Sep 302007

I know I have written about “mommy guilt” before but I want to try to put it together this time. For years I had thought that I wasn’t suffering from it. After the first few months of being a mother where I was feeling guilty for going to work and not participating in any mother-and-baby-groups, or baby swimming or not massaging my son every day, I decided I had enough of that, that he just had to live with his life as it was and that he at least wasn’t growing up being totally dependent on me. And so I proudly announced that there was no mommy guilt for me.

Only I did still feel guilty from time to time. Because I’m not the mother I want to be, because other mothers do different things with their children, and because – to be frank often I try to sneak away and do something on my own. Like computer things. And when you’re a mother that’s Wrong.

I read about mothers feeling guilty all the time on blogs even if the mothers I meet in real life rarely talk about it. But even if they don’t talk about it you can feel it. Every time when two or more mothers meet you can sense it. And it isn’t triggered by competimoms only, every single, innocent remark can, and probably will, trigger someone’s guilt. “Look, we made cupcakes and decorated the room.” someone says, and the likes of me think about how they never bake anything, and that their method of decoration is to give their children paper and scissors and afterwards saying, “That’s really nice, of course you can tape it to the fence.” On the other hand I then say, “Oh, my son isn’t going to music class, but he likes to bang on the drums and piano, and walk around with the guitar pretending he is a rock star.” and immediately all the other mothers feel guilty for not creating such a stimulating creative environment for their children, while I feel guilty that my son who is the son of two musicians grows up without any musical training. The list can go on and on. Someone says, “Oh, we go to the playground every day.” and I feel rotten because I never go to the playground and my poor son has no peers to play with, and then I say, “Oh, we just open the door and let him out in the garden.” and the other mother feels rotten because her son has to grow up in a tiny apartment without his own sandbox and swing.

In the end we all feel rotten, those of us who bake cupcakes, those of us who grow their own food, those of us who let their children watch TV, those of us who don’t, those of us who work, those of us who stay at home, every single one. Every mother who cares about her children (and I’d say there are only very few who don’t and they probably don’t blog about it) feel guilty and like she isn’t doing enough or doing things wrong.

I recently read a post by Chris Jordan on this: “The Modern Mother“. She quotes her mother-in-law who said being a mother was easier fifty years ago. It might have been but I recall the stories my mother and my mother-in-law tell and they always had the feeling that they were not good enough as a mother somehow, plus they were feeling rotten because they wanted to work outside the home, and they couldn’t.

So, I don’t think that going back fifty years is the solution (and neither does Chris Jordan, by the way). I just think that when every single mother in the Western Hemisphere (or maybe only most of them) feel guilty about the way they are treating their children, this is not a personal phenomenon, this is social. And it is always a good thing to remember that societies are made by human beings and that the rules therefore can be changed by human beings too.

I have been reading the sentence, “I better start saving for my child’s therapy bill because I …” (yelled at her, lost my temper, have let my child down in any way) so often. And every single time I’d like to write a comment and say, “Cool down. If that’s the worst that ever happens to your child it is very fortunate indeed.” All this implicates that mothers should be somehow superhuman. Patience personified. Never making mistakes. Never treating their children unfair. We all have this image in our heads of the loving mother surrounded by her children, nurturing always. At the end of the day she sits in the midst of her children who all are smiling with perfectly brushed teeth wearing their hand-sewn pajamas, and reads them stories before tucking them in their beds. Do you realize that this is propaganda that is more than a hundred years old? Propaganda that got resurrected in the 1950s and that’s still sitting in our heads? Only now we have to be hot, sexy, intelligent, self-reliable and making money too.

In 2005 I read “The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined All Women” by Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels and it opened my eyes. We all have this image of the ideal mother in our heads, and it is blasted at us from all media too. Imagine a celebrity saying that she is overwhelmed by new motherhood! Somewhere inside of us we secretly still think that becoming a mother is the most fulfilling and joyful thing we can ever achieve. And in a way it might be but then we don’t always feel fulfilled and joyful all day long. Blogs are giving us the opportunity to see real mothers in real life who also talk about the less joyful aspects of it all. Still we think that nothing we can ever do will be enough. Still we think that we are the key to our children’s happiness. That we alone hold their fates in our hands.

Well, it’s time to stop this. Our children are their own persons. They determine their own fates as much as the people around them. We should always be grateful that we live in places where we have the energy and time to worry about whether it’s good for our children to have swimming lessons or too much cake. All the children of the people who read this have enough to eat, a roof over their heads, clothes to keep them warm and mothers and/or fathers who love them and care for them. Mommy guilt is a luxury problem that harms us and our children.

