The mom guilt narrative seems to start as soon as you’re pregnant.
The shame, the judgement, the constant stream of questions — are you sure you should have that glass of wine? Have you gained too much weight? Are you exercising enough? (Yes, my doctor doesn’t think so, absolutely not).
When I gave birth to my son Teddy last November, I quickly realized that there were a lot of unwritten rules outlining how I was supposed to walk through motherhood. It became clear that people generally don’t want to hear about the hard stuff. I had friends ask me not to send pictures of Teddy crying because “it was too sad.” Very rarely did people ask me how I was feeling, how I was adjusting to the biggest change in my entire life, if the massive shift in hormones paired with sleep deprivation was teetering on postpartum depression.
Instead, people gushed. “Isn’t this the best?! Isn’t this the most wonderful thing in the world?!” When I tried to push back with a bit of truth –“Yes, I love not sleeping”– people would laugh and remind me that “the worst is yet to come.” (Sidenote: I really hate this game mothers love to play. “You just wait until…” OK. We get it. It’s hard. Motherhood is always hard. Sure, it’s hard in different ways at different phases, but this phrase isn’t helpful to anyone.)
I mostly hated maternity leave.
My husband had two weeks of paid time off before he had to go back to work. He was wonderfully supportive when he was home, but the rest of the time it was just me. Every day was monotonous and lonely and exhausting and unproductive. I loved my son so much, but I had lost any semblance of my old self and not in a beautiful rebirth-into-motherhood sort of way. It was more like a-ragamuffin-all-I-do-is-wear-milk-stained-clothes and no-i-don’t-own-a-brush sort of way. Breastfeeding and pumping was sucking the life out of me (pun intended), and my sanity was slowly slipping away.
By the time my maternity leave was coming to a close, I couldn’t wait to go back to work.
I wanted so badly to do something other than change diapers and try to entertain an infant. I couldn’t wait to have eight hours “off” a day, and I couldn’t wait to hop out of my car and grab a coffee without having to lug a car seat inside with me. But then, like clockwork, the questions and projections from others began again. “You are going to miss him so much during the day,” “You’ll cry so much at first,” “Ugh, don’t you wish you could just not work and stay home with him all day?”
There was so much of this that I started to worry – is this going to be harder than I thought it would be?
My husband and I found a daycare we loved with a wonderful staff whom we trusted. Teddy was social, and we knew he would make friends quickly. We both went with him to drop him off on his first day. I waited to feel heartbroken and awful and question my decision to be a working mom, but those feelings didn’t come. I knew that for the next 8+ hours, the weight of the responsibility of caring for my child was delegated to the wonderful teachers at daycare, and I got to go be me for a bit, instead of just being Teddy’s mom.
I actually felt lighter.
I dove headfirst back into work. I felt like I was slowly becoming myself again after living in a strange-diaper-changing-robot-shell of myself for the last three months. But somehow, even in a world of supportive working moms, I couldn’t escape the mom guilt narrative coming at me from every angle. In articles and in person, I heard so many moms saying “I feel guilty every second I’m away from my kids,” and all I could think was really?
I started to feel broken, like I had a switch missing.
I love Teddy more than anything or anyone, but I also knew he was happy and thriving at daycare, and I was happy and thriving at work, so why was I supposed to feel guilty? And all of a sudden, I had mom guilt for not feeling mom guilt.
At first, I was afraid I was alone in this, but after talking to more moms I realized I wasn’t the only one who was “missing a piece.” I opened up more and had friends and colleagues lament. “I mean, how many times can you throw a ball to a baby who can’t play catch?” “I swear, I wonder if people are lying about this mom guilt thing because they think that’s what they’re supposed to feel..”
I realized I wasn’t the only one that felt a little left out of this mom guilt narrative, and that’s OK.
What I’m understanding more than anything (as a now-seasoned mom of 7.5 months, ha), is that there’s no “right” way to be a mom.
While we all have motherhood in common, we are a tribe of unique individuals that have different needs and paths to fulfillment. I know moms who find an incredible amount of fulfillment in staying home and raising children, and I know moms who find their fulfillment working full-time outside of the home, and, of course, there are a million shades of grey in between. But I don’t like this idea of what we “should” be doing or feeling as mothers because that takes away from our own stories as individuals. I think one thing we can all agree on is that when we feel fulfilled, we are better moms to our tiny humans.
If you’re like me and feeling mom guilt for not feeling mom guilt, know that you’re not broken or missing any pieces, you’re just you.
And you are a great mom.