sounds a lot like co-dependence. Meaning people look to others to care for them emotionally or physically in ways that they are capable of caring for themselves.

    Being a martyr or ‘sufferer’ could end up being a form of emotional blackmail, that is used to manipulate a codependent into doing something the sufferer wants them to do, but would probably be more healthy for them to do for themselves.

    In the story, the secrets and suffering were all signs of lack of emotional intimacy. The wife wasn’t able to communicate her needs, but tried to secretly suffer. This can lead to secret resentments, break downs in relationships, and further health problems as emotions are internalized. The husband in turn, rather then initiating a difficult conversation and bringing the secret out into the open where a dialogue could work out a solution, in turn secretly suffered, perpetuating the codependence.

  10. Kevin Barney says:

    I agree with J.; I cringed when I read the story. Part of that is indeed probably a generation gap. Today we would say buy your clothes at LL Bean–they come out of the drier without needing ironing. Or teach the kids to do it–possibly a useful missionary skill. There are lots of ways for a woman to feel needed without experiencing excessive pain in her arm.

    The story probably made more sense in its time, which can be a problem with having such aged leaders. Stories that worked back in the day don’t always work so well in a later age.

  11. Reply to Lee (December 14, 2006 @ 11:43 am)

    If your husband is anything like me, he did it to be “nice”. Ever hear of “nice guy” syndrome? There are some great books out you might be interested in that cover this topic. My personal favorite is a book titled “Anxious to Please”.

    Ultimately, a “nice” guy/gal will be dishonestly nice or go to great lengths in order to try to prove that they are someone worth being loved (i.e. expensive gifts). This can be due to a [hidden] low sense of self-esteem or sense of worth, likely induced by childhood experiences with abandonement and lack of strong family male role models.

  12. David S. – I just read Amazon’s description of “Anxious to Please.” Aack! Looks like both my husband and I suffer from chronic niceness. I better order that book.

  13. I think the original point was about our mistaken perceptions of martyrdom, “that it is always noble to ‘take one for the team.’” Martyrdom, in my personal lexicon, is not simply the same as generosity or sacrifice. It’s pathological sacrifice, where the actual goods produced for others may or may not outweigh the cost, but which in any case are secondary to the symbolism of the act and whatever benefit that might impart to the martyr. Read Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree and then look at the essays from a symposium discussion on it which were published in First Things 49 (January 1995): 22-45. (The book is reproduced in the original print publication of the essays.) I find it a deeply disturbing book, really.

  14. Absolutely right. The whole time reading down the article and post I was thinking this sounds like something my grandpa would do… It really is a generation gap and shows the changes we have made. I agree that there should be no secrecy within a marriage, with just Few exceptions; surprise birthdays, presents etc… but no need to go without lunch for a year, wow!

    As I read on and began to think, it brought up an interesting point about marriage happiness and divorce rates. Many marriages of yore were unfulfilling yet they dutifully pressed on with their marriage thus a lower divorce rate. Were people more inclined to work things out a generation or two ago than they are today? Views on marriage have seriously changed broadened etc. Here’s a question to think about: How do you think the current attitudes of relationships play into today’s divorce rate both in and out of the church. Do you think less secrecy equates to a higher divorce rate? I have a few viewpoints of my own, but am interested to see what you think.

  15. I’m sorry I didn’t mean to get away from the topic of Martyrdom. But the posts took me in the above direction…

  16. Proud Daughter of Eve says:

    It makes me sad to see so many people diss that story. Admittedly, I also thought “Why didn’t he iron his own shirts?” However, I don’t think we should pass judement on him the way we’ve been doing. This is Elder Christofferson’s father we’re talking about; it’s his family story and he shared it as a touching example. If it’s touching to those who lived it, why do we who didn’t live it need to critique it so?

  17. Kevin Barney says:

    PDE, because it is not just a touching family story, but a story put forward moralistically as an example and for our own emulation. It is the telling of this story over the pulpit at a Priesthood session of General Conference just two and a half months ago that makes it fair game for evaluation and critique of just what the message underlying the story is and what the story is supposed to be teaching us.

