Erin Schoen Marsh
Parent Guilt: The Internal Struggle between Autonomy and Parenthood
Updated: Apr 2, 2018
Simple events that single people take for granted--getting a haircut or enjoying a drink with a friend--become sources of guilt after becoming mothers.
Taking time for ourselves elicits a plethora of complicated, irrational feelings. Why do we feel guilty for doing something for ourselves? Do fathers feel this same guilt? If not, why is that?
I work from home with my two kids, ages 2 and 5, and squeeze in work during independent play and naptime. Sometimes my 2-year-old will close my laptop and say, “No this,” which of course makes me feel awful for neglecting my children for work.
Yet I know my husband feels no remorse for working (nor should he), and he doesn’t see the kids for ten consecutive hours, five days a week. I’m taking a few (frequently interrupted) hours out of each day to get some writing and editing done.
Add to that my self-reproach over taking time for myself to exercise, plus the few times a week that I teach yoga, and the guilt compounds into practically unbearable proportions.
Besides the tears from my kids when I leave, I transfer the undertaking of childcare to my husband with my absence. My husband works long hours, frequently toiling into the night after the kids go to bed, and he also needs respite.
As I know all too well, caring for children is exhausting, even if they are two wonderful, generally well-behaved kids. So then I feel ashamed for shifting the parental responsibilities to my husband, even if for only a couple hours at a time.
Paying for a babysitter isn’t feasible on a regular basis, and even if it was, then we would be deducting from the already limited amount of family time we have. There’s no easy answer.
Yet the truth is that kids benefit from spending time alone with the parent who works out of the home. Theoretically, that alone time can also help develop an appreciation for what stay-at-home parents do on a daily basis.
Babysitters expose kids to new situations and help them become comfortable with caregivers outside of the family--another beneficial situation. I know these things to be true, yet I still feel guilty.
Time away is not only good for my kids, but also for my own peace of mind. I’m more patient and understanding after some time to recharge, and I miss my kids so fervently that I appreciate our time together even more after some time apart.
So then why do I, and many parents all over the world, feel this overwhelming guilt whenever we take time away from our family? Is it instinctual? Or a learned guilt from society?
Honestly, I don’t know the answers (but I’d love to hear what you think). I just know this guilt doesn’t benefit me in any way, so I need to practice letting go of it.
Subconsciously, I think I have this image of what it means to be a perfect mother, and that includes never needing time away for myself and paying attention to my kids 24/7. I should be able to endlessly give of myself, my time, and my energy, and when I fall short of that unrealistic expectation, I feel guilty.
Then when an external force adds to that feeling--such as my son crying when I leave or my husband asking what took me so long--the remorse becomes overwhelming. I need time away for my sanity, but by taking that time, I deal instead with guilt. It’s a catch-22.
Deborah Adele in The Yamas & Niyamas writes, “In all the ways that we impose an outside image of ourselves onto ourselves, we are stealing from the unfolding of our own uniqueness. All demands and expectations we place on ourselves steal from our own enthusiasm. All...judgments, criticisms, and demands for perfection are forms of self-abuse in which we destroy the very essence of our vitality.”
I want desperately to be a wonderful mother. I know I’m a good mom, but I’m not perfect. Each time I snap at my kids, wish for a break, or ignore them to cook, clean, or work, I deal with the guilt.
I rationally know that they don’t need my nonstop attention. In fact, I think allowing them independence has given both of them especially creative, imaginative minds. However, sensible thinking does little to appease this feeling.
What DOES help is when other people--moms, dads, college kids--scoff when I hint at my guilt and emphasize the importance of self-care. It’s small, but affirmations from others, even strangers, help put my mind at ease and lessen the guilt.
I vow to continue to do the same for other parents, and for all of you who have appeased my guilt over the years, thank you. And keep it coming.