I have a little task for you: every time you catch yourself thinking, “I’m a bad mother.” or “My child will need therapy because of me.” or something similar, replace it with, “I love my child and trust him (or her) to turn out okay” or “Being myself is all I have to do.”.

Okay, I don’t seem to be good at making new slogans against mommy guilt. I’m afraid you have to help me out here. What will you be replacing your old mommy guilt phrases with?

  14 Responses to “Mommy guilt is not personal”

  1. It may help lessen the guilt if you mentally separate your absolutes from your “woulda-maybe-been-nice-gee,I coulda done thats.”
    My high priorities–in retrospect– included family get-togethers (more would have been nice, but I did what seemed feasible); listening, showing, and explaining (and when other people did it better than I could, that was not horrible, but to be welcomed, because it was good for the child); good nutrition (I tried to keep healthful food on hand, and didn’t scorn party food when there was a birthday); etc.
    I list these just as examples, not in hopes of inducing additional mommy guilt. (grin)
    I am quite sure that you have your own personal absolutes that you have exemplified, taught, and stood up for–in areas like (but not limited to) safety, nutrition, concern for others, social relationships, literacy, basic household how-tos, music, and religious/ethical/spiritual training. “This is necessary. Here I stand. Thus far and no further” sort of thing–and I am quite sure that you are true to them.
    If so, I suggest that then if you wish to take satisfaction in what you feel you did in passing along the essentials to the next generation, the woulda-shoulda-couldas might feel less intimidating to you.
    Sometimes two categories are a helpful way of looking at things. If you taught your child, and exemplified to him, your beliefs about honesty, that is probably in the “that matters” category. Whether he played in the garden or not is probably not in your absolute category, but in a less critical, secondary, many-options-available type of category.
    Just my opinion.

  2. “my kid is great, and I am too”

  3. This is an outstanding post.

    I’m afraid I don’t have anything to add off the top of my head. It’s been a trying weekend, full of not very good behavior by every member of the family.

    I had to chuckle when I read “(and I’d say there are only very few [mothers] who don’t [care about their children] and they probably don’t blog about it),” because I had been thinking about a post just like that. But of course, everyone (regular readers) would know it wasn’t true, so it would really just be a bunch of complaining, which is why I didn’t write it. Yet.

    I’ll think about the assignment. I’m sure it won’t be long until an opportunity arises.

  4. My children will be happier with happier parents even if it means we don’t all live together anymore.

  5. Here, here. Great post Susanne. I must admit that I rarely let mommy guilt get to me. I figure that my kid is doing all right by us. She is loved and cared for. The only time I feel any guilt is when I think about my age and where all that might leave her as a young adult with aging parents. As for the rest, she’ll find cupcakes to eat and friends that will take her camping… All those things just seem so small.

  6. Do i fell guilt as a mum?? yep all the time, but i have come to accept it. It goes with the job I think. I hope that i am doing an ok job but do you know what? They are loved. I like you hide away at times and blog or sew, but if it keeps me sane, then it keeps the house calm. This can only be a good thing

  7. I feel guilty that I am not married. It sounds stupid but my princess wants a father and I seem to be letting her down.

    I also listen to my daughter because she mimicks me and if I hear good things, I know I am doing OK.

  8. Excellent post. I’d love to eradicate mommy guilt from my existence. In part, though, I think it serves a purpose: to keep thinking of ways we can enrich our children’s lives in other ways. If we’re feeling guilty, it means we want the best for our children. If we didn’t feel guilt over our parenting, would we see alternatives?

  9. i love you. and you know, sometimes i am so damn proud of all of us, showing up every day, doing something extraordinary, writing about it, working it out, doing it again.

    we are really incredible women. all of us. rock on.

  10. Didn’t someone write a book called something like “The Good Enough Mother”?

    I am a good enough mother. I have raised (surprise) a happy child. How did that happen? I’ve lost my temper, even slapped her once. But despite my hideous faults, she is a happy, secure, funny person.

  11. Amen on this one.

    I am riddled with guilt and my standards are so high, it is impossible to be this magical and perfect mother I dream about being.

    I feel the worst about myself when I get just plain bored and impatient with them….

    Thank you for this brilliant post.

  12. What a thought-provoking post.

    And KC’s hypothesis is really interesting. Hmm. I’ll need to think about it a bit more…

  13. I think most negative emotions (guilt, worry) have some kind of up-side, as KC has pointed out. But I don’t think we NEED the guilt to be creative or dedicated. Personally, I find it helpful to focus on how reassuring I find my recollections of my mother’s various parenting flaws. That tactic works only because I know that she was a fundamentally good mother – but it helps a lot that she wasn’t a perfect one.

  14. Thank you! Very nicely said…..from one guilty mommy to another

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