Mommy guilt. I never understood this term until I had kids.
It was never mentioned in my medical school curriculum, and I don’t recall it ever discussed during my years in pediatric residency. Once I started working after residency, I saw versions of it in every mother, but I still didn’t understand it. And it’s not something people warn you about when you’re pregnant. After all, it’s much more important to talk about how you’re going to decorate the baby’s room.
Looking back, I was a total set-up for mommy guilt. The baby market had successfully brainwashed even a practical person like myself with heartwarming images of parenthood. I had friends who made parenting look easy, no matter what they said to the contrary. It didn’t end there. Ingrained in my brain from years of medical training was this image of a picture perfect textbook baby, who ofcourse followed all the recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics.
MM was about 2 weeks old when I had my first bitter taste of mommy guilt. Around that time, many newborns “wake up.” That honeymoon period is over. The drowsiness disappears. A mellow newborn who slept the day away can suddenly transform into a demanding tyrant who just won’t nap. At least that’s what we experienced with our son. Suddenly life wasn’t so peachy and baby wasn’t quite so cute.
This was when I discovered that I wasn’t very good at soothing my baby. Oh, I was good at soothing all the other babies in clinic. But my own child? No, ofcourse not. My swaddling technique was perfect. I tried every permutation of rocking, shushing, and patting. Nope. I just didn’t have the touch. I was frustrated. I felt hurt and embarrassed. Wasn’t this supposed to come naturally?
I felt rejected by my own baby.
Then along comes Daddy. Daddy is wonderful, you see. He breaks all the demeaning stereotypes people like to throw at first-time fathers. He is not clueless and incompetent. He does not hesitate to get involved. He doesn’t turn to parenting books or the internet, but instead recognizes the value of honing his instinct. He also never assumes that Mommy has it figured out… even when I try to pretend that I do.
My son adored Daddy from the beginning. He wanted Daddy’s shoulder to sleep on. He wanted Daddy’s way of lightly tapping his back like a little shiatsu massage. He liked the feel of Daddy’s forearms cradling him. Oh, he liked me too, but mostly for my milk. Moo.
I found myself wondering if I was a bad mom. Tears would well up as a horrible guilt stabbed me in the heart. I would turn and walk away from this beautiful scene of my husband soothing our baby to sleep, simply because I was too jealous to watch.
In many ways, there’s something satisfying about mommy guilt. If I feel this much guilt, it must demonstrate that I am a truly caring and sacrificial mom. Perhaps mommy guilt serves as some badge of brave motherhood, signifying all that is endured for the sake of my children. Mommy guilt also lets me into the club. Fellow mothers nod their heads in understanding and agreement. We have rapport. If I didn’t have mommy guilt, I must not be trying hard enough. My standards must be low. Mommy guilt becomes it’s own crazy form of merit.
It took almost two years for me to realize something simple:
Mommy guilt is harmful.
I have never benefited from mommy guilt. Nor have my kids.
Mommy guilt gets in the way of bonding. There were times I would get so wrapped up in my own frustrations that I could no longer focus on simply enjoying and bonding with my baby.
Mommy guilt feeds into the baby blues and depression. Post-partum depression is more common than people would like to admit. I struggled a lot with a sense of mourning for a life and freedom that once was. Mommy guilt does not make this any easier.
Mommy guilt is felt by the children too. Children sense distress and anger in their parents, even if they don’t understand it. I vividly remember my son withdrawing for no apparent reason during the times I felt most frustrated at myself.
Mommy guilt destroys joy. Parenting is hard, period. But there is a joy in it that is different from anything we can imagine before baby. It’s not your typical happiness, laced with smiles and boundless enthusiasm. There are always other things you’d rather be doing. But nevertheless, there’s still a joy that comes in loving and caring for someone. Mommy guilt smashes and stomps on this joy.
Mommy guilt is fertile ground for fears, insecurities, and jealousies. It only ends up hurting your relationship with others. In my case, I didn’t appreciate and enjoy my husband’s ability to be a wonderful father. I didn’t embrace the fact that we were a team. I allowed mommy guilt to eat away at me and our relationship instead.
Mommy guilt warps your perspective. It confuses you. It blinds you to all the ways in which your children do show you love and appreciation. It makes you irrational and emotional, as if parenthood isn’t already irrational and emotional enough.
Mommy guilt gets in the way of discipline. It’s hard enough to be firm and consistent with children. When you throw in all the turbulent emotions of guilt and insecurity, it undermines the ability to stand firm and secure in your parenting decisions. There aren’t many clear answers in parenting, but it does require focusing on the big picture. Mommy guilt likes to trap us in the past, tangled up with all sorts of what if’s, should have’s, and if only’s.
We teach our kids to say no to all sorts of harmful things. We need to say no to harmful things as well. Learn what your version of mommy guilt looks like. Recognize when mommy guilt is impacting your motives, your sense of accomplishment, and your parenting goals. Then punch it right back in its face. Mommy guilt is no friend.
I’ve grown tired of mommy guilt. Just as with any other area of life, mommy guilt is just another form of keeping up with the Jones’. There is no end to it.
Instead, I’ve been trying to remind myself of what a mother is not:
A mother is not a machine.
A mother does not have all the answers.
A mother cannot protect her children from everything, nor should she.
A mother’s instinct is not perfect, and that’s okay.
A mother cannot be everything for her family. That’s not what love is about.
A mother cannot control everything. There are, in fact, very few things we have any control over. That’s a hard pill to swallow.
A mother is not always thrilled to be a mother.
A mother does not always feel loving towards her children.
The thing I forget the most?
A mother is not all that I am.