May 13, 2017 by Julia
The other day another mom told me, with only a hint of angst, that she has accepted guilt and a sense of incompleteness as part of the mothering package.
We compared notes on our various reasons for guilt – both types were resulting from the kinds of expectations we only hold for ourselves, and rarely expect of other moms – you know, the usual kind we all feel at some point or another. She is a “work-outside-the-home mom” with guilt about missing time with her kids. I am a “stay-at-home mom” with guilt about not doing enough to justify my place in this world separate from motherhood. She said we are all trying to find the right balance of meaningful work, sanity, and mothering, but there is no universal answer that will perfectly please everyone, or even ourselves. Her acceptance of this, of the aiming for things but not always hitting the mark, may have sounded discouraging on the surface, but surprisingly, her attitude lightened me. She had made her peace with Mom Guilt. She was living with it, without letting it bring her down.
I know that I am basically a good mom – and yet my guilt still exists. It’s there. I have to figure out what to do with it, not pretend I don’t have it.
Guilt is not a weakness that must be forcibly removed by confidence, positive thinking, or resolve. It’s a natural feeling. We are imperfect creatures in an imperfect world. If we face the truth, we will often feel guilty about something.
But mothers do seem especially vulnerable to debilitating guilt, and it’s not necessarily because we’re doing it wrong. Our kids are born believing we are the solution to every problem. As they grow up, they must gradually realize it can’t be so. We want to be the solution to their every problem – so we are just as disappointed as they are. They might get very, very angry about the fact that we are just people, too. You know who else gets angry at us for our imperfections? The world. It is a universal thing across cultures, coming at us: everyone knows that kids are the most precious, and so…since the dawn of time, people have the highest expectations for moms, who usually do the most childcare. We’re guilt-tripped by our kids, by society, by our own desire to be the best moms ever to the children we adore (if only our own humanity would stop getting in the way).
But, hey: It is what it is. (Shudder. A phrase I hate but find indispensable at times.) You’re a mom and you feel guilty? Of course you do! So, what else is new? Let’s confess to each other, encourage each other, and whoops, time’s up – gotta pack lunches.
Everything has a use, even Mom Guilt. It’s like a junkyard, dirty and full of stuff too heavy to lift by yourself, but possibly hiding some interesting things. Some things should be trashed, some things are valuable; the sorting of guilt into two piles will strengthen us, help us to understand what is important to us.
Valuable guilt goes like this. Sometimes I realize I am using jobs or projects to get out of spending quality time with the kids. It’s easier to zone out and do the dishes than it is to come up with another dinosaur story. Truth be told, I might find that a whirlwind of chores, emails, etc. has somehow kept me from giving them my full attention for many days, and the associated guilt is reminding me that I need to sit down and be available for a while. When I do this often enough, that telltale guilt fades away: we really do ALL feel better if I can pause the madness of modern life and be with the kids. In this case, the guilt has a point.
On the other hand, if I find myself doing dishes right after playing with Jack for a half hour, and he is doing his best to simultaneously pull the right heartstrings and push the most infuriating buttons to get me to come back and play some more, I can decide that guilt is not warranted here, even if I’m feeling it. (He’s a master. And too cute.) Nope. That guilt is false. The evidence shows that I just played with you, son, and the dishes do need to be done…or I lose my mind. You’re going to be okay, son. Heck, you’d be okay if I decided to sit down on the couch, eat a few bon-bons, and read a novel rather than play with you. Not sure how relaxing that would be under the circumstances, though, so the dishes it is.
Anyway, most of us are doing our best to be happy women AND good moms, and it’s really, really, tricky. But it’s okay. The trickiness is part of the challenge, is part of what makes life interesting, is part of what keeps us coming back to each other for help and encouragement. Sometimes I forget that complete mastery of life would be a pretty lonely position to be in.
And the striving is worth it: what we do for our kids, and what we do for ourselves. We’ll rarely feel perfectly balanced, between our own needs, theirs, and society’s expectations of us, but if we keep trying, we won’t regret the efforts. Listen to the guilt; toss the bad kind and keep the good. Lessons about love and integrity are waiting for us to learn them.
And for the sake of our children, show them what a happy parent looks like, so they know it’s possible – but also serve them, sacrifice for them, because they need it. Besides, it serves our own happiness, in a deeper, long-term way. Before we know it, this parenting stage too will pass, and we’ll be glad we invested in our children during the early years. In a beautiful cycle, it’s also an investment in our own happiness.