Before I had my children, I had this idea of what it would be like to send them off to school in the morning. It looked a bit like a scene from Leave it to Beaver. I hand them their lunches, kiss the tops of their heads, tell them I love them and to have a good day, and off they go to their wonderful environments of educational enrichment.
This morning is a pretty standard example of what actually happens. My husband and I dragged ourselves out of bed, woke up the kids and started our weekday morning routine of getting them ready for school. While they ate breakfast, he made their lunches and I got myself ready for work. After about an hour reminding, cajoling, and, I’m ashamed to admit, yelling, I finally herded them toward the car, dropped them off at school and rushed myself to work. I drove to work irritated at myself because the last thing I said to my kids was, “Hurry! Get out of the car! People are waiting behind us! Go!” Granted, there was a long line of parents in cars behind us waiting to drop their kids off in the approved drop-off area, and the kids had been moving slow all morning, which meant that I was in danger of being late to work (which is actually dangerous since my job has a very strict late policy). That said, that’s not how I want them to start their school day.
This is just one of the many reasons that I frequently suffer from what has come to be known as “Mommy Guilt”. If you don’t have children, you might wonder what there is to feel guilty about, as long as you are doing your best and not abusing your kids. If you have young children or children who recently were young, you know exactly what I am talking about.
As a working mom, I feel guilty because I really believe, in my heart of hearts, that I should be home full-time taking care of them. Every mother knows that the best caregiver for her child is herself, so pawning off that responsibility to someone else, be it a daycare, a nanny/babysitter, a grandparent, or even the baby’s father, just feels wrong. At least that’s how it was for me.
I went back to work part-time when my second child, my son, was 4 weeks old. I was only gone for 4 hours a day, but leaving him broke my heart. My husband’s mother was available to care for him, so I knew he was in good hands, but being away from him every day was extremely difficult. Add into that equation that I was trying to keep him on breast milk only and struggling with my milk supply. It didn’t take long for him to decide that he like the bottle better than nursing, so then I was feeling rejected by him, as well. If we hadn’t needed the money so badly, I would have quit. We live in a society, however, which seems designed so that two incomes are needed for a family to make ends meet, so I kept going to work every day even though I felt horribly guilty and believed I was doing my children a terrible disservice.
It got easier after a while, but it still was hard. It was especially difficult on those day when I came home and heard from my mother in law that my son said his first word and I wasn‘t there to hear it. When I heard that my daughter fell and skinned her knee and I wasn’t there to kiss it better, my heart broke a little bit. When she clung to my legs and cried, “Mommy, please don’t go!” and I had to pull her off, put her in the arms of her grandma and walk out the door, my heart broke a little more.
A few years ago, I went to a women’s conference and attended a break-out session on “Strategies for the Working Mom”. The speaker spend most of the session talking about how, after a few years of working, she made the decision to stay home with her children. She discussed what a wonderful decision that was for her family and how God had honored that and provided for them. I left feeling bad that I couldn’t make that same decision and guilty that I was leaving my children in the care of someone else.
Stay-at-home moms aren’t immune to Mommy Guilt, though. Those girls, like me, who grew up in the 80’s and 90’s clearly learned the lesson that we can, and should, have a career just like the boys do. We can do anything. We can be anything. We can be doctors, scientists, engineers, police officers, fire fighters, business owners, artists, anything we want. The world is open to us, thanks to all the women who went before us and carved the paths through the boys’ clubs, broke through the walls and shattered the glass ceilings. We can do it all. We can have a rewarding career and have a family. We should have it all. All this freedom, though, created greater expectation. It’s no longer enough to be a wife and a mother and build your life around caring for your family. You have to do more and be more. Our parents expect us to succeed, our spouses expect us to contribute to the family budget, and we expect ourselves to excel at whatever we do. We get this idea that by “only staying home” we are somehow wasting ourselves and our potential.
