You don't know mama guilt til you're a mama. You don't know mama guilt if you're a daddy. Sorry dads. You have your own baggage I'm sure, but it's not mama guilt.
Mama guilt can be (but is certainly not limited to):
- feeling guilty for not breastfeeding long enough, or not at all, or for so long your child develops a permanent mouth blister and a severe oral fixation that leads to nail-biting, lip-chewing, pencil-gnawing, cigarette-smoking, or just constant lip-smacking - IT'S YOUR FAULT I'M THIS WAY MAMA
- feeling guilty for staying at home, working from home, or working from the office - WHY CAN'T YOU MAKE THE RIGHT CHOICE MAMA
- not being present enough or being too over-bearing - KNOW WHERE TO BE AND THEN BE THERE MAMA. NO NOT THERE. HERE. NOT SO CLOSE. BACK UP. COME CLOSER. WHY AREN'T YOU NEXT TO ME?!
- buying lots of gifts to show you care - YOU'RE SPOILING ME MAMA
- buying too few gifts to show that things aren't what really matters- I DON'T HAVE ANY POKEMON CARDS MAMA AND THE KIDS MAKE FUN OF ME
- no matter what you're doing, YOU'RE DOING IT WRONG MAMA
It's not true. You can't be doing something wrong if there's no actual way to do it right.
I take that back. (*cough* octomom *cough*)
Would we still have such a pronounced societal epidemic of mama guilt if we weren't such over-sharers? What if we stopped, completely, posting anything on social media that pertained to our kids or how we parent? I'm not recommending it, but I am what-iffing it.
We are constantly assessing ourselves, comparing ourselves to the moms we see on blogs and facebook and playgroups and in our kids' classrooms. Those amaaaazing moms. The moms that routinely volunteer, right by teacher's side. Every Tuesday. Never miss a class party. Always well-equipped with the ideal craft project. Perfectly in tune with all the bowel rhythms and shoe sizes of each student, and they never seem annoyed when the brat in the pigtails blatantly ignores the teacher's directions and draws on her hand instead of on the paper and then takes her inky hand and wipes it all over your child's clean-enough but not yet stained t-shirt. Her mom must be doing it WRONG, we think, cause it makes us feel an eensy bit better, for a second or so.
We judge each other. We judge ourselves. If self-judgment were an Olympic sport, women would take the gold, silver and the bronze. And then we'd feel bitter about whatever pedestal we were on. And then we'd probably give our medal to our kid.
But it just isn't possible that every other mom is raising her child quantifiably better than we're raising our own. Right? This is what I have told myself time and again when the ugly face of mama guilt gets right in my line of sight and nothing is in focus anymore.
My kids are kind. Most of the time. My kids are creative. And sometimes talk to themselves. My kids eat vegetables. When threatened. My kids hug me. Even when it's probably not the best time (like while holding a steaming cast iron skillet filled with scalding olive oil and burnt potatoes). My kids have friends. But ... not very many of them ... and they don't live in our neighborhood ... and their friends have friends they like better than my kids ... and they don't get invited on playdates ... and this is how the guilt finds me, even when the big ugly face isn't quite as obvious.
But still. It is usually enough to let one playful and loving exchange between my son and my daughter hold the guilt at bay through the duration of 10 backseat arguments. Or one enthusiastic "this is awesome, soup, Mom!" outweigh the unending refrain of "I hate broccoli." The carrots of parenting confidence are always there, but they're seldom within reach, cause there's almost always an ass in the way.
And then there's divorce. So I see my children 50% less than I used to. And when they're with me it's full-on, no rest, my energy and attention magically having to be directed to both of them AND get the house cleaned AND be a rockstar employee, friend, girlfriend and community member. All of it, 100% of the time. I cannot afford to waste time on petty grievances. Or by sitting still. I must parent like the biggest badass of them all. But with no money. And dwindling energy. And no one under the roof to say I'm doing things okay, except maybe the dog, and he just wants my leftovers. The mama guilt monster is bigger than before. Every little pebble of guilt that I carried with me before divorce, is now a boulder strapped to my ankle. It's no longer just mama guilt. It's mama failure.
At least that's how it feels when your ex texts you one night and asks "What is the appropriate level of anger when your almost 8 year old does _____ because he didn't want to _____? Because white-hot feels about right." And what he told me is jaw-dropping. It's so out there. So fucking WEIRD that I can't even bring myself to tell anyone but those very very close to me because I am AFRAID that my failure will now be unavoidably obvious. I raised him wrong, I think. My heart breaks as I digest the text. I tried but didn't try hard enough. I chose divorce. My CHOICES made my almost-8 year old do that weird thing. My son, my baby boy that I breastfed not enough/at all/too long did something that has left me stunned.
My ex assured me that there will be more weird stuff. I asked him what to expect, cause I don't know, I was never a boy. Maybe boys just do that. Do they? Well, I didn't, he says. But yeah, they do weird shit. So brace yourself.
I asked my son about it today. Cautiously. He says he has put it behind him. Fair enough, I say. And I repeat what I've repeated to him a thousand times and will repeat a million times more before he sprouts a wispy blonde moustache. "Talk to me," I say. "Not right now if you don't want. But talk to me about anything at all, cause when the world gets really frigging out there and you're confused as hell, talk to me. We can be confused together."
There's too much at stake here to fail. And I don't have the time to feel guilty about it.
Talk about your mama guilt. Share the times you've felt for sure you must have just failed at parenting because your child did something that alarmed you/scared you/creeped you the hell out. Cause jeezus, if we're going to be assessing each other against each other annnnyway, then at least let's do it because it's in all our best interest to be raising the very best little humans that we can.