I understood “mom guilt” before I became a mother.
I witnessed “mom guilt” as a child while watching my mother tirelessly excel in her career while also caring for me. I could see the wear from it on her face and in her eyes. As we were driving home one day, I told my mother, in a singsong voice, that my friend’s mom had homemade cookies baked for her every day after school. As I continued to complain about my plight of being relegated to packaged cookies at my babysitter’s house, my mother pulled over and flung herself around to look straight at me in the backseat. With blazing eyes and a flushed face, she hissed, “well, I don’t stay home all day like your friend’s mom, so I don’t have time for all of that.”
At the time, I thought she was seething at me. Now, as a mother myself, I know differently. It wasn’t directed at me. It also wasn’t a reflection of her desire to be a stay at home mother, as she chose to be one for many years, and I don’t recall getting cookies after school every day then either. Maybe part of her reaction was an instinctive defense of her life choices, maybe not. In actuality, her reaction that day was a direct response to the societal expectations she lived under every day– the unfairness of it all, really.
I encountered “mom guilt” when I made the decision to prioritize my career above marriage and a family, putting off marriage until 28 and motherhood until I was in my 30s. I lived in higher education for years pursuing my passion instead of trying to find Mr. Right. I traveled the country making music, and I studied abroad in countries that rarely let Americans inside their borders. I started my own business at 24 and sold it four years later. My husband and I used the proceeds to fund our first adoption and to make a down payment on our first house. All of these experiences and achievements should be considered commendable. However, during this time before motherhood and a house, instead accolades and recognition, I was often met with skepticism about why I was waiting so long to find a “real job” and start a family.
I tasted “mom guilt” after I finally made good on a decision I’d made as a teenager. I chose to not pursue having biological children, but instead to adopt school-age children internationally. During my “paperwork pregnancy,” my unorthodox plans were generally met with support, but often accompanied by jokes about me getting a “free pass” on the “hard parts” of being a mother like: labor, diaper changes, and teething. Honestly, I’d trade 1000 diaper changes for some of what we’ve experienced as adoptive parents. Anyway, more worrisome to me, were those who viewed our choice to adopt school-aged children as one of convenience. After all, I could continue working without guilt. Oh, and not pay for daycare. If only it were that simple.
I embodied “mom guilt” once my children came home and I returned to work after taking an abbreviated FMLA leave. Being thrust into motherhood overnight while returning to full-time work at a high-profile job brought unique challenges. During this time period, “mom guilt” fueled me to keep a “healthy work/home life balance” by neglecting my job—never anything truly negligent or not following through with commitments; just not working to the above-and-beyond high standards I’d always held for myself. I was very unhappy. Eventually I discovered the main source of my unhappiness. My career, for so many years, gave me a sense of identity, achievement, competence, and fulfillment. This part of my life was suddenly diminished; therefore I was also diminished.
Over time, I’ve fallen back in love with my profession. I have also learned how to cope with the stress of parenting my four special needs children in much healthier ways. I am restructuring my life to highlight motherhood while shielding the authenticity of my identity, which is so much more than “mom.” While I am much better at finding this delicate balance, there are still times where something is sacrificed at the expense of trying to be a perfect mother. More often than not, the things that are sacrificed are self-care, my marriage, or excellence at work. “Mom guilt” still tries to rob me of the ability to engage in self-care, nurturing my marriage, or achievements at work, but these are the very things that will allow me to mother with energy, peace, and enthusiasm.
I truly believe every woman is, on some level, programed to observe or experience “mom guilt” from early childhood. We, as mothers, model it to our children sometimes without even realizing it – guilty! I also believe that “mom guilt” is universal. Stay-at-home moms, or work full time moms, or somewhere in between moms- we are all equally susceptible to it. “Mom guilt” is, at its core, an inherent feeling of not doing enough, and then there is always more to be done. If we, and others, continue to hold mothers to an unattainable standard, “mom guilt” will continue to exist. It will continue to be passed down like DNA.
Fellow mothers: You are enough in this moment. You are a human being, therefore you are fallible—go ahead and accept that. You will make mistakes, you will have victories, you will have moments of balance, and you will have moments of chaos. But– You showed up. You fed, protected, loved, clothed, worried about, and cared for your child. That’s enough for today.