At the same time we were starting our families, social media was exploding into our daily lives. Pinterest was born the same year as my oldest child. Facebook, Instagram, and elaborate blogs created unattainable, flawless visions of motherhood. I bought into these facades, struggling to force myself into the role of what I thought being a mom was supposed to look and feel like.
It took me several years and a few kids, but I did break the destructive habit of social media comparison. My self-worth as a mom is no longer tied up in what other moms are doing, what my children eat, or in the fact that I hate pretend play.
Instead I ask myself: “Do my children know they are cherished?” And I make sure I can always answer “Yes.”
Yet, in the last few weeks, I’ve felt the mom guilt lurking. It was hard enough being a mom of young kids in the world of social media. But then came the coronavirus pandemic. And even barely a few weeks in, it’s clear that corona guilt takes mom guilt to a new level.
As schools closed, social media immediately erupted with color coded charts telling parents how to allot our newfound days home with our children. I scanned the neat, hour-long blocks looking for any reference to: Stop ten-month-old baby from finding the one tiny choking hazard you missed in your constant picking up and cleaning / Sibling fighting / Everyone is hungry, again / Parents fitting in work for their jobs / Someone spilled glue all over the carpet / etc….
I felt defeated before the quarantine even started. And on top of the mom guilt for not feeling like I was doing enough, I felt guilt for being frustrated by my healthy children.
Mom guilt stems from us wanting what is best for our children. We pressure ourselves to “enjoy every moment,” which is counterintuitive; this added pressure is often what prevents us from appreciating motherhood.
Parents think, “We must give all of our time and energy to them, because what happens when they grow up?” And, worst of all we think, in unspoken silences: “What if one of our children dies? Will we be filled with regret if we don’t constantly pretend-play with them”?
Well, I understand. Almost two years ago, we lost our perfectly healthy, cherished three-year-old son to a tragic accident in a moment. As I continue to climb out of this grief pit of hell, his death redefines all I believe about life and motherhood.
Would I give anything to go back to that horrific night and change the future? Would I trade my own heartbeat for his life without hesitation? Of course I would. God, if it only it worked that way. But, it does not.
Our son Levi knew he was adored. His life was filled with love, and I refuse to discount his joy-filled years by letting regret sneak in over how often I played pretend trains with him. I faced a parent’s worst nightmare, and it revealed to me that my mom guilt was not justified. My son’s life was filled with love, and this love is not diminished because I also let him watch TV. It just isn’t. Period.
I have learned firsthand that the meaning in a childhood is measured in how much love it holds. Make sure they know they are loved, and the rest will fall into place. That’s the secret.
Yet, within the last few weeks, the multi layers of corona guilt were causing panic to build inside me. Comments from people without young kids at home further discouraged me. I know people mean well, but advice like “Play a board game!” is frustrating. My kids are out of school until August: five months. We can’t go to the playground, the library, or swimming, can’t have sleepovers, or even visit their grandparents. Our children had the lives they knew snatched away overnight. This is not a snow day or random Monday holiday. Even if we do play a board game, there are still 23 hours left in the day. For many, many days.
Of course, there have been moments of peace and purpose in the midst of the chaos. I am determined to create pockets of meaning out of this strange turn of events. I do not take time with my children for granted; I know the alternative. But, it is still reasonable that parents feel overwhelmed. And, admitting feelings of, well…defeat…is not the sign of a selfish parent. Rather, it is exactly because we give so much of ourselves to our children that we feel drained. Why must parents feel shame for admitting they are occasionally tired and frustrated?
There are the physical demands and lack of sleep that come with parenting young children. Yet, the mental toll seems to zap my energy first: the incessant barrage of COVID-19 news as I try to be appropriately informed while also balancing worries over my children’s potential to get sick. My husband is an anesthesiologist and must still work at the hospital: what if he gets sick? Who will keep my children safe if I get sick? And, mixed in with these overwhelming fears is the steady stream of interruptions from my children. Most parents can attest to the feeling of living our lives in two-minute chunks, as we filter snack requests, crying babies, household chores (how is there always so much laundry?!?), this new added task of home-schooling, and for many, also working from home. The struggle to complete even a simple task from start to finish is not exactly a boost for our mental sanity.