  18. Ben S., I think secrecy still happens, but the expectations and standards around secrecy have changed.

  19. PDOE and Kevin:

    this reminds me of how much my Sister absolutely hates the story of the ten virgins with their lamps.

    “Why not just share?” she says.

  20. i agree that this displays a huge generation gap.

    When we’re presented with data from outside our culture, it’s important to try to understand the story from within its own culture. Within the patriarchal culture of neo-Victorian America (up through say 1960, though the true historians will no doubt quibble with me, and there are patches of America that still attempt to live this way), these were great acts of kindness and sacrifice, and we can respect them as such. We can see a woman struggling through cancer wanting more than anything the peacable domestic haven that represented normality. We can see a man locked within a neo-Victorian system wanting to understand how to bless his wife and ease her burden while respecting the dictates of the cultural script they both followed.

    the question that has evoked some of the negative emotion around the story is whether a subtext is telling us to attempt to live this other culture, the one that many of the church’s older generation see as their natal culture but which many of us reject as quaint, artificial, sexist, and perhaps even morally dangerous.

    I personally am willing to separate the two, rather than condemn these participants for their cultural context, though I understand the arguments of some theorists that there is structural violence that must be upended even if feelings are hurt.

  21. I don’t believe that people in any form are trying to judge the actions of Christofferson and family in this story. Simply put the example given by christofferson does not apply well with the younger generation because of the cultural norms which have changed. I believe that the younger generation now when trying to give analogies to thier kids and grandkids might sound just as inapplicable to them as this does to the younger generation. While many of the younger generation might understand his point in sacrifice etc with this analogy others would be better suited to a younger crowd. Note there is no good or bad simply put there are different analogies that work for different focus groups.

  22. Communication!
    My parents were born in the late 1930’s. As newlyweds, my mother communicated to my father how much it bothered her when he watched Monday night football while she did household chores. They made a deal that he would do the ironing while he watched Monday Night Football. To this day, one of my strongest memories of my dad is him leaping into the air with the iron held high above his head, yelling, “Touchdown!” (real men…)

  23. That is a great story. Great visual too!

  24. Bored,

    I used to iron all my shirts during MNF too–a deal with my wife that got my shirts ironed and kept family harmony.

    Either your parents married late (for Utahns) or they remained newlyweds for a long time. MNF began in 1970, when your parents would have been in their early 30’s. Before then, your father would have been consigned to watching football either on Saturday or Sunday.

  25. Julie M. Smith says:

    Re #22: great story.

  26. Just two things:

    When I heard the story in Priesthood session I added it to the pile of stories that taught me to be good to my wife and more or less forgot it.

    Since I am of the older generation… we do not keep secrets, basically. I do not think I could have reasonably been happy with her crying in the other room. We would have had a conversation over the tears. And I have even ironed my own shirts when it was a necessity (before permanent press and the wrinkled look).

    Even three things:

    I did think at the time, in typical engineering fashion, why didn’t she learn to iron with her left hand? I mean, my mousing with my right hand is sometimes very painful, so I have become ambidexterious, at least in mousing.

  27. my husband also immediately shared this story with me, as he was disturbed by it. when i read the text myself, i agreed with my husband’s reaction. that the father knowingly sat aside and let his wife cry in agony for a full year is just… well, it’s sad. i don’t think there’s anything generational about that part of the story. my husband didn’t see it much of a sacrifice to let her go through such pain for a year without coming up with some other solution. sure, skip lunch to save for the machine for her, but do something in the meantime. they had, what? five boys? surely they could have figured out some way to all look presentable without mom having to cry herself to sleep.

    of course, we come from what i’ve heard called “odd families,” in that our grandparents had role reversals where the men (at least intermittently) stayed home to care for the children while the women brought home the bacon and tended the farm in the way the husband normally would, et cetera. for folks born in the early 1900s, i guess this was progressive? grandma never thought it was, said it was just how they had to get things done sometimes.

    i had never considered the secrecy side of that story. if i were her, the only reason the secrecy would bother me is because he apparently knew how much physical pain she was in and it took him a whole year to “fix” it. obviously dad knew she was in pain, so there wasn’t too much secrecy on her part. after rereading, i think i kind of see her crying behind closed doors as a “cry for help,” if it was done with everyone aware of what was going on anyway. did she live in a time where it would have been appropriate for her to say, “hey, dude, iron your own freaking shirts.”

