There's a virus infecting moms everywhere. From the moment a woman hears the words "you're going to be a mom," the symptoms begin to surface. They initially emerge as feelings of second-guessing seemingly benign things: Should I have eaten that? Should I participate in that activity? Am I reading enough about child development? As time progresses, the questions may evolve to questions like, Am I spending enough time with my children? Am I reading to them enough? Am I involving them in a sufficient number of activities or too many? Then the self doubt sets in.
Guilt can grab a hold of us, drag us around and cause us to question our mothering ability until we feel around in that vulnerable abyss, desperately grasping on to the things we feel or hope we're doing right. Then, we may try to overcompensate for our perceived guilt by aiming to spend more time with our child or even purchase a coveted toy, at which point the guilt compounds, as we feel terrible for purchasing an object as a 'Band-Aid' for our guilt. Mom guilt seems to affect more of the the current generation of moms as opposed to earlier ones. Or perhaps those who came before us did feel the pains of it, but weren't as vocal about its symptoms. Like many diseases, maternal guilt doesn't provide a warning sign, discriminate or decrease its number of visits based on merit or any other measure of performance. It may say 'hello' in the middle of breakfast, weigh on your shoulders during an evening out with friends, pound on your head during an evening jog or even jab you in the side at the office. Sometimes, it even has the audacity to poke you during precious time with your children. Like many ailments, there is no definitive cure for it, just the temporary elixir until we're blindsided by the next wave.
"I don't do guilt. I just don't do it. I know I'm a good mom." I can still remember the feeling of awe, envy, and subsequent glance of admiration I had toward my friend as she laid down those words a year ago. She threw them out with such conviction and authority; she seemed immune from guilt. How did she evade it? What was it about her disposition, outlook and attitude that enabled her to shield herself from this annoying intruder that so many of us often confront? Carrying any unwelcome and foreign body around within us can cause us to feel a bit heavier than we would like. Guilt is no different. It's bothersome and it gets in the way. I pondered how light Amanda must have felt, to dance in the parenting sphere completely untouched day-to-day by even a hint of guilt.
Perhaps, like many situations in life, we have to reframe the way in which we look at this persistent voice and view it as a friend of sorts. Maybe it's not such a negative thing that guilt shows up from time-to-time, as a gentle nudge, a reminder for us to check in with ourselves to question our journey as mothers or contemplate how we may have handled a situation differently with our children. And we can learn from the rare ones who don't seem remotely afflicted by it and recognize that we may always live with the occasional ache or pain, but that it doesn't define us as mothers; it instead reminds us of the magnitude of affection we have for our children and the wonderful futures we so deeply crave for them. I recently asked Amanda what made her feel so assured in her ability to turn her head so swiftly to mom-guilt when it knocks at the door:
'Maybe it's in part because I started out as an older mom. I think it was also my upbringing; my mom told me that 'guilt is a waste of time.' I worked in an environment for years where I saw many neglected and abandoned children and once they had love in their lives and people who provided some opportunities for them, they did well. Often times these days, women are more educated than ever before; they know more about development. The more we know, sometimes the more dangerous it can be, as we may unnecessarily question everything we do as parents''.
I don't know if Amanda holds the antidote for every mom, but her words resonated deeply within me. Perhaps the true remedy is a combination of medicines: a bit of support from our friends, some peace in knowing we are doing the best for our children and loving them with all that we have. A generous helping of acceptance that we will sometimes make the wrong decision, but the solace in knowing that we made it with the right intention. And the wisdom to know that guilt may always lay dormant within us and rattle us once in a while, but the more we build our immunity, the more often we'll be able to look at it and say 'I don't do guilt."