Recently, I was chatting with a friend of mine. School had been cancelled for consecutive days in a row, thanks to massive amounts of snow dumped on our side of the state, and she was telling me about how she’d let her kids watch way too much TV over the unexpected break. I could empathize with her plight right away, because I’d done the same thing. Too much screen time. Whoops. But where I felt most connected to her in that moment was over our shared sense of Mommy Guilt. The notion that we had somehow swiftly dropped the ball as parents in a matter of a few hours.
In the grand scheme of our kids’ lives (even in the grand scheme of that one week) the extra time spent glued to movies and shows and electronic games wasn’t going to damage them. Yet it’s such a guilt-inducing internal battle for a parent. Sometimes I let them check out on their devices so I can be productive. When I’m cleaning toilets, when I’m cooking dinner, or when I need a quiet two-and-a-half seconds to scan over my online grocery order. And sometimes, more often than I’d like to admit, I do it just because I want to Netflix-and-Chill for a minute.
Guilt Lives Here
I’ve been a working parent, and I’ve been a stay-at-home parent. I have friends within each realm, as well. And I can assure you that I have yet to find one who doesn’t experience guilt to some degree over something.
When I was working, I felt guilty that I wasn’t present anywhere else. I struggled to balance my professional workload with my parenting, my housekeeping, my friendships, and my marriage. I felt that because I couldn’t give 100% to everything, that I needed to pick and choose; that I could give My All to one thing only. I was really good at my job, but I was putting out fires in every other room of my life because of it. The guilt consumed me, sent me seeking therapy, and eventually became so oppressive that I quit my job in favor of my sanity. As a family, we made the necessary sacrifices and amendments to allow me to stay home with my toddler-at-the-time.
Until the guilt latched onto my stay-at-home-parent status, too. Soon, I felt guilty that I didn’t earn a monetary living. That I wasn’t able to contribute financially, and that I spent too much money for someone who didn’t bring any back into the equation. I felt guilty if I didn’t get the laundry done for the day, didn’t have an impressive meal plan for the night, or didn’t teach my toddler his shapes, colors, and ABCs. My domestic duties had become my employer, and anytime I sloughed them off, that guilt cloud shrouded my blue sky.
There’s always something to feel guilty about, isn’t there?
–Yelled at my kids for yelling at each other. So much for Love and Logic.
–Didn’t make time for a workout today. Or at all this week.
–Been way too long since I’ve taken my dog for a walk.
–Put off writing that long-overdue thank you note. Again.
–Never sent out Christmas cards. Second year in a row.
–Didn’t spend enough time with my grandparents while they were still alive. Huge regret.
–Drank way too much coffee and not enough water.
–Said something hurtful to my husband. Unintentionally, but still…
–Forgot to text that friend back. It’s been at least a week. Why haven’t I done it yet?
–Stared at my phone way more than at my sweet children today.
And that’s just a smattering of items on the “guilty list” that runs on a loop through my head on the regular. I want to cut it up into a million little pieces, but for some reason it feels like it’s indestructible.
Two Sides of Guilt
I’ve got two fairly self-sufficient children, now. They’re wonderful, kind, smart, respectful, compassionate kids. Nature and nurture have collaborated well on their behalf. But I still feel guilty almost daily in my perceived shortcomings as their mom. And I have to ask myself, “Why can’t you just let that go? What good is your guilt doing you? Or them?”
In all honesty, I think a healthy amount of guilt serves a good purpose. The kind of guilt that forms in the pit of your stomach when you know you’ve done something wrong. Or unkind. Or hurtful. That’s the kind of guilt that keeps us in check. It holds us accountable to ourselves and to others. Reminds us that we have a greater purpose on this earth: to love one another.
It’s the destructive guilt that tears us down. The kind that overanalyzes good intentions and tricks us into thinking that we’re not good enough. That causes us to question our own goodness or humanness or identity. That eats away at our self-love. It serves no purpose but to stir up doubt and fear.
Knowing the inherent difference between these forms of guilt seems important. It’s something I want to teach my children. But I also want to practice what I preach.
