There was a time when I would spin out of control if I didn’t have dinner on the table by a certain time. These days, I’m lucky if I get dinner on the table before 8pm, and yet I am not only ok with that, I actually kind of like the later schedule. For one thing, there’s less pressure to have a pot roast in the crock pot before I’ve had my first cup of coffee. Also, there’s a lot less pressure to figure out where my crock pot is. (NOTE: I think it’s in the basement. Not sure. Might check. Might not.) However, there was a time when this kind of lackadaisical approach to food prep would not only have been unacceptable, but I would have likely imploded into a ball of mom guilt-fueled flames.
We all know what mom guilt is.
It’s that niggling voice in the back of our mind that constantly tells us that there’s a 99.8% chance we’re screwing our kids up irrevocably. It pokes and prods at our parenting confidence until we’re left a paranoid shell, convinced that we should have stuck to raising dogs instead of creating humans.
As a new parent, mom guilt was as big a part of my parenting experience as was my love for my kids. I loved these ridiculously helpless creatures that I had made with such an intensity that I thought I would die if I messed up even the tiniest thing. Hence my world was consumed with the fear that I wasn’t doing it right. And by “it,” I mean EVERYTHING.
I worried that I stopped nursing too soon. (But I only nursed, an act that I hated and that often made me cry, because I felt too guilty NOT to nurse.) I obsessed about holding them too much or not holding them enough. I worried about the fact that I went back to work and put them in daycare. I worried about whether they had enough stimulation, if we read enough, if they watched too much TV, if they ate too much sugar, if they ate too few vegetables, and the list goes on and on longer than I have time to type.
Needless to say, it’s safe to assume that the only thing more miserable than being around me in those days was actually having to live in my own head.
For a time, I thought it was my love for my kids that drove the mom guilt.
In retrospect, I would even go so far as to say I felt guilty for the rare times I didn’t feel guilty because then perhaps I was guilty of not loving them enough. You get the picture. There was a lot of guilt.
But as the years have gone by and my kids have grown, I have undergone a cosmic shift in my approach to parenting. More specifically, I have undergone a massive release, and subsequent relief, of mom guilt. It didn’t happen all at once, so I didn’t even notice it at first. Rather, it was a slow, steady leak brought about by interactions with other parents – and with my kids themselves. It was a slow realization that mom guilt is a self-defeating prophecy that we place on ourselves.
Eventually, I came to understand that guilt is not a feeling fueled by love of our children, rather by a lack of love for ourselves.
Guilt is not supplied by external circumstances or influences. It is bred, birthed, and grown nowhere but in our own minds, and the only way to counteract it is to be as compassionate and loving to ourselves as we are to others.
Over the years, friends and family have followed me into the parenting abyss…or adventure…whatever…and as the one who had already blazed the trail (with a blowtorch it would seem at times), I became a sounding board for many of them.
As these parents would come to me for advice or to ask questions, I would hear my own rapid heartbeat echoing in their voices. Their fear was palpable. Were they screwing it all up? Were their kids going to be ok? Had they caused irreparable damage? It was like they were spewing out Xerox copies of my thoughts and I could feel my own anxiety clawing its way to the surface.
I mean, really. Now I was not only having my own mom guilt. I was having mom guilt for THEM.
So what was I to do as the chosen emotional anchor for these new parents that somehow, however mistakenly, assumed that I had answers for them that didn’t mirror their own fears?
In the end, I simply did what any friend would do. I listened to their worries. I thought carefully about the scenarios they presented. I was honest about the places that they might need to rearrange their approach. But above all else, I told them that they were ok. I reminded them that they were doing a DAMN good job, because this gig is hard.
I let them know that, at the end of the day, our kids don’t need perfection, they need love…unconditional love, undiluted by the murky depths of our own misguided mom guilt.
The more I talked to them, the more I heard my own words and I realized that I was not offering myself the same grace I was giving them. They certainly seemed soothed by and appreciative of what I was saying, so maybe there was something to it after all.
And just like that…I was free.
Don’t misunderstand me, I am still plagued by feelings of guilt and inadequacy as a parent. I mean, for Pete’s sake, I COMPLETELY forgot to pick my daughter up from theater rehearsal yesterday….literally YESTERDAY. And I forgot as in it never even once entered my mind that she was not home.
Just this last year, she’s been allowed to walk the one block to and from the bus stop by herself. If I’m not going to be home when she arrives, I’ll provide a heads up so she can let herself in and stay by herself for the 30 minutes or so it might be before I get back. With that in mind, I thought nothing of going to the grocery store. I had even texted and asked if she needed anything. She requested chocolate milk (a treat that doesn’t happen often) and I applauded my awesome mom-ness when I agreed. I mean, which mom is the coolest for getting her kid chocolate milk on a school day? THIS MOM. That’s who.
However, twice a week she participates in an after school theater program. That means that twice a week, she does not walk home from the bus stop like the proud, independent tween that she is, rather I pick her up from school at 4:30pm. Unless, of course, I forget…
It was while leisurely strolling through the store that I saw I had two new text messages…and three missed calls. The resulting conversation went like this:
Her: “Are you still at the store?”
Her: “Soooo…should I just walk home?”
I immediately turned into a madwoman, running through the store grabbing items off the shelves like I was committing highway robbery. I checked out, then raced in the direction of the house only to find said child calmly walking home. As she got in, I felt my mom guilt oozing out of every pore. I apologized profusely, the whole time convinced that, thanks to my negligence, she would most likely end up a teen runaway because she had been ignored at home, therefore a life on the mean streets couldn’t be any worse.
Turns out she didn’t care. She actually thought it was kind of cool to walk home. She might have even been a little disappointed that I got to her before she got to the house.
But that’s the thing. She knows I love her. She knows she’s important to me. I’ve done my job. An occasional screw-up isn’t going to sink the entire ship. All she did was ask what I was making for dinner, then thank me for being at the store getting ingredients for one of her favorite meals in the first place. She didn’t even mind that I had forgotten the chocolate milk in the midst of my Bonnie and Clyde style exit.
“No worries, you’ll get it next time,” she said. And you know what? She’s probably right. I may have been a total train wreck yesterday, but I WILL get it right the next time.
And so on those days that the voices of failure begin their banshee wail, I have to stop and remember what I tell my friends.
I’m ok. I’m doing a DAMN good job, because this gig is hard. My kids know that I love them unconditionally. And I am allowed to love them with a love that is undiluted by the murky depths of my own mom guilt.
Mom guilt is yours, not anyone else’s. That means that you have the power, freedom, and right to let it go. And in those moments when the guilt creeps in anyway, remember to be your own best friend.
Treat yourself with the same kindness, compassion, and empathy that you would give a friend asking for advice. Give yourself a break and be your own best friend…because you deserve it, mama. After all, even on the bad days, you’re still making this parenting thing look good. Trust me.