When I look at the expanse of days of stretching before me, it’s easy to panic over fears of health, security, and the unknown. This time will be challenging enough without mom guilt crippling my days.
Mom guilt is not productive; on the contrary, it just takes energy from my already stretched mental capacity. So, I am breaking the habit. Mom guilt is no longer allowed into my life. It is taking mental willpower, but any time it tries to sneak up, I just mentally flick it away before it even has a chance to take hold. If someone (in real life or on social media) makes my mom guilt gauge start to rise, I quietly unfollow them. It is even possible to mute people on social media without them ever knowing. I am fortunate to have a mom-squad of friends who always lift me up and are honest about their own frustrations as a mom. Seek out these people and run away from the others.
After 11 years of parenting, I have also figured out what feels meaningful to me as a parent: reading with my kids, spending time outside, and crafting. I focus on activities that fill me up as a mom. This looks different for every mom.
I am even more aware of what does not work for me. It took me several years with my oldest before I realized I was allowed to feel this way, but: I hate pretend play. Tea parties, playing with LOL dolls, pretending to be a fairy—it’s just not going to happen, because it turns out I am not seven years old. Attempting to cook or bake with my children causes me to break out into a sweat and lose my patience over every spilled sprinkle. So, I avoid those activities and instead guide my children toward activities that do not so quickly deplete my patience or energy.
This doesn’t mean I am not grateful for my children and my home. I will never take my children’s health for granted. I would give anything to have all four of my children with me during this quarantine. Just because I lose my patience or wish for a few minutes of silence doesn’t negate my love for them.
As I navigate my child-loss grief, I have learned that sadness can co-exist with happiness. In the same way, I can enjoy parenting while also being frustrated. We can love our children with our whole hearts but also want three minutes alone and a clean kitchen.
I refuse to dedicate any more energy to the toxic cycle of mom guilt. At night, I will not promise myself that “I made mom-mistakes today, but everything will be perfect tomorrow.” Nope. Because it won’t. Perfection is not the goal. I’m not giving myself permission to just be mediocre. Rather, I am focusing only on what works for my family and my situation — not on unrealistic ideas of enjoying every moment or what other people’s social media highlight reels portray.
Obviously, mom guilt is nowhere near the worst part of this pandemic. Trust me, I know real tragedy and am not implying that these feelings are in the same category as stress over health, finances, government decisions, or despair over losing a loved one.
Yet, Mom guilt is real, and it is not productive or beneficial for us or our children. We have a finite amount of mental energy. It is better invested in areas that actually deserve this attention and not in toxic comparisons about who is quarantining better or who has it harder.
There is so much we cannot control today or for our future. But, mom guilt is one that we can. Choose to break the habit. If your kids are watching TV while you do laundry, read a book, or even mindlessly scroll social media, it is ok. Despite what the pressures of our society tell us, we are allowed to be a person and a mom at the same time.
If you have older kids, please, I am begging you, refrain from offering advice about what this time should be like for those of us with small kids still at home. Even if you mean well, it is not helpful when you tell us to “enjoy every minute,” as if that is even reasonable. Instead, validation and encouragement will do wonders for an exhausted mama’s heart.
Let’s acknowledge that we are grieving the effects of this crisis. Let’s support each other and kick our own mom guilt to the curb. Stop panicking that one day you will look back and regret not enjoying every second. Make your future (hopefully-more-well-rested) self promise right now that you just won’t allow that type of unfair, irrational nostalgia to judge your past self.
Love your kids well, spend time with them (but not every minute), and the rest will fall into place.