The war on guilt: a report from the trenches

I don’t mean to brag, but I’m really good at guilt. I’m not talking about the occasional, fleeting sensation of wrongdoing because you ate that second (or third) cookie or forgot to send your child’s lunch to school. That’s for amateurs. I’m talking about the crushing, constant feeling of not doing enough. This involves what I like to call the Guilt Archives. I turn to the Guilt Archives whenever I catch myself feeling generally good and on top of things. I’ll be waltzing through my day and BAM, I’ll remember that my grandmother got me the Barbie Dream House in 1986 and I never sent her a thank you note.

When I became a mom this level of guilt became unsustainable. There was just too much to feel bad about. From bottle feeding to sleep training to screen time, I couldn’t keep up. I found myself moving through each day in state of joyless, low-grade panic. What’s more, I was the cause of my own suffering. Guilt is an emotion we create for ourselves. It’s nothing more than an attachment to an expectation that a) we usually set for ourselves, and b) is often unrealistic. Whether it’s parenting, working, or single-handedly pulling off the holidays for our families, we’re never doing enough. The good news, though, is that we have the power to choose whether to feel guilty or to let ourselves off the hook.  Here are some of the things I’ve decided no longer merit my guilt:

Not taking my child on vacation

Since becoming a mom I’ve been on some amazing vacations. My son was not invited on any of them. When people share pictures of their baby on a tropical beach or held up next to Mickey at Disney, I think “Aw, cute” followed by “Never in a million years”. To me, a vacation means the only nap schedule I’m planning around is my own. It means eating anywhere I want without worrying whether they have a high chair on hand.  When you introduce kids to the picture, it’s no longer a vacation, it’s a trip. A trip means carting around a backpack full of snacks and other distractions, and eating dinner at 5pm. It means coming home exhausted and wondering when you’ll get to take an actual vacation. My husband and I are holding on to our adults-only vacations as long as we can. Don’t get me wrong, we are excited about one day taking our son along—when he’s old enough to remember going.

Putting my son to bed early

Whether he wants to or not, my son is in bed by 7pm. Fortunately he’s a good sleeper and we usually don’t hear from him again until morning. (We could argue about whether this is luck or parenting, but that’s a whole other blog post on a whole other blog that I don’t write.) As a working mom this schedule means I only see him for a couple of hours a day during the week, which is a little sad. As a normal person who values their sanity, this is amazing. Seven to nine pm are my favorite hours of the day. It’s my time to exercise, catch up on work, make lunches for the next day, or have a deep conversation with my husband watch Netflix on the couch with a glass of wine. Honestly though, who cares what I’m doing as long as I get to do it without a toddler making dinosaur noises attached to me. I don’t know how people who put their kids to bed at nine or ten pm survive. And truthfully, I don’t care, as long as they help me lie to my son that kids who aren’t in bed by seven turn into gremlins.

Having other caretakers

I feel like there is a misconception that you need a good reason to get a babysitter, like having front row tickets to see Elton John or being invited to the Oscars as Bradley Cooper’s guest. Sitters keep our life running smoothly. They allow me to have a life outside of being a mom when my husband travels or works late. Sitters mean I don’t have to skip book club, church volunteer night, or just grabbing a much-needed drink with a friend. Taking off my “mom” hat for a couple of hours keeps me engaged with other parts of my identity and makes me a better parent when I get home. And yes, I recognize that being able to afford child care for any of these activities is a privilege. It’s part of my story, though, which is the only one I know how to share.

Daycare, where my son spends a lot of time, is also a big piece of this equation. Once in a blue moon I’ll get to pick up early enough that other kids are still there. If I cross paths with another parent, they will inevitably give my son a high five, call him by name, and make some comment to me about his love of fire engines, or Cheezits, or whatever. I will smile and wave to their kid, acting like I also know their name. The truth is, I don’t know any of the other kids. They’re not there yet when I drop my son off in the morning, and they’ve already gone home when I come back after work. I struggled mightily with this one early on. I tried juggling my schedule at work so I could get to pick up earlier, but I ended up stressed out and resentful. Then I tried judging the other parents for their clearly lackluster careers that allow them such lax schedules, but that made me feel petty and lonely. The only thing left was to recognize that my son was beloved by his teachers, making friends and learning to socialize, and that whatever ridiculous standards I was trying to live up to were of my own invention, and thus mine to let go of.

 

These are just a few areas where (most days) I’ve been able to dial back my guilt. There are plenty of other things, big and small, with which I still struggle. Being kind to myself by setting reasonable expectations for what I can and cannot accomplish is a daily practice—and I do mean practice. If you’re wired for guilt, like me, changing that wiring takes time. However, the joy that comes from letting it go is well worth the struggle. And, you can reward yourself with that third cookie.

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