I stayed home with my daughter for the first two years of her life. Those were two very lean years for us, financially. I liked being home taking care of my baby, but I felt bad every time I spent any money, because I wasn’t doing anything to “contribute”. I worked really hard to bargain hunt for everything we needed. I think I only got my hair cut once during that whole time, because spending anything on myself was so difficult. I wore maternity clothes a lot longer than I needed to, because my old clothes didn’t fit and I felt so guilty spending money to buy myself anything new. I gained a lot of weight because I ate all the little bits of leftover food my daughter didn’t eat and I didn‘t want the food to go to waste. I became the epitome of the “mom who let herself go”.
Dora the Explorer and Blues Clues were my daily companions. All My Children was the source of most of my grown up conversation during the day. I knew that being home with my daughter was the best thing I could do for her, but I felt isolated and lonely.
In those few times that I did try to meet up with other moms and go to play dates or once, a MOPS group, I compared myself to all the other moms and found myself sorely lacking. They were thinner, prettier, more put together. I heard their conversations about how they make all their own baby food and use only organic ingredients. I had stopped at McDonalds and given my daughter french fries on my way there.
I was struggling to potty train my 2½ year-old daughter, and one mom mentioned that her son had just decided one day that he wanted to “be a big boy” and that was it. He was potty trained before he turned 2.
In a conversation about breast feeding, I mentioned that I had nursed my daughter for 9 months. “Oh, you have to breastfeed for at least one year,” another mom said. “The longer the better.” Breastfeeding had been a long, hard struggle for me, so this comment felt like a knife in my chest. I had failed my daughter.
It doesn’t take long in a conversation with moms of young children to discover that there is a right way and a wrong way to do everything. You can get their opinions on how long you should allow your child to use a pacifier (if you should use one at all), when to switch from a bottle to a cup, whether cloth or disposable diapers are best, when to introduce solid foods, what foods to start with, to vaccinate or not, to circumcise or not, public school vs. private school vs. home school, and on and on. This sort of thing was one more reason to isolate myself. I just wanted to avoid feeling the judgment of other moms who preached their way of parenting as the one and only way of doing it right, when I was just trying to get through each day and figuring it out as I went. I was tired of feeling inadequate as it was. I didn’t need all those super-moms as proof that I didn’t know what I was doing.
Now, I can look back at those conversations and see that they probably weren’t judging me. They probably were just working really hard to be the best mom they could be because, if you are going to stay home to raise your kids instead of having a career, you’d better be the best stay-at-home mom there is. I think that some women who choose to stay home make “being a mom” their career in order to validate that decision.
Whichever choice we make, it’s enormously personal and difficult. Because it’s so hard, any suggestion, implied, imagined or explicit, that our decision was selfish or not in the best interest of our child, is hard to handle and we can get defensive easily. Sometimes I think that our defensiveness of our position is so strong because we are so conflicted about it. Whichever life we choose involves great sacrifice and any time our sacrifice is undervalued, we feel it deeply.
I believe that this is an area in our culture that the enemy has built up strongholds. He takes advantage of the fact that we get such mixed messages about womanhood in general, and motherhood specifically, and pounds us with relentless criticisms of every little thing we do. We are bombarded by information so that the most basic of child care tasks have been turned into controversies. How can it be controversial to feed your baby, you ask? Just google it. There are controversies about the correct way to put baby to bed, the best way to help baby sleep, which toys to use, which gadgets to use (or not use), even carseats can be controversial.
Really, it starts before baby is born with everything that is thrown at the pregnant woman. The advise is never-ending. Even perfect strangers will feel free to walk up to a pregnant woman and tell her why whatever she happens to be eating or doing will damage her unborn child.
As women and mothers, we need to recognize that we are not designed to live with the guilt we feel and the ways we beat ourselves up for not being able to be “Superwoman”. We can’t be all the things that the world tries to convince us that we should be. We can only be who God made us each, individually, to be. And that is enough. Any feelings of guilt, being “less-than” or not measuring up to some murky, undefined idea of what we “should be” are not from him. They are lies and when we realize that, we can begin to combat them with the truth.
For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.
For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.