The Ebb and Flow of the Ever-present Mom Guilt

Wednesday night after work I drove to my boss’ home and spent time talking, eating snacks, and drinking wine with my two friends and my boss and her husband. We sat in the basement by the fireplace, the room lit by the beautiful Christmas tree and various Christmas decorations and candles around the room. There was a lot of laughter and I enjoyed myself.

As I sat and visited I knew that my kids were with my husband and he would take care of them, so I wasn’t overly worried that I wasn’t home.

Earlier in the day, I had wracked my brain to think of the last time I had gone out for a few hours without my family. The only time I could think of was when I went to play bingo with my mom and sister-in-law some time last February or March. Perhaps there were other times and I just don’t remember them, but let’s just say it had been a while.

In the past it had been inconvenient for me to leave the kids alone with my husband for very long because neither child liked bottles and wouldn’t drink milk for him, resulting in a frustrated and stressed out husband and hungry crying children when I would arrive home.

I figured we’re past that stage so their evening should run pretty smoothly: give them supper, put them in their pajamas, watch a little TV or play Mario-Kart maybe… I felt justified in spending a small bit of the day not at home.

Time passed quickly and before I knew it it was 9:00 p.m. I drove the five blocks home and was greeted at the kitchen baby gate by the kids as I left the garage. The kids were smiling in their pajamas with damp hair post-bath, trying to each get my attention and wanting hugs. When I saw my husband’s face, however, I could tell he we was not happy.

“What is wrong?” I asked, “Did everything go OK?”

He looked very stoic and took his time answering, pulling on his coat and throwing his backpack over his shoulder.

“Are you leaving?”

“I have a lot of things to do and not a lot of time to do them. I am going to work.” With that he got into his SUV and drove away.

I felt angry that he didn’t tell me more. He hadn’t told me that he needed to go to work or had tasks needing to be accomplished that night. In fact, I had verified on Monday that he didn’t have anything planned for after work on Wednesday and sent him two text message reminders on Wednesday so he would remember that I wouldn’t be home directly after work.

Then, I felt guilty. “My brother wasn’t being good,” Abby said. I felt bad that the kids must have given him a hard time. I felt bad that I hadn’t been there to help with dinner, baths, and helping them dress in pajamas. The mom guilt has become this built-in reflex that pops out unexpectedly and makes me feel terrible. It makes me feel like a bad mom, a bad wife, a bad housekeeper; it makes me feel like I should be better and I should not be taking time for myself or have fun when I’m not with them.

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Then I pushed that guilt away. How many times do I take care of the kids alone on the weekends when he is working? How many times do I give them baths alone? How often do I ready them for bed? For that matter, who feeds them breakfast each morning? Who helps them dress, brush their teeth, put on shoes, stop in the middle of a shower to break up a fight or to start a new program on Netflix? How often do I get to use the bathroom by myself at home (rarely)? How often am I frustrated beyond measure with no relief?

The next morning I asked what had made him so upset. “Oscar had a poop blowout all over the couch, then he peed on the floor as I tried to clean him up. He didn’t listen to anything I said and didn’t want anything to do with me.” So, sympathizing with him, I felt guilty again. I felt upset with myself that I had been upset with him.

Lately, my toddler is going through a phase where he does not want to eat our evening meal. He will push the plate off of his highchair and onto the table. Sometimes if we act like we’re going to eat it he may take a few bites. Other times he will eat bits and pieces but leave the majority. A couple of days ago he wanted a hotdog in a bun, but after it was cut up for him he screamed and cried and refused to eat it. Last night he ate the peas off of his plate but wanted nothing to do with the sweet potatoes or steak fingers. He cried, he screamed. He stood in the corner. He just plain refused to eat.

My husband turned to me and said, “You know, you have to be the bad guy sometimes too.” WTF? I thought. I’m always the one saying ‘Quit tackling and sitting on top your sister,’ ‘If you can’t stop throwing your toy I will take it away,’ ‘I only make one meal so if you don’t eat what everyone else eats you are not getting anything else,’ or You intentionally wrote all over with the markers so you don’t get to use them anymore,’ etc. I’m always the one giving the warning and following through on it. I’m always the one saying, ‘I agree with Daddy. If you ask me after asking him I am not going to give you a different answer- we’re partners and back each other up.’ Needless to say, my good mood had soured and my headache cranked up several notches.

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I continuously feel guilty because I feel like I am the one playing the bad guy, the parent who is saying no, the parent who is trying to be consistent but not too strict. It makes me feel depressed and harsh, beating myself up inside, whereas he appears to be the fun parent taking Abby to Starbucks for a cake pop, taking her to Walmart or Home Depot with him, playing Mario-Kart with her.

As moms, we perform countless duties. Even when we’re not with our children we are still thinking about scheduling dental appointments, buying birthday gifts, whether their snow boots will last through another winter or need to be replaced, when they need haircuts, if we spend enough time with them, if we read enough books… on and on…

On top of all this, many moms work outside of the home and even may have multiple jobs. We feel guilty about the time not spent with our children, the short time we spend with them after daycare and before bedtime- which for me is about three hours, max. How can we put a day’s worth of parenting into three hours?

I often feel guilty that I spend so much time with my son instead of my older daughter. He is still glued to my leg most days and will not let Daddy help him to go to sleep. Abby cries because she wants me to snuggle her to sleep and I feel like I often disappoint her. I will sneak into her room and cuddle her after the little one has fallen asleep, but by that time she’s already in dreamland and won’t remember.

Anytime that I choose to spend on self-care, relaxation, reading, or art makes me feel guilty because it is time not given to my family. Then, my perspective changes and I think to myself that without taking care of myself I can’t properly take care of my family.

The guilt I feel is not from comparing myself to other mothers I know or the family situations we see in the media. I know I am not perfect and I don’t try to be- that would be pointless. I know I’m no Mrs. Brady or Mrs. Beaver and I don’t want to be.

Because I work out of the home, I feel like I need to overcompensate for not always being with my family and not giving all my attention to work. In corporate America, we may be seen as ‘equal’ but it is not equitable. It’s a fact that women in this country do not make an equal wage to what a man makes and we’re often looked down upon because we choose to have families and careers. Argue with me if you wish, but it is true. We have to take time off when the kids are sick, try to work and take off as little time as possible to build up paid time off for maternity leaves, feel bad about leaving at the last minute when there is a daycare or school emergency, and more.

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Mom guilt, parenting fatigue on top of work duties and responsibilities, household chores, and more is incredibly stressful, exhausting, and hard to shake. It seems there is always more and more requiring our attention, especially this time of year as we prepare for the holidays.

Moms usually, in my experience, are the ones who make Christmases special for kids. We work hard, stay up late, try to find that special item that was told to Santa. We plan and prepare. We get sad and feel guilty if we aren’t able to give our kids the Christmas gifts they want or deserve because of other issues going on in our lives that don’t stop for the holiday.

I believe a big part of mom guilt for a lot of women is not feeling valued or that the things we are constantly doing or thinking about or taking care of aren’t noticed. I think that all of the fear, anxiety, tiredness, need for alone time, the desire to be a good parent, the desire to be seen as a capable and valued employee, the physical stress- it just all melts together like a little sea and washes over us in tides.

Sometimes the waves are choppy and rough, other times smaller and more gentle, but it is ever-present.

I don’t know what the answer is, or if there is even an answer. That’s what makes a frustrating issue even more depressing and frustrating.

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