Saturday, February 26, 2011

On the Subject of Mommy Guilt

I normally use this blog just to post things I like.  But something has been on my mind lately, so I am going to venture into the territory of (gasp) writing about my thoughts.  A departure, I know.  But hopefully a useful one (if not for you, maybe for me? Because getting it out should be at least cathartic, right?  We'll see...).

So... a little background.  I am a working mom, which means that I am not home to witness Tate's every accomplishment.  When I had Tate, I was in school getting my MBA, so for the first 6 months of his life, I was gone every Monday and most Saturdays (including the first Monday after he was born, when he was just 5 days old).  I also choose to go to happy hour with friends regularly.  And I volunteer for organizations that I love, which occasionally means I have evening meetings right after work.  And I feel it is important that Zach and I spend time alone together.  And sometimes (hard to believe, I know) I just want to be alone, have a moment with no responsibility.  So when you add all these things together, it means that there are times when I only see Tate for a few minutes in the morning and right before he goes to bed.  Or I ask Zach to take him along on the grocery shopping so I can sit at home, alone, and do exactly what I want to do.  Or it might mean that I miss a major milestone.  Or that I relish my kid-stuff-free hotel room when I travel for work.

Based on everything that society tells me, I should be feeling heaps and heaps of "mommy guilt" for all of the above.  That dreaded emotion where I punish myself for not being able to do it all.  For having a meeting after work that means I don't get to give Tate his dinner and a goodnight kiss. Or for not being patient enough to be able to be with Tate every second of every day.  But here's the confession:  I have never experienced "mommy guilt". 

(Which, ironically, makes me feel kind of guilty).

I have been thinking about this a lot lately. Why does mommy guilt exist?  And more importantly, why is it perpetuated? Because as much as articles tell us we need to "take care of ourselves" or "put ourselves on our own To Do list", I find that (at least among moms I know), there seems to be an almost competitive nature to how much we can self-flagellate.  Mom-talk seems to hover around the topic of how badly we all feel, as if it is some kind of badge of honor that means we love our kids the most, or are more devoted, the more terribly we feel about investing in other parts of our lives.  I hate this because a) I am super competitive and this is a competition I just won't win, and b) I think it is completely destructive and frankly, does more to make motherhood seem like some kind of ball-and-chain that distorts priorities ("my child is the single most-important thing in my life and if everything I do isn't absolutely devoted to him, I am a failure") instead of just changing them, like any other major life event ("I love my child and love spending time with him, so I might only go out with the girls once a month instead of every week like I did before").

But why don't I feel it?  When it is apparently so widespread, does it somehow make me callous, or insensitive, for feeling absolutely fine about the reality of my life?  For accepting that I make choices (to work, to volunteer, to invest in my marriage) and that those choices might take away from time with Tate? 

I think that I have figured out that the way I escape mommy-guilt is all about context. 

When I think about the things I do that take me away from Tate, I try to imagine the context in which he will view them as he grows up.  And for me, that context always begins with this:  I am loved by my mom and dad and grandma's and grandpa's and aunts and uncles and many, many others.  I have a happy and healthy life.  My parents love each other. We eat good food.  We are silly.  We spend time rolling around on the bed, and we read together.  I get to have pets.  I am safe and protected and supported.  And that, in my opinion, is a pretty good starting point.  So it is very important to me that I maintain that context, that the "big picture" of Tate's life be filled with joy.  Which means we eat together.  And don't answer the phone during dinner. And try to be playful.  And don't yell.  And say things like "books are the gadget fueled by our imaginations!" when Tate tries too hard to go after the laptop.  So as long as Tate's life is centered by these things, I feel generally pretty good about my parenting.

From there, I think about the kind of person that I want Tate to be.  I want him to be a hard-working, conscientious person.  I want him to love friends and family, and be willing to invest time in those relationships.  I want him to volunteer with the organizations he feels passionately about.  I want him to love his wife, and romance her throughout their marriage, kids or no kids.  So, when I think about the things I do in the context of how they will shape and contribute to the person I want Tate to be, I find that there is absolutely no room for guilt.  In fact, I feel pride in them.  Because I fundamentally believe that as a parent, modeling the behavior you expect is the best way to impart it on to your children.  So when Tate sees me go out to dinner with a good friend, or miss dinner at home because I have a meeting for a non-profit, I think (hope?) he will internalize those values. 

And the final thing that helps me avoid the plague of mommy guilt?  Frankly, I know myself and I know that I will show up.  This was the best lesson I ever learned from my mom.  How to show up.  How to recognize the big things (even when they might not seem big on the surface) and to be there.  So at the end of the day, I trust my own instincts in when my presence truly, deeply matters (like the night of a big performance or event, or maybe the week or two following a big disappointment or break-up).  And when it doesn't (like on a random Wednesday). 

Phew.  I am glad I got that off my chest.  Because I would like to see us banish mommy-guilt, and the sense of pride that accompanies it, and replace it instead with pride in our own accomplishments and how we model those for our children.

(stepping off the soapbox now)

P.S.  Artwork pictured above is from Stuff No One Told Me About.  A perfect reminder to let go of our guilt, perhaps?  

1 comment:

  1. Great post, Janelle! And I don't know how to phrase this articulately, but I feel like this applies to a lot of areas of life. Like work--sometimes what's hard for me isn't the work itself, but what co-workers are *saying* about work, like it's a competition to have the most hours and suffer the most, or to be fastest/best by pretending that a particularly task took half the amount of time it did. Our talking a good game leads to us all competing for who can be the most miserable, and ugh, that's a contest I really don't want to be a part of. (Yet find it hard not to enter. Who doesn't like winning?)

    Also, have you read Ayelet Waldman's article, "Truly, Madly, Guiltily?" In it, she talks about loving her husband more than her children ("I do love my children. But I'm not in love with them.... I'm in love with my husband"), and noted that she didn't feel guilty for her feelings, but guilty that she didn't feel guilt. She got a loooooot of hate mail for saying that she felt like she'd be more devastated over the death of her husband than her kids--that's what I found most interesting, that people were so upset about how she lived her life as a mother and wife.