One of the most unique pieces of advice I was given at the end of my third trimester was from a friend who had been out of the new born days for approximately six years. Her words: “You always feel guilty.”
Just like that. There it was, written out as a fact. Period at the end and all.
You always feel guilty.
She continued, “I went back to work. My sister stayed home. We both felt guilty for these decisions. I went to formula. My sister breast fed. We both felt guilty. This has made me realize that with motherhood comes guilt. Here is what I’ve learned and grown to accept. You do the best you can. You can only make decisions based on the needs of your family and your desires/priorities. If you are a stay at home mom and are miserable and regretful over this decision…then consider going back to work. Do you hate breast feeding but feel guilty for not breast feeding? The baby will be okay with your decision. The important thing is for the baby to have a content and fulfilled mother…Take the advice you like and forget about the advice that doesn’t fit you and your family…[and] unapologetically prioritize.”
I was uncertain as to how this would play out in our actual reality once Bridger was born. As a “glass is plugged into the water hose” kinda gal (that’s someone who rarely gives herself the option of figuring out if it’s half-full or half-empty…she’s got it hooked up to the nearest faucet as to ensure a positive situation), I thought that there was a chance that this might be something we either overcome or entirely avoided altogether.
(This was back before I “had needs” and knew what mercy was, remember?)
But much like breastfeeding, natural birth, and my child’s sugar intake, guilt came barreling around the corner as one more thing I could not simply regulate by sheer will. I had become the steward of new and vulnerable life as a new and vulnerable mother—a heavy heart was now my inescapable inheritance.
It has taken many shapes over these last two years. Anxiety. Insecurity. Second-guessing. Sadness. Decision fatigue. All with one question at the root: Am I doing the right thing?
I find that this is not simply tied to topics that directly affect my child either (like daycare and formula), but it rears its head in all corners of my life which inevitably lead back to my child, and/or my role as his mother.
Am I doing the right work? Do we live in the right neighborhood? Do we not focus enough on money and therefore are risking his savings? Do we focus too much on money and therefore are risking his emotional state? Is he being loved each day like I would love him each day? Are his cry-ridden drop-offs causing as much trauma to his heart as they are to mine? Are we going on enough dates to uphold our foundation? Am I distracted too often? Are we disciplining in a way that is humanizing and helpful? Is this the right use of time? Have I said too many yeses…too many nos? Am I doing the right thing…
Mom guilt (once I’ve identified it) can start to feel like the deep-end of the pool to me. Grasping and gulping and reaching, all the while doggie-paddling your tired, steady legs off. I am here now, in this spot. Always wondering about the better reality that can give my kid the most love and safety, that can give his parents the most life and purpose, that can pay our bills and make us all whole people with full lives.
So as I’ve thought on this and decided to write about it (the way I’ve processed fifty hard parts of parenthood with you all over the last couple of years), I’ve pondered six ways to approach mom guilt for us to consider and/or discuss.
- EMBRACE IT: Maybe this is not solely a curse of our insecurities but rather it is the bitter-sweet burden of stewarding life. You will have mom guilt, my friend said matter-of-factly. There is an option, on days, in moments, to take this uncomfortable, painful pill and simply swallow it.
- SPEAK YOUR GRATITUDE: Instead of drowning in the sludge and angst of all that could be better, we might find a bit of healing at the end of our “things going well” list. My 10pm mental roll call can often sound like this, “He’s virtually with strangers every day. I’ve taken on too much and yet am still searching. I wonder if his health was affected by how we had to feed him. Did I handle his hitting well today?” But there is much to be said about the freedom that comes when the roll call sounds more like, “I am so thankful he’s learned so many songs and colors. I like that he has friends and knows how to play. How grateful I am that he is healthy, alive, active. What a sweet life, with special work, and amazing people I have been gifted. As far as the hitting, thank God I have tomorrow to try again.”
- FORFEIT COMPARISON: This one wild life that we have is deeply layered with complexities, that is not arguable. Therefore, I think this means that we can give ourselves (and others) a break when it comes to assuming that any significant decision was arrived at without significant consideration (and probably constant evaluation). Few landing spot are ever completely ideal, and there’s always a back story that entails finances and feelings and history and hope and at least three other people who affect it (and who it affects). There’s something to say for simply owning what is beautifully and uniquely yours, as imperfect as it may be.
- SET YOUR STAGE: Now for the parts that aren’t ideal, I do think it helps to set our stages to control whatever pieces we can to give us the comfort and confidence to persist in our decisions. Like getting to know your child’s daycare worker super well or staring at the video monitors for hours on end (kidding?). Or doing a breastmilk and formula combo. Or making sure you have a personal-passion-project going if you’re staying at home. Or having a trusted sounding board of friends and family. Or drawing your lines and stating what you will and will not do (at this point) when it comes to guns in the house, or organic food, or slumber parties, or time away, or…or…or…or…all the things that roll around in your chest on any given day. We build the boundaries we can and then hold on.
- BE PRESENT: I have found that it doesn’t matter what I do or do not do if I am not present in these moments. Putting my phone down when I’m with my people, putting work in the work box and home in the home box, and social media in the “mommy’s toilet time” box has helped tremendously.
- KEEP ONE EAR LISTENING: And I have grown somewhat ok with the tension of accepting all the I can accept while keeping an ear tuned for what might be different, better, more clear in the future. And I figure, that since tension is where we are grown, maybe I’m growing a little bit through all of this constant, relentless, worrisome, precious, mysterious mom guilt that started at conception and will likely continue–in some fashion–for the rest of my life.