My oldest son was a few weeks old, and it was my first night back to my part-time job as a writing teacher. I’m pretty sure I was teetering under the weight of everything I carried into my parents’ house: the car seat, the diaper bag, bottles, milk, binkies, blankets, burp cloths, a page of typed instructions, and finally, my newborn baby boy. Aside from my full hands, I carried a heart heavy with heaps of anxieties as a new mom. I placed everything in my mom’s hands and in her care, and as I snuggled Tucker and kissed his face one more time, I said, “Mom, can you please hold him a lot tonight? I think I didn’t hold him enough today.”
First of all, let’s address how gracious she was to entertain my anxieties about leaving my son in her care, after she had in fact raised me with little to no major errors in childcare decisions. She let me rattle off my list of instructions, acting and listening as though she were a novice at all things babycare, just recently trained and certified by the Red Cross.
She then gave me this gift that I have carried with me every day since. As I asked her to fill in the gaps I had left by not holding him all day long, she hugged me and said with a gentle smile, “Trish, you can feel guilty about that if you want to, but honestly, there will be so many real things for you to feel guilty about as a mother. I wouldn’t waste my energy on that if I were you.”
This story opens a chapter of my book, You Can Do This. Mom Guilt is a real thing, and it comes at us from every side. Guilt rarely produces helpful results, and it’s a drain on your energy, both physically and emotionally. There are basically three categories of Mom Guilt, and I want us to talk about those here, in hopes that naming it will make it smaller, manageable, and something to acknowledge and then send on its merry way. Because seriously. We do not have time for this distraction on our to-do lists.
Internal Guilt. The first kind is the kind we inflict on ourselves, and with this weapon, we can become our own worst enemy. Internal guilt rears its ugly head anytime we begin sentences with, “I’m a bad mom because…” or “I should be…” When we compare our choices to the decisions of other moms, it isn’t fair to anyone involved. We are individuals; we are each doing what we know to be best with the information and resources we have, and each mom and family is different.
Remind yourself what you provide for your family. Make an actual list, as everything becomes more real when you write it down. Identify what you like about the work you do as a mom, whether you work inside the home or out of it. Look for the ways you are helping your children and others contribute to society. When you hear yourself questioning your own parenting, revisit your list. Remind yourself that you’re doing your best and tell yourself to be quiet and not quite so critical.
External Guilt. Even more frustrating than the guilt we burden ourselves with can be the insensitive guilt that others inflict on us, whether they’re aware of it or not. Other moms can be the worst about this, since insecurity breeds insecurity. When we feel inadequate, we tend to point out weaknesses in other people to make us feel better about ourselves. Some women don’t feel guilty as much as they feel angry over the judgment from someone else, and that anger is valid. It seems that everyone has an opinion on various kinds of parenting, and they seem determined to share it, as if they’re personally motivated by our own triggers of guilt.
Our children can be expert travel agents for guilt trips, with comments like, “Other moms are…” or “Other kids get to…” or “I wish you would…” Listen to your kids, and learn how to filter their thoughts with objectivity. If you’ve just spent an hour playing Chutes and Ladders with your preschooler (then you get all the gold stars to you for that mess of non-fun), but as you pack up the box, your child says, “I just wish you would spend time with me,” then my friend, you’re off the hook. Don’t take that bait. You’re doing a good job, and kids are seriously skilled at inducing guilt. Be aware of the tricks and don’t fall into the traps.
Guilt Over Not Feeling Guilty. It’s promising as we begin to realize that not all moms are riddled with guilt over their decisions. We can get tangled up in the web of wishing we were working outside the home, or wishing we could stay at home, or we can capitalize on the benefits of our decisions. Make the most of whatever you have—the people, co-workers, the babysitters, your spouse, and your freedom. Make your choice and move forward. I love to talk with women who feel no guilt over the parenting lifestyle they’ve chosen. May their numbers grow. May we shed the guilt and walk in freedom.
To finish that story from above, I give you this, fellow moms. Here’s what came next:
Somehow, she both acknowledged and dismissed my conviction in one fell swoop. And she was so right! I couldn’t have imagined then how many times I would lie awake and wish I could do parts of the day over again—this time with patience and a more gentle voice. Sometimes I wish could pick and choose which parts of my parenting my children will remember and which ones will be cast aside as deleted scenes. I contend that behind every great kid is a mom who’s pretty sure she’s screwing it up. The truth is that if you’re worried about screwing up your child, then you’re already a better mom than you realize.
Tricia Lott Williford is a remarried widow, a writer, teacher, reader, and thinker, and the author of three books. Her newest book is You Can Do This: Seizing the Confidence God Offers. Thousands of readers join her each morning for a cup of coffee as they sign online to read today’s funny, poignant stories that capture the fleeting moments of life. She collects words, quotes, and bracelets, and she lives in Denver with her husband and two sons. You can get to know Tricia through her regular posts at tricialottwilliford.com.