Are you a woman? Do you have at least one child? If you answered yes to both of these questions, chances are you bought a one-way ticket to ride the guilt train the day you found out you were pregnant and have been riding it ever since then. You had two cups of coffee a day during your pregnancy? Shame on you. You didn’t work out every day before the baby came? How unhealthy! You had an epidural instead of an all natural delivery? That was so selfish of you to think of your own pain before the possible health risks for your baby!
Then the baby came and the guilt increased daily. You expected to feel a little guilty when you received criticism from your own mother (or your mother-in-law), when you talked with some of your more experienced mom friends, and when you browsed the blogs of the moms online who seem to be the epitome of perfect mothers. But you began to notice that the judgmental looks and comments also came from some very unexpected places. The cashier at the grocery store. Your friends who have no kids. The old ladies at church. A coworker. Other moms at the park. Your friend’s dad. Sometimes the little (or maybe not so little) unsolicited criticism seems to come from a place of concern, or from an eagerness to offer help to someone who obviously needs it (because when my toddler is screaming in the aisle at Target, obviously what I need is some stranger to come up and tell me what to do). Other times, the criticism and judgment seem to be for the sole purpose of making you feel inferior, or just to tell you that you are doing it wrong.
Lately, I have been experiencing a bad case of mom guilt, but mostly it has been coming from myself. Work has been particularly busy during these past few weeks, and I find myself getting a tiny bit choked up when I drive away from the babysitter. I feel like there are not enough hours in the day to spend quality time with Coco, go to work, and keep up with all the other little things (like laundry, which is actually not such a little thing sitting on the floor as I write this). Combine that guilt with the fact that she can now vocalize when she is missing someone. When I hear about how she walks to the door when I am away and says “Mama, bye bye. Walk.” it breaks my heart. When she says that, she means to say that she wants to go out the door to “walk” to find whoever it is that went “bye bye”. To make it an extra large order of guilt, with a great big side of guilt to go with it, I am a single mother. The feelings of inadequacy that plague single parents, and I would argue single mothers in particular, can be emotionally devastating. I am the primary caretaker and the major formative influence in her life. While she does have other important and loving influences, uncles, aunts, cousins, and grandmother, I alone determine most of her values and lifestyle habits. I am the one making the important and difficult decisions, and when things go wrong in her life, the blame falls on me. To say that there is a lot of pressure would be a gross understatement.
On top of having the most difficult and long-lasting job of raising a human being to adulthood, it seems that most of the time a mom just cannot win. Mothers are harshly judged for not breastfeeding, or for breastfeeding too long, for feeding their children non-organic food, for going to work, staying at home, putting their children in daycare, co-sleeping, etc. It comes from all sides, and from anyone who has an opinion and a problem with showing basic social constraint. In short, no matter what you do, moms, you cannot win.
I repeat: moms, you cannot win.
This is what I have learned, and while it sounds rather depressing, I actually find it to be extremely liberating! After months and months of feeling guilty for many of my choices as a mother, I have realized that I cannot possibly win! I will never be anyone’s definition of an ideal parent. (Say that to yourself right now. “I will never be anyone’s definition of an ideal parent”. Doesn’t it feel better to accept that?) I will never be able to find a person who would agree with all of my parenting decisions. No person, parent or not, will ever see my parenting choices through my own personal lens; no one else will ever know completely my child, her needs, and our circumstances. Accepting this has helped me feel more free to do what I think is best for my daughter, and not feel so guilty about doing everything the right way. I do agree that there are basic guidelines parents should follow to keep their children safe and provide an environment in which their child can thrive, like always use a car seat, offer nutritious food, etc. I do believe, however, that wonderful moms can work or stay at home, breastfeed or formula feed, co-sleep or put their children in a crib, provide organic or inorganic food. I can appreciate the choices of a conscientious mother, even if I would not make those same decisions for my child. A good mother is one who thinks of the needs of her child, and works to meet those needs as best as she can. All the little things are just that, little things that are not so significant in the whole scheme of life. If the goal is to raise well-adjusted, productive, and empathetic adults, does it matter so much how they get there? Can’t we all just support each other’s efforts and recognize that everyone will parent differently?
I want to add to all of this that I think a little bit of guilt can be beneficial. A healthy amount of guilt can compel you to make changes to improve yourself, and it can motivate you to make good choices, as a parent and a person. But when the guilt builds up so much that it turns into feelings of shame– shame about yourself, your body, your life, your parenting choices- then you reach the point of sabotaging all your efforts. Shame has a toxic effect on not only the person feeling the shamefulness, but the people around him or her as well. Shame leads to regret and hate and defensiveness. So while a little bit of guilt can be healthy, when the guilt begins to turn to shame, that is a slippery slope.
So, my advice to all the guilt-ridden mothers out there is this: just be the mom you need to be for your particular child, and keep trying to do the best thing for your family. Find freedom in the fact that you are an imperfect mother and human, and then…just do you. With your new found freedom, relax a little and take some time to enjoy the ride with your little ones, because if parenting is anything, it is definitely a ride, am I right?
Keep up the good work moms,
P.S. I do not mean to discount the fact that dads also get a share of the guilt in parenting. I would, however, claim that mothers get the greater share of judgment when it comes to parenting choices. But that is an entirely different post for a different time…