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A Mother’s Guilt

By Comments off By the Numbers: A Mother’s Guilt

The night before Valentine’s Day, I arrived home around 6 p.m. After a 40-minute commute, I picked up my three children, made dinner, cleaned up dinner, and supervised the making of a Valentine’s box. Then I painstakingly assisted my youngest child in writing out his classroom Valentines to ensure he spelled each name correctly, per his request.  

By 7:45 p.m., I just needed to sit and shut down for a minute. However, I’m convinced my youngest child was born with some type of special power that allows him to sense the moment I need to relax. As soon as I sat down, he came running out of the bedroom begging me to throw a football to him as he practiced his footwork over the agility ladder he’d requested for his 8th birthday. I found myself torn, guilty and somewhat ashamed as the reality of me as a tired human being began to win out over the fantasy of me as an energetic, fun-loving mom.

Intellectually, I know that I have unrealistic expectations of myself. I also know that it’s OK for me to feel tired after a full day of work and parenting. I would tell any of my clients that it’s completely normal to want to lie down and chill out for a little while at the end of the day. In fact, I would encourage them to make sure they do that on most days because it’s simple and good self-care. I know all of that. But I still feel guilty.

Work-life balance

Fast forward 12 hours. After trying to sleep with two kids in my bed (one sick, one stubborn), I ended up spending most of the night on the couch. I cook a warm breakfast and manage to get two of three on their buses while the third, who is home sick from school, heads into the office with me. During my 40-minute morning commute, her stomach starts to bother her. She’s a little whiny, but she generally attempts to deal with the discomfort with as few complaints as she can manage.

I arrive at work to attend a meeting that could have taken place without my physical presence. Half the time I’m tuned out thinking to myself, “What am I doing? Why did I drag her into the office with me? Why didn’t I just call into the meeting?” The reality of the situation is that the work meeting wasn’t important enough to sacrifice my kid’s comfort. Nor was my kid’s physical condition bad enough for me to feel like a lousy mother because I brought her with me. But there I am. Stuck in between both realities.

My drive and absolute need to be successful at my career to support myself and my children is in constant competition with my desire to be an ever-present, compassionate and nurturing mother. In fact, as I’m typing right now, my 11-year-old is explaining to me the overlap between Glee and The Flash.

Maintaining healthy relationships

We’ve all heard employers say, “Your children come first.” But the reality for most of us is that if our kids come first too often, we will lose our jobs. And if our jobs come first too often, we will lose a solid relationship with our children. It is a continuous and sometimes maddening, juggling, balancing and magic act to pull off. It’s constant motion and flow. What is right one day may be different the next. The variables at play are many, and most mothers feel obligated and driven to be attune to all of them almost all of the time.

And the reality of that? Well, it’s impossible. When faced with impossible expectations, most people do one of two things: become hypervigilant and obsessed, or paralyzed and shut down.

When society decided to tell women we could have it all, society forgot to revamp the system. It seems to me that the demands on parents (academic, extracurricular and social) have increased to make “parent” a full-time position in and of itself. Society forgot to send labor a memo saying we needed more time off, more opportunities to work from home, higher wages and three-day weekends for sanity’s sake alone. Family life in suburbia seems to require that at least one parent be flexible or home full-time. But the cost of living requires both parents to work in most households. It’s important to be aware of these challenges and work to maintain emotional and physical wellbeing, for both you and your family’s sake.

Finding beauty in imperfection

Fast forward another 24 hours. After putting my last child on the bus this morning, I walked back into the house to grab my bags. I paused at the door and surveyed the destruction of one morning with three children. But after a long night of stress and worry, I found myself looking around our messy house feeling pleased and comforted by a home well lived in. Not a perfect home, not always a clean home, not perfect children, maybe not even clean children (I know for sure one of them did not brush his teeth before going to school), but well lived in and well loved. It’s not always about what we do or how we do it that changes our lives, but more often the angle at which we view it.

Note: I share this perspective as a divorced, working mother living in the suburbs. But I’m curious how fathers and those in different family structures feel about these same issues. Please share your thoughts in the comments below, or send me an email and let me know what you think!

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