“Mom guilt is the phrase of the day,” wrote Jamee Tenzer on her Momiverse blog last week. Of all the pressures women face – as daughters, professionals, friends, students, athletes, artists, wives, politicians, etc. – it seems that we are most affected by our role as mother. Of course, I feel bad when I cannot attend a friend’s wedding or an office happy hour, but not nearly as bad as I felt about missing my son’s first flu shot. What kind of mother can’t take an hour or two off work to be there for her baby during such a potentially painful and/or scary experience? Never mind that his dad was with him, or that it was only a one-minute procedure …. I was a wreck all day.
I came across Tenzer’s post after reading Lori Radun’s “20 Things Moms Don’t Need to Feel Guilty About,” which a friend had posted on Facebook. First of all, if just having some blogger (even a “Family Success Specialist” as Ms. Radun calls herself) say “don’t worry about it” is enough to make women feel less guilty, “mom guilt” wouldn’t be a thing. Reading through Ms. Radun’s list, I found myself noting “yes, I feel guilty about that” and “no, I don’t worry about that” next to each item. For example, I absolutely feel guilty when I get frustrated or angry with my child, but I don’t feel bad that I can’t afford to buy him designer clothes or top-quality toys (since he destroys and then grows out of whatever he wears, and mostly plays with brooms and other household items). In the end, I responded “no” to 8, “yes” to 10, and “sometimes” to 2 of the 20 things on the list. So I guess I have moderate “mom guilt.
One item on the list stopped me in my tracks. “You don’t need to feel guilty because today you’d rather be hanging out with your girlfriends than playing monster trucks. Our girlfriends ground us and help us stay connected to the women we were before we had kids.” I agree completely with that statement, so wrote a bold “no” next to it, indicating that I do not feel guilty about spending time with my friends. My mind instinctively searched for an example – just the other day I went to brunch at my college roommate’s house. But I brought along my son. Same with a recent housewarming party, bridal shower, and coffee date. That’s when I realized that I have not hung out with a friend, without my son present, since he was born. No wonder some of my friends became “too busy” to meet up and slowly drifted out of my life. Now that is something to feel guilty about.
Admittedly, the vast majority of my friends have been extremely supportive of my new role as a mom, regardless of whether they have kids themselves. They have embraced my son and at least pretend to enjoy his company. But Radun’s “no guilt list” made me realize that I really must make an effort to set aside some time to be just “me” with my friends (rather than “mom/me”). Even if they find my son adorable and amusing (which, as his proud mama, I simply assume that everyone does), it is difficult to talk about anything besides him, or to talk about anything for that matter, when he is racing around tempting death or destruction wherever we are. When I am with my son, he always has at least half my attention (more if he is not asleep or strapped into something), so I cannot fully focus on my friend(s).
The trouble is, I feel guilty about missing out on 6-8 of my son’s waking hours every workday, so I am reluctant to give up even one hour in the evening or on weekends for quality time with my friends, to go to the gym, or to take a nap. [And going out after putting him to bed is just not an option for me, I am tired and hungry by that point in the day and that’s the only quality time I get with my husband.] I also feel guilty that my husband is with my son just about all day every day. When I am not working, I need to give my husband a break. It is not financially feasible for us to hire a babysitter so I can go for drinks with a friend and my husband can play video games. Most importantly, I truly enjoy every minute I spend with my son and I miss him when we are not together.
Research suggests that guilt has at least two root causes. The first is empathy – you feel bad when someone else is hurting. I agonized over missing my son’s flu shot because I imagined him frightened and in pain at the doctor’s office. The second source of guilt is anxiety over potential damage to a relationship – being rejected or excluded. I was worried that my son would feel I’d abandoned him in his time of need. So I felt guilty.
Guilt is an emotional warning sign that prompts us to examine our behavior to consider how it affects ourselves and others. It serves an evolutionary purpose by helping us function as a codependent society. Today, however, women (and of course, men, but I think to a lesser extent) are over-sensitive to guilt due to a variety of social pressures that exaggerate the perceived effects of our actions. For example, my son was not at all bothered that I was not with him for his flu shot. He got the shot, cried for a minute, was comforted by his dad, and forgot all about it. My “mom guilt” over the event was brought on by external messages (which I, like many, have internalized) about what a “good mom” should do.
When it comes to spending time with my friends, I feel guilty for compromising my friendships by bringing along my baby. I worry that I may alienate my friends if I do not accept their invitations to non-baby-friendly activities or devote my full attention to them when we’re together in order to demonstrate how much I value our friendship. At the same, time, I’d feel guilty for ditching my son and husband to hang out with my friends. I empathize with my husband’s need for a break from our energetic son and with our son’s desire to spend time with me.
This is the essence of “mom guilt.” It’s not about just letting go of the guilt, as Ms. Radun suggests. Rather, it is about allocating time, energy, and resources in a way that feels right for me, for right now. At this moment, that means socializing mostly with my mom friends and their kids, so we can support each other while still spending quality time with our little ones. After my recent revelation (that I haven’t spent any time with my friends without my son), however, I also resolve to plan some baby-free activities with friends at least once a month. But I can’t promise I won’t feel guilty about it …