After our baby is born, we might feel guilty for the waves of conflicting emotions. We feel guilty for feeling sad and maybe even a little scared of our newborn. We feel guilty for wanting a break and for being annoyed at this helpless little creature who hasn’t stopped crying for two hours straight. We feel guilty for being envious of our child-free friends who spend Saturday nights at long dinners in restaurants before a night dancing until their feet hurt.
As our baby grows, so does the guilt. We feel guilty for dropping our baby off at daycare and going to work, or for staying at home and not earning a paycheck. We feel guilty for looking forward to time away from this precious little human who we love more than we thought imaginable. We think, if I’m so in love with them, why am I excited to get away for a few hours? We feel confused and embarrassed. Shouldn't we "enjoy it because it goes so fast?"
Over the years, the guilt grows and grows until it’s so pervasive that we don’t even recognize it anymore. That feeling—the one that tells us we aren’t doing enough, we’re getting it wrong, we’re failing—seems to become part of being a mother. It nearly knocks the wind out of us sometimes, but most of the time, it’s just there, in the background, keeping us on guard.
These days, I feel guilty for not reading with my tween before bed, for not monitoring my teen’s cell phone more, for putting a dirty plate into the dishwasher instead of reminding my sons to clean up after themselves, for being annoying with my teen for not putting his dirty towels in the laundry while on the other side of the world there are families fleeing their homes, for having my husband handle bedtime while I read in bed (even though, at ages 12 and 15, my kids have long since put themselves to bed), for not double-checking my tweens’ self-made lunch to make sure it was healthy (spoiler: it was not), for not having more date nights with my husband, for not checking in with my friends more, and for not feeling guilty about all the other things I should feel guilty about but don’t.
That’s right, I feel guilty for not feeling more guilty.
That’s the thing about mom guilt: you don’t even notice its omnipresence until one day it’s absence startles you and ushers in a whole new kind of guilt. A few years ago, while I was away on a work trip, I overhead some colleagues talking on the phone to their children a couple times a day, telling them how much they missed them and loved them and couldn’t wait to see them again. I, on the other hand, had merely texted my husband a quick “how's it going?”
I knew without a doubt that everything was good because my husband is a capable, engaged, and attentive dad. I felt grateful that I didn’t feel the need to check in several times a day, but you know what else I felt? A shocking amount of guilt. Should I be calling home more? Should I miss my kids more than I do? Should I not be relishing this brief respite from the daily grind as much as I am? Sure, I missed my kids and my husband, but I didn't feel guilty about being away for a couple days. What I did feel guilty about was not feeling guilty.
I was gone for a mere two days, my children were tweens, and as a work-from-home mom, they get plenty of “mom time.” I honestly did not feel an ounce of guilt for being away for a few days, knowing that they would not only be fine but would enjoy the heck out of some “dad time.” But as quickly as I realized it, there it was again – the mom guilt. This time, though, it was guilt for not feeling guilty.
How ridiculous is that? And how did we get here? How did motherhood become so synonymous with guilt that its absence sends us into emotional turmoil all the same?
Mamas, we have to rein this mom guilt in or it will consume us.
I’m no psychologist, nor am I a parenting expert by any stretch of the word, but I have spent a decade writing about parenting and 15 years being a parent, and here’s what I suspect: it has a bit to do with the immense love we have for our babies (regardless of their age), our desire to “get it right,” and the glorification of motherhood.
If we aren't careful, guilt will ultimately block out the joy.
Mamas, we have to rein in this guilt or it will consume us. Sure, a little bit of guilt can be helpful. It reminds us of our own ideals and the kind of person we want to be. It helps us make better decisions next time. But this oppressive, omnipresent, guilty-for-not-feeling-guilty kind of mom guilt isn’t helping anyone—including our children. Because I don’t know about you, but I don’t want my children to grow up feeling guilty for… well... everything.
If we aren't careful, guilt will ultimately block out the joy. When we’re consumed with guilt over not making it to our preschooler’s spring concert, it blocks out the joy we feel when we watch the video of them singing his heart out. When guilt washes over us during a moms’ night out, we diminish the joy that friendship brings to our life. When we feel guilty for feeding our kids frozen chicken nuggets for the third night in a row, we can’t hear the genuine delight in their voice as they tell us about the funny thing that happened at daycare.
And we deserve to feel the joy. The untarnished, guilt-free joy of parenting.
Mamas, it starts with us. With me and with you. Let’s give ourselves permission to be the moms that we are, not the moms we tell ourselves we should be. Let’s give ourselves permission to feel that wild mix of emotions that comes with being human, not the one-dimensional selflessness the world tells us mothers should feel. And let’s stop the judging and shaming, including judging and shaming ourselves for the times we fall short of our ideals or some self-imposed societal ideals about what it means to be a “good mom.”
Because here’s the thing, we are enough. We are more than enough. If we are loving our kids and being kind to ourselves, if we are growing and learning, if we do better when we know better, then we have nothing to feel guilty about. And when you feel the guilt creeping in for things you’re doing or not doing, just remember: by ditching the guilt, we are teaching our kids how to truly delight in all the joy that parenting (and life) has to offer.