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The important truth that’s helping me let go of the terrible burden of “mommy guilt”

STRESSED MOTHER
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Family life is not always like a battlefield, and here’s why that’s a life changing realization.

My whole experience of motherhood has been flavored by guilt, and I don’t think I’m alone in that. “Mommy guilt” is so pervasive that we’ve forgotten it’s not the only way to live. We serve processed food, or overuse the TV, or spend time buried in our phone when our kids were hoping we’d play with them — everything’s a potential occasion of guilt. Sometimes, we wear our guilt like a trophy: “Look how much I care! Look how horrible I felt about this or that little failure!”

Guilt hurts, but it’s at least proof that we’re trying.

The mommy guilt hits hardest when I feel like life with my children is a battle. Either their needs for attention, enrichment, and structure are getting met, or my needs for peace, rest, and going to the bathroom alone are getting met. It feels like a tug of war, where I feel overwhelmed when I lose, but guilty when I win. 

Here’s what I’m realizing, though … 

There are times in a family’s life that the battlefield metaphor is fair. In times of crisis or instability, when there truly aren’t enough mental and physical resources to meet everyone’s needs, that’s when parents are called to sacrifice the most. If you’ve got a newborn, you know what I mean. That baby is waking up every few hours to eat, and your very real need for sleep isn’t being met — so all you can do is keep doing right by your baby, and wait for her to grow. Your needs and hers are in competition, and it’s your job to meet her needs first, whatever the cost to you.

If you refused to feed and change your infant at night, and left her hungry until the morning, you’d be right to feel guilty. That’s what guilt is for! It tells you that you need to do better. In hard times, it’s right that the sacrifice falls on the adult, not the child.

But here’s the thing — life isn’t always in crisis. In times of stability and peace, when we have more mental, emotional, and physical resources to spend, for example. 

In stable times (and I keep forgetting this) the family is less like a battlefield, and more like an ecosystem. After all, a family isn’t a collection of individuals, but a unified whole. When my needs are being met, that affects everyone else. When the kids have everything they need, that makes my life better too. When nobody is deprived, everybody thrives. 

I’m so used to thinking that taking anything for myself means I’m taking something away from somebody else, but that’s not always true. 

The other day, I put the kids in front of the TV with a handful each of candy corn, and I went off for a quick nap. Part of me is sure that what I did was selfish, and I was failing my kids. But that’s not it at all. I was choosing to give myself what I needed in order to be able to give the kids what they need. If I hadn’t had that nap, I guarantee I would have been yelling at everybody all day — because my needs affect my whole family. 

If family is a battlefield, then yeah, I should feel bad about putting myself first. I know perfectly well that candy and screen time aren’t great for our kids. But if family is an ecosystem, then it’s not so black and white. My kids were going to have so much better a day if their mother wasn’t burnt out and exhausted. My needs and theirs might not be nearly as separate as I used to think. So now, when I start to feel that panicked sense of “either me or them,” I try to remember the image of an ecosystem. I nourish myself because it helps me nourish them, because ultimately, we’re all in this together. 

Read more: Motherhood didn’t squelch my creativity, it made me a maker

Read more: 8 Motherly saints to turn to when family life gets tough

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