So, I’m pregnant, about thirteen weeks along now and thankfully my severe morning sickness is starting to slowly fade. But I gotta say, the parenting skills that I have have not been displaying since about week five of my pregnancy make me shudder and give me a terrible case of mama guilt. From my sometimes grumpy, short-tempered responses to the fact that I often lay in bed and let my daughter watch two to three movies a day, I cringe to think of what I’m doing to her precious emotions and to her growing brain cells. While pregnant and suffering from terrible, all day sickness, I’m certainly not the calm, patient, educational mom I envision myself being.
But truth be told, I’m never really felt that I’m that parent, and I’ve suffered from mama guilt about it since my daughter was born. It started in the hospital when, on my second night there, I couldn’t sleep because I kept waking up every ten minutes to make sure my newborn was still breathing so I asked the nurses to take her for the night so I could try to catch up. It continued when she had awful, all-day colic for the first two months of her life and sometimes I just didn’t want to be around her. It grew when she started becoming more “independent” and I could put her in a walker and go do a little sewing in the adjacent room for a couple of minutes at a time and I wondered if it would ever be okay for me to do other things that I enjoyed again. It was at its worst when I came home from my job to find that she’d already napped and I that just couldn’t function well as a parent without an hour of downtime between being a teacher and being Mommy.
Often, my Mama guilt is triggered by seeing the example of other, stellar parents. Watching a friend who uses all organic foods and never puts her kids snacks in plastic containers makes me wish I could be more aware of toxins in our environment. Seeing the super mom from church who wrestles three boys to swim practice and hockey games and still has time to make amazing suppers and get in a workout. Observing the mom in the library who always has her kids in cloth diapers, handmade clothes, and often nurses in public. Checking out the Facebook status of the parent whose kid can already write their name at three years old. It’s not that these amazing women are trying to put themselves out there to make me feel like less of a mom, they’re just doing their best to be good parents like the rest of us and I happen to be there to observe it. In fact, these parents probably feel the same mama (or papa) guilt as I do.
I’ve come to realize that Mama “guilt” is there for a reason, but that we can’t let it get the best of us. Let me explain. I think God ingrained in us the deep desire to be the best parents we can be for our children and I think He wants us to always strive for excellence as we raise our kids. However, we are also imperfect (which God understands since He made us) and this means that we’re going to fail—sometimes in small ways, like an extra hour of television, and sometimes in monumental ones like losing your temper at your child in a big way. These parental mistakes can add up in our eyes and make us feel like huge failures as parents—the one job we have that matters. The truth is, though, all parents make mistakes and have momentary moments of failure—even the best of them—and it doesn’t mean that we’re going to destroy our children. Do I wish I could spend every waking moment fully engaged in play with my daughter on the living room floor? Oh yes. But am I a terrible parent because sometimes I can’t make that time? I don’t think so. What our kids really need is the consistency of a loving example. If I never play with my child, well, then that is a problem that I need to fix. But if I’m bothered by the days that I don’t or the moments I let pass me by, then it means that I’m striving to make sure that as few of those moments happen as possible and that I’m going to always be striving to make the time for her. What my daughter needs is for me to be the best parent that I can be. She needs me, not the “supermom” from down the street. I’ve learned that as long as I make sure that she feels important every day (even if it means cuddling a very sick, pregnant Mommy in her bed for a couple of hours), then her emotional needs are met. And if I’m not meeting those emotional needs, she lets me know. “Mommy, can you sit with me while I eat breakfast?” “Mommy, wanna color with me?” And of course I want to, so I make a conscious effort to stop what I’m doing when I can and focus only on her.
One thing that helps me is to think back on my mom. She was a busy, hard-working mom who struggled to help my father make sure we had a roof over our head and food on our table. I know she felt like a failure at times because I remember her saying so and telling me how much she loved me and how she wished she could be better. And I remember that she sometimes lost her temper, or needed time to herself away from us, but do you know what? I don’t remember her failing. What sticks with me about my upbringing are the cuddles, the words of encouragement, the smiles, the special trips to the grocery store, the yummy dinners, and the stories that she told me. I look back on my imperfect mother who did her best to love me no matter how many faults she had and I feel loved and complete. She wasn’t perfect, but she tried to be and that is what mattered to me as an impressionable child.
Another thing that helps is being open and honest about your faults to other parents. I know, I know, it can seem scary to bare your soul and be vulnerable to others, but just try it once. Tell a fellow parent how you feel you’ve “failed” recently because you lost your temper or you let your baby cry it out for longer than you should have. You’ll most likely find friendly and uplifting words of encouragement there because I can tell you that this parent doesn’t see you that way—she sees you as the amazing, awe-inspiring parent that you really are. She sees what I see in all my friends as they lovingly guide their kids through life at church, in the library, and on Facebook—she sees a supermom and she sees the amazing human being that your loved little one is growing up to be.
So that Mama guilt? Take what you can from her to grow as a parent, and then kick her out the door. Constructive criticism is okay, and it’s good that we learn from it. But if that guilt is starting to wear you down and make you feel like you’re an awful parent, then it’s no longer doing its job to make you better. It’s just bringing you down.