I have a friend who is struggling with “mommy guilt.” She’s started a new job & moved to a new city… She’s spending significantly more time away from her daughter than she did previously. I started writing to her & it turned into this post…
I see dealing with (& hopefully resolving) mommy guilt as a three-step process. What follows is the Mom, JD program for banishing mommy guilt for good.
First, recognize the true source of the problem.
As much as I think I’m self-aware & as much as I’d like to think I’m a completely independent thinker, I know that I am susceptible to cultural messaging. I am not immune from the image of the “perfect” mother, so revered by our society, especially at this cultural moment (a “moment” that continues to extol the wonders of motherly sacrifice, that age-old “virtue”).
Despite feminism & the rise of feminist mothering, I am bombarded with messages that insinuate that I do not spend enough time with my young child. Messages that suggest I am a bad mother for pursuing a demanding career with a young child at home. Messages that tell me there is nothing, nothing, that I could possibly prioritize over time spent with my son.
But while I am not immune from this cultural messaging, I am self-aware enough to know that these messages are external. I do not have to internalize the image of the perfect mother. I can consciously recognize that she does not exist. I do not need to be her. I do not want to be her.
I know it’s easier said than done. It just takes some practice. But it’s such a relief to clear that mental space & just dream about the woman & mother you want to be.
And it doesn’t matter that your mother did or did not stay home full time to care for you when you were young. Our own memories of childhood & motherhood might be complicated, even painful. My relationship with my mother confuses things a bit & in some sense I have to banish her, too! (I love you, Mom!)
Feel better? Onto step two…
Having taken off those perfect-mommy-goggles, I can take a more objective look at my own family & my relationship with my child. How is he really doing? How much of my worry & concern have I placed on myself? Is there really anything to worry about?
T has trouble with transitions. So Mondays (sometimes Tuesdays) are the challenging days in our house. Those are the days when, for him, it’s a little more difficult to be apart.
But it’s simply more “difficult” or “challenging.” He is not traumatized & is happy even on those days. I can see he is happy, despite my worries. Those perfect-mommy-goggles have distorted our relationship, have made me the epicenter of his world when in reality I can see that (as important as I am) he is his own egocentric being, with an ever-expanding place in his universe.
I can see that my concerns have more to do with me than with him. I miss him. I think I need to spend more time with him.
I don’t doubt that he misses me, too. And there is no question that spending time together is damned important. But our spending time apart is not some catastrophic thing. When I look at the situation objectively (or as objectively as I can) I see a thriving little boy. He is surrounded by people who love & care for him. He is happy.
The more important point is that I can now spot any serious or real problems & I can stop creating problems where they don’t really exist.
Which leads to step three in the Mom, JD “banish mama guilt” program: If there are problems or challenges, what can I do about them?
In any endeavor, taking an objective view can help us to be better problem solvers. Mothering is no different. No longer bogged down by images of perfect motherhood, I can analyze & strategize (which I just love to do)!
I have two examples from my past experiences.
First, I already mentioned that transitions are hard for T. I could rush to the conclusion that I’m causing the poor little guy undue stress by leaving for work every day, damaging him in untold ways. Or, I can see the problem for what it is & tackle it in a more sensible (& more productive) fashion.
So, transitions are hard… We talk about them & plan for them. I make sure that he’s gotten plenty of mama time over the weekend. We try our darndest to keep weekend activities to a minimum & keep it calm & simple. Come Sunday, we preview the week ahead. I help him pick out his school clothes. We talk about the friends he will see & the work he will do at school.
It’s not fool proof, but it mostly works! It definitely makes the transition less stressful for all of us.
My second, example is a bit more fraught.
T’s second (& beloved) nanny moved & we hired a part-time babysitter. I dreaded leaving for work. I had an awful case of mommy guilt. I don’t think I knew mommy guilt, really, until this period.
I tried to get rid of the guilt by banishing the motherhood ideal. But looking at T, I could see this transition was not working. The problem wasn’t me, it wasn’t him… It was the babysitter. She was a nice woman. But she introduced him to the concept of secrets. (Terrifying for us!) She was intractable & complained constantly about his behavior even though we had quite a few discussions about what we considered to be normal for his age & the situation (getting used to a new caregiver). She simply wanted him to obey & to accomplish this she suggested videos to teach T manners. She simply didn’t want to level with T. Or with us. And T rebelled like I’ve never seen my easy-going & kind-hearted (& polite!) child rebel. After a generous transition period, it wasn’t getting better.
I’ve never fired anyone before, but the decision to fire that particular babysitter was one of the easier decisions I’ve had to make. The situation wasn’t working & was (in fact) damaging. But I didn’t get there immediately.
While the problems seemed sort of obvious in retrospect, I think it would have been easy to ignore them had I allowed myself to be consumed by mommy guilt. If I was busy focusing on my own emotional response to the situation, I might have been tempted to brush off my concerns as just my own mommy guilt… the focus on me & not on my child’s needs.
And, really, brushing off my concerns as mere mommy guilt was my knee-jerk reaction when (after a couple weeks) things were not going so smoothly. Wasn’t it just in my head? I needed this to work! I didn’t have time to find another babysitter. After all, the babysitter wasn’t a bad person & I could see that.
It took deliberate effort to look at the arrangement objectively, to take myself (& my needs) out of the equation. There was no way it was going to work for T, who was the one spending time with this babysitter.
Now, I realize I had a sort of luxury in being able to fire this particular babysitter so quickly. Many families are a bit more locked into their care situations than we were. But it wasn’t easy for us & it never is easy for any family. We scrambled & called on the help of family & friends. The upheaval wasn’t easy for T. I was lucky to not have lost wages, but I lost many hours of productive work.
Mommy guilt is painful. It’s damaging. It’s a crutch. It’s a lie. And it gets in the way of creating a healthy family life.
Maybe I do & maybe I don’t spend enough time with T. I love him & prioritize his well-being above all else. But I can carve out a space for my career & individual pursuits as well. I can contribute to my family in many ways. Motherhood is not an either/or endeavor.
One last anecdote to illustrate my point of view on he whole mommy guilt lie:
I walked T to school this morning for early drop-off. I sometimes feel bad about shipping him off early & extending his time away from me & from home. But, looking at the situation objectively, I can see that he loves it. He gets to help set up the gym for the day & it makes him feel important. He gets to mingle with a few older children & that makes him feel mature. He gets to be in the school before most of his classmate & that makes him feel unique.
Does he miss me? Maybe.
But I wouldn’t know it by how fast he was running to get to into school this morning. Luckily, his teacher reminded him to give me a hug & say goodbye to his mama.