Whenever someone asks me what it's like to be a fairly new mom, I'm always at a loss for words. Because really, how can you summarize the infinite number of hours that you spend bonding with this new human being with just a few words? The truth is, you can't. To bond with a 21-month-old means that there is more life to your seconds, to your minutes, and to your hours because they're moving at hyper speed, so curious with a desire to soak up the world. Most of the time, I feel like I couldn't keep up and even though my office is merely a few steps from where he is, I feel like I am missing out on something important when I close my door to attend to work.
I can't aptly describe what it's like to be a fairly new mom but what I can share with you is the sheer amount of guilt that I feel both as a mom and as a career woman. There's guilt when you turn off your computer to focus on your son and there's also guilt when you leave your son with a caretaker so you can focus on work. Every single day, there's nagging voices that I battle with as I attempt to respond to an email, absorb a work meeting, or just bond with my son. It's as if I am living parallel lives and they cannot meet even if they literally exist under the same roof. I've heard of mom guilt before but hearing about it is very different from being in the throes of it.
As Lauren Smith Brody notes, "Guilt became a reflex. And, addictively, it was my indoctrination into The Club. You know the club I'm talking about. The mom club. The club that lets you, with the roll of your eyes, bond with another incarcerated guilty mother. I liked the camaraderie, but did I really have to torture myself with self-flagellation to belong? It felt demeaning, like hazing."
Guilt was like this giant chip on my shoulder, forever whispering odd nothings - does he need to be in school already? Of course not, he's only 21 months old, how much Miss Rachel is too much? Nearly not enough on days where my calls go from 4 a.m. to 2 p.m. Does he need to make friends? But what about the still looming threat of the pandemic? When do I say no? Am I not being gentle enough in my parenting? And my most favorite one of all, does my son know that I love and value him?
However, I knew better than to let the voices drown me. My son needed a mom who was strong enough to overcome the voices. Instead of drowning in my guilt, I turned to the internet (not always a friendly place!) to google more about mom guilt. Thankfully, I was led to Lauren Smith Brody, author of the book The Fifth Trimester.
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The first thing she called out on is this idea that we're the only ones experiencing mom guilt, in fact, she says in an article for Today's Parent, "Turns out, guilt meant different things to different women. Their random-flower bouquets of emotions were as varied and motley as my own. But none of these women, to my eye, seemed like they actually had done anything wrong. So why were they punishing themselves? Collectively, they make a strong case: If everyone feels guilty, there is no other "better" mother to compare ourselves to. Mom guilt is a sham."
She also proceeds to say that in no way is mom guilt helpful on both a personal and cultural level. The article continues, "Research has shown that feeling guilty doesn't reform our future behavior. Rather, it gives more power to the part of the brain that seeks gratification."
Lauren also highlights the fact that there was no one way to become a parent or a worker, "There's no "behavior" to be reformed anyway. There are choices and compromises made in challenging circumstances: Biologically, we are built to have our children during what should be the boom years of our careers. Extended families live further apart. The school day ends hours before the workday. Most households need two incomes. The better question—a better use of our emotional energy as mothers—is this: How do we change those circumstances to help new parents feel supported so they can make compromises they're comfortable with?"
When I read that, something inside of me clicked, why do we like to pretend? As mothers, knowing how absolutely insane mom guilt is, do we pretend on our Instagram feeds and other social media channels that motherhood is a breeze? Why do we insist on just showcasing the beautiful parts of our days where our kids are absolutely angelic without highlighting just how hours before they were crying because we refused to let them draw on the couch for the nth time?
The secret to encouraging other moms lies in our transparency and authenticity – this doesn't mean just focusing on the bad (because hey that is also discouraging to moms everywhere) but just being honest about our journey. Honesty is the foundation of being brave enough to accept what is, make the necessary choices to change it (if it needs changing), and ultimately giving our children and ourselves the best we can in that moment. When we sit in our guilt, nothing really moves but when we sit in our truth, we ultimately become better, whether in life or as a mother.
As Lauren Brody Smith concludes, "When I give talks about my research, I like to end on an Australian study that looked at what it takes to get through that awful feeling of wanting to quit—something a lot of the mothers I interviewed told me was tied tightly to their feelings of guilt. The research is shockingly simple: People need to feel valued. When you feel valued—as a worker, as a parent—you become, the researchers found, more confident in your compromises. I love that. I love the acknowledgment that there are always going to be compromises we make as mothers striving to maintain our own identities while nurturing others."
Breathe a little today and tell that voice of guilt to hit the road because you are doing the best that you can with what you have and at the end of the day, that is all that matters.