  28. We don’t KNOW that this couple never talked about her pain and about ways to ameliorate it. For all we know, the wife insisted on doing the ironing despite the husband’s attempts to do his own ironing or to convince his wife that everything didn’t need to be ironed. You young’uns scoff, but my mother and her generation really did keep an eye on their neighbors’ laundry hanging on the line and prided themselves on getting the towels and diapers whiter than anybody else on the block. The wife in this story could just as easily have found her esteem as a housekeeper in maintaining her family’s appearance, and doing it herself.

    We don’t refuse to learn from illustrative stories that come from other cultures — what if the props in someone’s story involved kimchee or tofu or sheep’s yogurt? You’d still grant the point even if you had no intention of replicating the meal. Think of Elder C’s story as coming from a very different culture, and recognize the point he was illustrating — putting someone else’s ease above one’s one.

  29. This story struck me as awkward at first hearing and I’ve enjoyed this discussion.

    Not to edit a GA but I wonder if the story could have been made more effective by E. Christofferson adding some more explanation as suggested above. Something like: “despite our willingness to take over many of the difficult household tasks, mother always insisted upon doing the ironing herself.”

    Would that be enough to take away the uncomfortable subtext?

    Also, why didn’t the dad just take a sack lunch instead of starving himself?

  30. Sack lunch! That’s a novel idea… :) The wife might have figured something is up.

  31. “you young’uns scoff,” ha. i probably shouldn’t share, then, that i’m a “young’un” who’s quite upset at this rainy day because the sheets are left soggy and the diapers are drying on a clothesrack indoors, no sun to bleach them.

    warno gives a great suggestion, besides the sack lunch. that simple addition to the story would have painted a far better picture. as it is, i’m left scratching my head.

  32. Something like: “despite our willingness to take over many of the difficult household tasks, mother always insisted upon doing the ironing herself.”

    Because maybe none of them every offered to take over the household tasks?

    I don’t understand letting the mother continue suffering for a year, even if it was to make her feel needed. Out of the 100 things necessary to keep a house going I’m sure she had plenty to do to feel needed without using her right arm.

  33. I think the culture gap comments hit this issue most nearly on the head. My aunt actually had one of those ironing machines in the 1950’s. Ironing was hard work and not just for hubby’s shirt. Before permanent press almost everything had to be ironed, including bed sheets. Remembering what I know about standards of living then and how my parent’s generation related among spouses, this story is just fine. We wouldn’t handle it the same today.

  34. You can recursively analyize this about selfishly denying the other person their sacrificial blessings.

    If the husband had offered to iron his own shirts during the year of lunch-fasting, he would have been depriving her of her blessings from the sacrifices she was making.

    When my mom would visit me during her annual visit, it was annoying to me that she would just start cleaning my apartment. I tried to stop her, thinking she didn’t need to do that work. But I gave up. Of course she didn’t need to, but it made her happy cleaning my apartment. So if that’s what makes her happy, that’s what I let her do.

    It’s just possible that the speaker’s mother might have seen the painful ironing as a joy that was worth the pain.

    We don’t know the full story. We don’t know the levels of recursive sacrificial blessings that were in play in that couple’s situation.

    Sometimes telling someone that their sacrifice is not needed hurts them more than the pain/discomfort of the sacrifice.

    American missionaries in third world countries sometimes face this dilemma. Oftentimes, investigators or recent converts will go without food in order to feed the missionaries. Should the missionaries eat the food, knowing that the fasting family will receive a prophet’s reward, or should they decline to be fed, and thereby deny the family their blessing?