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November 7, 2018
I volunteered in my daughter’s kindergarten classroom last week. I sat squeezed onto one of those little teeny chairs for an hour and a half, cutting out paper strips in orange and yellow for the fall classroom paper chain garlands, feeling less like I was doing a great deed for my daughter (or the children of humanity) and more like a factory worker without a bathroom break (for more on taking a break if you’re a working mom or a stay-at-home mom, click here for our free guide). My daughter, however, remembers it differently, and shared boastfully with her sister around the dinner table that “Mommy spent special time with me today,” even adding, “It was the best.”
To be honest, I signed up because I felt like I should. The temptation to give into mommy guilt has been stronger than ever since my eldest started elementary school this August. I’m not really sure how that’s possible. Heading back to work after maternity leave was a trial, missing out on zoo dates and library times in the preschool years sometimes got me teary, but elementary school? Things should be easier, it seemed to me as I mentally prepared for the year.
Nope. I was wrong. Now, with the schedule and structure of school life, things seemed somehow more complicated, with way more opportunities to miss something important or to just feel like I was missing out. At first I thought it was the constant influx of papers to sign or the fundraising kick-offs that made it so overwhelming, but then this happened: A little, innocent message popped onto my mobile screen at 9 o’clock on a Wednesday from the app my kid’s kindergarten teacher uses to communicate with all the class parents.
My heart sank. The event, the message said, was a week away. There was absolutely no way I could make it. I had a full panel of patients already lined up and a staff of people depending on me to show up in my office. I imagined my daughter sitting alone, crying, eating her boring lunch on some scratchy hay bale.
Yep, that message made me think pretty hard about just how good a mom I am and what it actually means to be a good mom. It got in my head, making me question, even though I’ve been on the “it takes a village to raise a child and I’m not the only person in that village” train for as long as I can remember, if I was messing up my kids by not being available to them 24-7.
Here’s what I realized after soul-searching for a day and a half (listen carefully because this might change your whole worldview like it did for me):
My kids are watching me all the time. They see me hustling hard to reach my goals, and being 100 percent committed to my vision for myself and for them. No, I’m never going to crochet them intricate Halloween costumes or greet them with homemade cookies in the afternoon, but I am going to give them a shining example of how to contribute to their communities and how to make a difference in other peoples’ lives. I’m going to show them that the best version of any girl, or of any mom, or of any person, for that matter, is the version that is unapologetically true to herself. Above, all, I’m going to be completely invested in my children in the ways that really matter, giving them support, attention, and love.
Maybe you love being a stay-at-home-mom, or you work part-time. That’s great! Own it. Mommy guilt doesn’t start and stop with work choices—we all know that. We all have to resist comparing ourselves to other moms or trying to be something that we’re not, no matter how we spend our days. Just like we have to prioritize our priorities when it comes to self-care, we also have to prioritize where and how we spend our time when it comes to mothering.
It doesn’t matter that Julie’s mommy packs only organic, handmade zucchini muffins each day (that I’m sure she spends all day preparing) in her kids’ lunches or that Jake’s mother volunteers twice a week in the classroom but you don’t. Maybe your contribution to your kids’ lives looks different. You might be a music lover who can teach your kids to embrace life by throwing impromptu dance parties on a Tuesday night. You might be an expert business exec, who can teach her kids how to negotiate well for themselves, avoiding risky behaviors based on peer pressure down the line. We’re all wired differently and that’s okay.
Now, are there moms (working and non-working, by the way) who truly damage their kids by over-prioritizing themselves and by neglecting their children’s emotional needs? Yes, of course. I’m not giving a green light here on complete DIY mothering without guidance and accountability. I bet, though, that’s not you. The vast majority of mothers I meet are on the other end of the spectrum—they’re trying so hard to not let their kids or some imaginary vision of perfect motherhood down that they miss out on actually enjoying mom life.
Tons of families come to my clinic asking about family dinners. They’ve heard a lot about their importance on social media and in books they’ve read. The truth is, family dinners are just one example of providing times throughout the day and week that our kids can count on. Kids thrive on routine. There are always times we have to make adjustments, but if you build in planned times to connect that your kids can count on, that is more important than you being physically present with your children 24 hours a day.
It’s so much worse to spend all day on your smartphone while your child tries to get your attention than to take care of what you need to do in a chunk of concentrated time and then give our kids the undivided attention they deserve. Make the time you spend with your children purposeful instead of distracted and you’ll enjoy it more and not wish you were somewhere else the whole time. If you’ve taken your own time to take care of yourself, this won’t be such a challenge.
Allow other caretakers to be team members who provide the same level of consistency you do to your children (if you caught our blog last week, we talked all about this). Nine out of ten weekends in our house, my husband makes waffles and takes the kids to the park while I do something solo. The next morning we switch and I do something special with them. Both of us get our time to re-boot and we’re less resentful of each other’s free time. Plus we get some individual moments with our kids to make memories.
Pro Tip: You’ll do a better job avoiding the mommy guilt, actually taking care of your kids well, and not getting bogged down in have-tos and need-tos if you figure out what YOU really need first. That takes a lot of filtering, I know (read here about how to do more of that). It takes a lot of seemingly selfish moves to get to where you need to be. It takes forging a new path for modern moms, one based less on a “do it all” and “be it all” mentality and much more on an “I have time for my top priorities” kind of life.
My daughter attended the pumpkin patch field trip without a parent. My mom went in my place. Guess what? It wasn’t some huge catastrophe. She didn’t cry, she wasn’t sad. She had a great time and told all her friends, “My mommy couldn’t come because she’s making sure people don’t get Polio today (since I’m a pediatrician)” and “My daddy couldn’t come because he’s helping people walk today (since he’s a physical therapist).” When I got home from work, we got out our pumpkin carving kit, listened to Hamilton on repeat, and talked about how she planned to be an artist-mathematician-coffee shop owner who sells my book with each latte. We’ll see how it all plays out but I couldn’t be prouder of her or of us—unapologetically content with our dreams and our household.
Most of the time, we’ve got to listen to our conscience—it keeps us out of trouble and rights us when we veer off track. But sometimes, our conscience is just a front for guilt, for expectations, for things that don’t serve us or our kids. The bad news? Those things aren’t going away any time soon—paradigms change slowly. The good news? Your kids don’t need you to be perfect and polished, conformed to someone else’s expectations. They need you to be confident just being you…and that, mama, you can do right away.
Want more information about how to parent and cope when you’re a new mom? Check out our book, The Newborn Baby Blueprint: Preparing to Care For Your Infant and Yourself.
Looking for baby registry or baby shower gifts? You’ll love our Newborn Gift Boxes (in Baby Boy, Baby Girl, and Gender Neutral). They’re full of information, inspiration, and a little love for all the mamas and mamas-to-be in your life (including you!).
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