After talking with two separate friends this week about our youngest kids I realize that I have admitted twice that I haven’t even bought the Small Fry winter boots. I know, there’s like 2 feet of snow and it’s frigid outside, but he does have booties attached to his snow suit so it’s not like I’m completely delinquent here. And I was going to buy him winter boots. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the chances of me actually taking him outside to play in all that dreadful winter nastiness were nearly nil. There’s a part of me that felt like I’ve failed to be a good mom simply because the 15 month old had never actually touched snow, let alone played in it. I can joke about how I’ll try to make up my mothering failure to him — when it’s summer. But the truth is I’ve got a case of Mama Guilt.
Am I the only mom out there who experiences this? Of course not! In fact, I was talking to a friend yesterday who told me how guilty she’s feeling about not taking more time to teach her second child to speak. She spent so much time with her first child teaching baby sign language and at the same time that child picked up on speech really quickly, making the signing obsolete. So, thinking it would end up working out the same way with the second child, my friend decided to stick to only the basics of baby sign this time around and it’s backfired because this child hasn’t picked up on speech as quickly. He gets frustrated at not being able to communicate his desires and she gets frustrated at not being able to give him what he wants. And she feels guilty for not having taken as much time teaching him a better way to communicate. Yep, definitely Mama Guilt.
I recently read I Don’t Know How She Does It: The Life of Kate Reddy, Working Mother by Allison Pearson. The book opens and we find Kate desperately attempting to fake a pie to pass off as homemade. Why? More Mama Guilt.
Back when I miscarried my second pregnancy right after a road trip to see Mesa Verde and the Grand Canyon? Not something I really talk about much, but I remember the guilt I felt. Guilt that maybe the miscarriage happened because of something I did (carrying our then one year old daughter too far or too long in the back pack? too much strain on my body from all the walking, hiking, sightseeing, and altitude changes my body wasn’t used to? who knows?). While my brain knew that there was nothing that could have changed what happened and likely no real cause for the miscarriage, my heart wanted to create order by assigning blame. I felt the need to ask the what-ifs and think back about all the things I could have done differently. There it is again, Mama Guilt.
What feels like many, many years ago, I worked with families of people with disabilities, mostly with kids who have Autism. I remember talking with a mother once who admitted that she felt guilty about what she had done, not done, could have done, or should have done while she was pregnant that may have caused her child to be Autistic. She told me that on her down days, she sometimes agonized about the things she knew in her head could not have changed that diagnosis. Sometimes, that Mama Guilt isn’t justified, but it’s real all the same.
I think all moms experience Mama Guilt at one time or another. Sometimes it feels like it’s all the time. I think it might be one of the biggest challenges of parenting. We compare ourselves to the “Super Moms” — you know the ones! Those mothers who have it all together: their kids are perfectly potty trained, they make several dozen muffins for play group without batting an eyelash, their makeup is always perfect, they can go out in public with confidence because they never have spit up on their shoulders, and their children are absolute perfect angels in the grocery store check out line. Where are all these Super Moms and why haven’t the rest of us banded together to launch a full-scale attack on their perfection???
At the same time, I’m also reminded of the time my sister-in-law called me a Super Mom. Secretly, I found it encouraging, but it also made me laugh because she was several hours away and couldn’t see the breakfast, lunch, and dinner mess that had accumulated around the highchair over the day. She didn’t know that I hadn’t found time to shower for days or the fact that I hadn’t actually cleaned the bathroom for several weeks. (Gross, I know. But I’m being honest here, so no judging, people!) We all judge each other and ourselves. We see another mom doing one thing well, and we assume she’s doing it all well. We see ourselves fail in one thing, and we judge ourselves harshly. As if we’ve failed in everything. And sometimes, it’s not failure at all. Sometimes, things just happen.
It’s time to give ourselves permission to fail. I’m not saying that we should give up and do a half-hearted job. I’m not saying that we should stop trying to be better parents. I am saying that we should stop judging ourselves so unfairly. I am saying that we should celebrate the things we get right. I am saying that we should stop beating ourselves up when we do fail. Practice makes perfect and we only have as many years experience as the number of years we’ve had kids. So, if you’re struggling through diaper changes and sleepless nights with your first baby, don’t worry. You probably only have 2 months of practice under your belt. You will get better at it. If you’re feeling driven up the wall by a combative little 4 year old who’s asserting his independence but needs a nap, don’t worry. You only have 4 years experience. You will get better at it.
It will never all come easily. It will always be challenging. But it’s also a rewarding process. If you need a reminder of this, just watch your little ones while they sleep tonight. Watch them while they run without cares and giggle with abandon. And join them. Just for a little while. Cuddle them, play with them, laugh with them. And give yourself permission to not be perfect. Maybe if we can just allow ourselves to truly be works in progress, then the progress will be easier, or at least more enjoyable.
I need to remember that the truth is, as long as I love my children and as long as I’m willing to work at it, then I am the best mother for my kids.