"Mommy Guilt" is a Two-Part Poison
Recently, I had surgery. Nothing life-threatening, but bad enough that I'm on a regimen of about four different pills multiple times a day, and I can't lie in bed normally. I know that I should be sleeping like it's going out of style and refusing to do anything that isn't taking more pills and passing out again.
But over this weekend, I couldn't do that. I think it's important to mention that my in-laws and my husband were on deck to watch our children, and not once did any of them say anything to me to suggest that I should help; regardless, I felt incredibly guilty and uncomfortable every time I sat back and watched someone else do my job. What kind of mother was I, I wondered, if I couldn't push through the pain to dress my kids, to feed them breakfast, to take the lead on their rearing? What kind of mother does that?
I couldn't even allow myself the courtesy of healing without feeling like I was failing my children because I wasn't there for them every second of the day.
This is Mommy Guilt. And this is unhealthy.
If you haven't watched the video, vlogger and personality Kristina Kuzmic tells a pretty heart-wrenching story about how she was going through a really rough spot in her life. She was newly divorced and struggling financially with two toddlers. During this time, she found herself beating herself up over making her children meals from a box and sitting them in front of the television, until a therapist turned it around on her and showed her that she was caring for her children the best way she could despite the circumstances.
"Do what that therapist did for me that day," she says, "tell that critical inner voice to take a seat and zip it."
She's not wrong, but I take it a step further: Why do we even have that critical inner voice to begin with? Why are we consistently beating ourselves up over the tiniest of infractions? Hell, since when did feeding your kids Kraft Mac n Cheese even become an infraction?
This is Mommy Guilt. And this is deep-rooted.
So where does this guilt come from? Why do we feel guilty?
It's a hard thing to really trace, but it's there for pretty much everything. Motherhood is laced with guilt over breastfeeding, formula-feeding, staying at home, working, allowing television, taking away screen time, allowing babies to cry it out, co-sleeping, raising children yourself, hiring nannies and daycares, speaking softly, yelling, etc. It seems there isn't really a tried and true way to raise your children that won't raise eyebrows or elicit a response. It's such a problem, especially with mothers who work, that Harvard conducted a study to try to remove some of the stigma attached to supposed (and apparently unfounded) negative effects on their children.
That guilt will continue, though, regardless. Why?
Well, this is where we start working with speculation, because this hasn't been looked into with any in-depth studies.
Firstly, understandably, we're scared of screwing up something this huge. We are, after all, suddenly in charge of taking this moldable, shapable little blank slate and turning it into a functioning adult; and, as all experts out there will point out, just the slightest misstep can eventually result in a mentally-damaged serial killer. Then you'll be standing there, watching your neighbors shake their heads and mutter "this is all their parents' fault."
Some of this is reasonable. We should want to do what's best for our children, for sure, but we trip ourselves up by allowing too many cooks in the kitchen when deciding what "best" actually is. Rather than parents being the deciders, we instead have a panel that consists of parents, therapists, friends, bystanders, bloggers and who knows who else. This, in itself, is our fault; in allowing so many voices to chime in, our own often gets lost.
Which brings me to issue number two: despite all of our talk to the contrary, we as a society haven't quite moved on from the 1950's mentality that a mother must stop being herself and must be all things to her children. A father watching his kid(s) is still "babysitting." Paying to put your children in daycare is still "paying someone else to raise your kids." If Mama ain't watching the kids, it ain't done right.
And Mama has to be a teacher. She has to be a nurse, a clown, a chauffeur, a storyteller, and a psychologist, among other things. If she is at any time not one of those things, or if she doesn't feel that she wants to be one or more of those things, she owes the world an explanation. Her reasons for not being the stay-at-home type or for not teaching her kids the ABC's need to make sense to the rest of the world, otherwise there is something wrong with her, and to the court of public opinion, she isn't being the best mother she can be.
And this is ingrained in us from early on when we're immediately told we should be in love with motherhood from the moment we look into our children's eyes. That we will be able to breastfeed, and we will love it. We will never resent our children, or wish to be away from them, or need breaks from them. We will want to be around them all the time -- anything less, and there's something broken within us. Anyone remember the Twitter back and forth between Chrissy Teigen and the internet when she dared go out to dinner with her husband 10 days after the birth? I bet she does, and I'd be willing to bet money that despite her witty retorts, she still felt a pang of unnecessary guilt before she left the house that night.
All of this to say that any change to this epidemic of self-blame will have to come in two parts. Mothers will have to remind themselves that motherhood is not about being everything to their children. It is not about making meals from scratch or faking happiness no matter the situation, nor is it about being everything to your children 100% of the time regardless of your needs -- in fact, that only teaches the next generation to continue the cycle. Instead, we need to remind ourselves that motherhood is about being a human with a very hard job, and this will call for some very human moments. Humans get tired, they get grumpy, they need breaks. And the quicker we learn not to waste energy hating on ourselves for being human, the quicker we can dedicate all of that energy to raising the best little humans we can.
Society needs to back us up on this, and they need to realize that we know more than we did decades ago. The old assumptions of what a mother should be are obsolete. We have a better understanding of mental health, self-care, and self actualization, and giving birth does not erase our very human needs for those things. Once we all admit that parenthood is a crapshoot, kids are all different, and that nobody is perfect, we can start seeing mothers who don't have to tell a hyper critical voice to zip it, because that voice won't exist.
This is Mommy Guilt. And it needs to stop.