My kids are in bed right now, and I am on my couch, feeling guilty. We had such a good day, we really did. We had fun together, and I even had a little time to myself. Then the “witching hour” came, that time of day when we are all tired, and nobody listens the first time, and it takes a ridiculously long time to brush teeth and put on pajamas, and I turn into an ugly two-headed monster and start yelling and tossing out threats. Thirty minutes later, when all is quiet, teeth are finally brushed, pajamas are on, eyes puffy with tears, the veil of guilt comes down and colors my memory of our whole day. I have trouble remembering all the sweet moments, the fun, and even the mundane stuff of our day, and all I can see is that moment I got ugly. What if that moment stands out above all the good stuff for my kids too, the same way it does for me? I feel heavy with the weight of that thought.
I have struggled with maternal guilt from the moment I knew I was pregnant with my son. I didn’t give up coffee. I ate lunch meat. I think I inhaled paint fumes. I had to take Vicodin for a week in my first trimester. Once he was born I felt guilty if I held him too much, or not enough. Breastfeeding didn’t work out. I went back to work and left him with a babysitter. Did he even know I was his mother, or did he think the babysitter was his mother? Sometimes (OK–more than sometimes) I cleaned the house instead of playing with him.
The second baby came, and I felt guilt for not giving her my undivided attention, because I also had a toddler to take care of. I didn’t breastfeed (again). I went back to work (again). I have never been the patient, calm, June Cleaver/Mrs. Brady hybrid of a mom that I always hoped I would be. Turns out I hate crafts and birthday parties and playing pretend. There seems to be endless targets at which I can throw my guilt-darts.
I have never met a mother that didn’t have some kind of guilt complex. For me, motherhood and guilt are inextricably linked, to the point that it is hard for me to tell where one ends and the other begins. My husband does not suffer this problem, as I suspect most men don’t. It is like the first “X” in my chromosomal makeup gives me the instinct to nurture, and the second “X” stands by critiquing my shortcomings as a nurturer. What I wouldn’t give for a “Y” chromosome sometimes, if for no other reason than to get rid of that noise in the background.
I experience guilt in the same way that I experience the old, ratty quilt that sits folded up on our ottoman. I made that quilt years ago, and it doesn’t match with any of our furniture anymore. But in the evening when I (finally) sit down to read or watch TV, I reach for my favorite quilt to throw over my legs. Even in the summer when it is warm, and I don’t really need a blanket, I feel incomplete sitting on the couch without its familiar weight on me. If someone else is using it, I can’t quite get comfortable. None of our other blankets feel right.
My guilt about my shortcomings as a mother cover me in the same familiar way. I reach for them time and time again, like some kind of security object. I don’t really understand why. This blanket of guilt that I pull up around myself is grey and itchy, it makes me sweat, and I know deep down that I don’t really need it. It is not truly serving any of my needs. But I don’t really know what to do with myself, how to be a mom at all, without that constant hum in the background that I am just not…enough.
I am as enlightened as any other 21st century 40-something who has done her time in therapy. I know how to step back and reframe those guilt-ridden moments. I know that by working outside the home I am setting an example for my kids that a woman can be a valuable contributor to her family’s financial well-being. I am teaching my daughter that she can get an education and be whatever she wants to be. I am teaching my son about gender equality. I am teaching them both about work ethic, and that sometimes you have to go to work even if you would rather be doing something else, because it benefits the people you love.
When, out of utter exhaustion, I choose to read a book on the couch instead of entertaining them in every free moment, I am teaching them that they cannot always rely on someone else to amuse them. I am teaching them the importance of finding something you love and doing it, even if the people around you are doing their own thing. I am teaching them that not every single moment of your day has to be scheduled or packed with activities.
When I can’t show up to every school function, maybe I am teaching them that sometimes you have to pick and choose and prioritize, because life is busy and you can’t be everywhere all the time. I hope I am teaching them that it takes a village to raise a family, and that it is OK to reach out to other people to help with babysitting, carpools, and the like. When they grow up, maybe they will see that I couldn’t do it all by myself, and that I couldn’t be everywhere at once, and perhaps their internal dialogue will be just a little gentler than mine.
I know all these things, and I can talk myself through it. But it is exhausting, this swimming upstream, every day beating back the guilty thoughts and feelings. Reframing takes a whole lot of energy that sometimes, I just don’t have. And reframing per se isn’t really the issue as I see it. The problem for me is, how do I stop (or at least minimize) this powerful undercurrent of guilt? How do I keep it from pulling me under? Can I hope to do better than just keep my head above water?