Guilt Knows No Bounds
While driving home from an evening church service recently, my 9-year-old was unusually quiet in the car. Normally he’s bubbling with energy, the sugar from the sweet treat of the evening hasn’t hit bottom yet, and he’s practically bouncing off of the arm rests of his seat. He and his sister compete to retell the week’s lesson or Bible story, their voices inching up and up until they’re yelling over each other (in complete antithesis of what they’re trying to accomplish in the first place).
But that Sunday, the takeaway had been something about honesty.
I watched him in my rearview mirror as he stewed in silence for most of the drive, until he finally mumbled that he’d been feeling guilty about being dishonest. Gripping the steering wheel, I resisted the urge to run down the list of all of the things I assumed he might have lied about and waited with my mouth clamped shut. I could tell he was grappling with the weight of his guilt. And boy, could I relate.
What’s in a Lie?
He began to confess. Slowly, anxiously, at first, until the words tumbled out at full force. He had led his classmates and his teacher to believe that he was an avid hunter. In reality, he’s been “hunting” twice in his nine-year-old life. And it was “Hunting 101” at best. Nonetheless, it was an interest he had latched onto passionately. He read books about hunting, he saved his money to buy camouflage-patterned clothing, and he dressed up as a hunter for Halloween.
But he knew that Parent-Teacher Conferences were fast approaching, and he was terrified that his teacher would ask us about his hunting hobby. And that we would, unknowingly, divulge the truth of the matter. The more he pondered the outcome of such a reveal, the greater his guilt about stretching the truth ballooned up around him. I simultaneously breathed a sigh of relief and compelled myself to feel the childlike gravity of his situation.
He was spiraling by this point. His guilt manifested as panic. What an innocent white lie he’d caught himself in, by our adult standards.
I tried to talk him off the ledge without patronizing him or giving way to any condescension. I explained that his dishonesty hadn’t been hurtful to anyone. He hadn’t harmed his friends in any way, hadn’t hurt any feelings or sparked any anger. And his acquired guilt had been a self-inflicted consequence. A byproduct of untruthfulness. He nodded, though uncertainty still seemed to lead the pack of his emotions, but I figured we’d put the issue to rest.
Going on a Guilt Trip
Yet for days, even weeks, afterward, he continued to worry; to beat himself up over his bout of dishonesty. He refused to wear jeans to school, he wore athletic-wear only. Because apparently hunters wear jeans, and he didn’t want his wardrobe to jog anyone’s memory of his alter ego. And he begged for constant reassurance that I wouldn’t say anything to incriminate him during our meeting with the teacher.
His stress was palpable. While he’d surely learned his lesson about being true to himself, his guilt trip persisted. And I realized that nothing I could say or do would relieve the guilt until the dreaded conference had come to an end.
Not one question was asked about hunting during that conference. Not a word was said about it at all. His little shoulders dropped painstakingly out from under his ears a little at a time, relaxing more and more as the minutes ticked down until it was all over. He jumped up, clearly relieved, and hasn’t spoken of it again.
For the Greater Good
But Guilt is a powerful force to be reckoned with. It knows no age limit. Bound not to profession or gender, lifestyle or socioeconomic status, race or culture. Nor is one person’s guilt relative to the guilt of anyone else. We’re all struggling to decipher Guilt’s presence in our lives to some degree, to some extent, to some end.
So I think I’ve decided to take the good with the bad when it comes to you, Guilt. Because I am a force to contend with, too. I have the power to decide whether I’m going to listen and learn from you or to veer away from you.
If my moral compass is at the root of my guilt, I will choose to lean in and heed its advice. But if that guilt feels destructive, if it raises the red flags of insecurity and self-doubt, then I’m going to overpower its weakness. I’m going to prove it wrong.
Guilt, I’m done giving you the reigns and letting you get the best of me. From now on, I’ll be harnessing your power for the greater good.
And with what I have left of this guilt-free evening, I will finish the next episode of The Bachelor. Then I’ll cast one (and only one) sidelong, defiant glance at the very large pile of laundry spilling off of my couch, and declare tomorrow a new day.
Another great read from The We Spot: “Mommy Guilt: If You Are Giving It to Yourself, Stop It“ by Savannah Howe