That debilitating feeling that can be so intense and so convincing that it can lead you to believe that you are not good enough. And although we like to blame society and fellow moms, I think the root of this guilt is buried deep within ourselves.
Nobody can deny that social media can function as a microphone, enabling messages to be amplified and broadcasted further and wider than in the past. There is also no denying that this function can be used to spread a message of failure and judgement, sometimes from innocent and unassuming sources. Remember, we perceive the world, not as it is, but as we are. If you have self-doubt, especially in the space of parenthood, the message you get from the Insta post showing a stack of golden pancakes, with a smiley, dressed child in the background, is not one of shared joy. It is an immediate self-reproach. Of course, not always, but we all get bad days. And in the mommy-space, a bad day can be similar to what you think it will feel like watching the start of WW3.
I started this post saying that I like to think our blame should be shifted – away from society and fellow moms. Yes, they do add to our mom guilt, but I think the true root of it, the speck of truth that makes us over-react and over-analyse, can be found in our own childhoods.
How many of you grew up in an idyllic house, with the perfect family?
I will venture a guess, not that many. So many women who thought they had the perfect childhood realise later in life that there were significant shortcomings. I hate generalisations, but in order to bring this point across, I will need to indulge in them for a bit. Please bear with me. These shortcomings can be anything from definite gender roles, lack of discipline, lack of choice, lack of freedom, the pressure to perform, need to entertain. Remember, our parents aren’t perfect, and in most cases, they also just did the best they could with what they had. And what they knew.
As the world changed, so did parenting. And for many of us, the way we were brought up are as far from how we want to bring up our own kids as possible. But of course, times are different. We have less time to spend with our kids, in most cases (especially now) less money, and so many more distractions. Add to that the never-ending eyeballing and passive-aggressive criticising of “mommies who know better” and you have the making of a perfect storm.
Enter the guilt.
You feel guilty for not breastfeeding. Breast is best you know, or so they tell you. You feel guilty for going back to work after three months’ maternity leave – why so soon? How can you choose your career over your baby? Of course, the judgement never leaves space for the possibility that without your income you cannot provide for said baby. You feel guilty for buying baby food instead of making your own. Then they grow up, so you feel guilty for feeding them food out of a package. You grew up with microwave dinners and you wanted your kids to eat differently. You feel guilty for allowing them screen time. You feel guilty for snapping at them. You feel guilty for being overjoyed if they sleep over at their grandparents for a weekend. Then you feel guilty for missing them.
So much guilt. And if you are a single parent, the guilt just climbs. More and more and more. Guilty for denying your kids two loving parents, guilty for not being able to buy them whatever they want (and sometimes even need), guilty for having to keep them in school as long as possible, even opting for after-school care, so you can work. Guilty for having to work. Guilty for seeing the hurt in their eyes when they see their classmates get picked up by their dads, or when you need to stand in for the father-daughter race. Guilty for being tired at night, for getting up tired, for always being tired.
Now with Covid-19, there is the added guilt over your choice of sending your kids to school or not. If you keep them at home, you are paranoid. If you send them to school, you are selfish. While the truth is you need to send them so you can get work done so you can provide for them at the end of the month, plus after almost 4 months of having them with you 24/7 you feel burned out and at the end of your rope – so those few hours a day that you get to only be you are glorious. And of course, that makes you feel the most guilty of all.
We feed this guilt when we compare the way we are raising our kids to the way that we were raised ourselves. I agree that there are a few things that you might have gone through that you want to spare your kids, or things you definitely want to do differently to how your parents did it. But by putting that bar too high you are only upping your chances of feeling like you failed.
What would I suggest you do?
The best parenting advice I ever received was this – have three non-negotiables, three things that you will never bend on, change, or negotiate. Figure the rest out as you go along. I have adapted this into my own parenting journey as three discipline rules, three lifestyle rules, and three relationship rules. My non-negotiables for discipline are we do not hurt each other, including physical, we give the opportunity to explain, and we always apologise. Lifestyle rules are we eat as natural as possible, including not having takeout often, we do not waste, and we drink water before we drink anything else. And relationships? We talk to each other, we have dedicated one-on-one time that does not have a screen involved, and we hug often.
I know that if I have these rules in place, I can make the rest up as I go along. And then, when the guilt starts rearing its ugly head, I can push it back down, I can tell the guilt – I am doing my best. I have healthy, happy, and secure kids who rely on me, and me alone, to keep them safe. And I am doing a dam good job. So you, Insta-perfect Mom, can take that stack of pancakes and shove it, because I am not less than or more than, I am perfect. And every decision I make comes from a place of love. And when I am wrong, I will apologise and try again.