mom kissing two children

Mom Guilt.

The other morning, I had inveigled micro into playing with his toys in his crib — an increasingly challenging feat as he only ever wants to be sprinting, unfettered, from one end of the apartment to the other — while I quickly changed into my exercise clothes, hurrying through the selection of spandex and jamming my feet into my socks with haste. As I dashed back out the bedroom door, I paused at the monitor and realized that my son was still happily engaged with his toys. I hovered for a minute in indecision and then, with a feeling of strange disorientation, sat down on the couch. “Maybe I can just sit here for a sec and check my emails? Scroll through Instagram?” At the same time: “This is your one-on-one time with your son! Go to him! Play with him! His nanny will be here in nine minutes and then you will only occasionally cross paths with him until five, when all hell breaks loose and you are wrangling a tired, hungry three year old and a tired, hungry one year old and the likelihood of a quiet moment to work on a puzzle with your baby is nil.”

And so what might have been a quiet moment to myself disappeared into the familiar frenzy of mom guilt, and I heaved myself off the sofa to sit with my boy on the floor of his bedroom.

Why do we do this?

I feel as though I am permanently lodged between the mantras “babies don’t keep” and “moms deserve self-care, too.” And the conditions under which we have been living during this pandemic have deepened, or reified, my sensitivities to both.

I remember one time telling my mother, in a week of chaos (I believe this was around when I was moving apartments, very sick, adjusting mini to her first year of school, and nursing my newborn son), that I’d had to “clear my schedule and remind myself that my number one job is caring for my children.” My mom had said: “No, honey. Your number one job is caring for yourself.” The earnestness in her voice and the fact that I have always borne the impression that she has put herself last (meaning that, even if she has always been caring fully for herself, there has also always been room to keep us nurtured and tended to) were revelations. But I still hurry through my showers and wallow in self-reproach if I am on my phone while my children are playing around me or too tired to want to play with mini’s Calico Critters alongside her. I always feel as though I should be giving them more of myself.

Two weeks ago, Mr. Magpie and I went out on our first proper date night since early March. It was the first night in seven months that I had not sat at the dining room table, force-feeding my children dinners they do not want, reminding them to keep their bottoms in their seats or their broccoli on their high chair trays, cajoling them into pajamas, returning them to bed after unauthorized excursions, fetching urgently-needed water cups, saying prayers, singing with varying degrees of enthusiasm “O Little Town of Bethlehem” (“the one from when I was little,” as mini calls this song–as if she is not little anymore) not once but twice in the exhausted hush of the seven p.m. hour. The minute Mr. Magpie and I closed the apartment door behind us on our way out to dinner, we danced, recklessly and joyously, in the elevator bank. “We’re freeeeeeeeeeee, baby!” Mr. Magpie said. We laughed at ourselves, giddy and ecstatic and footloose.

Of course, I checked my phone no less than four times at the dinner table, wondering whether our nanny would have questions about their bedtime routine or run into trouble with our occasionally stubborn three-year-old. Of course, we talked at length about our children over glasses of wine and outrageously delicious cacio e pepe and fennel-flecked sausage lasagnette at Il Buco Alimentaire.

But I was surprised by my relief. I was surprised that I did not for a single moment feel guilty about the excursion and in fact felt a pang of disappointment as we headed back uptown. I was surprised that the next morning, I felt like a better mom: eager to see the children, more willing than usual to get down on the floor of the nursery and play with dinosaur figurines.

My mom guilt kept edging in on my true-born feelings of restoration: “Shouldn’t you feel bad you feel so good right now?”

UGH! Leave me alone!

But there it was: the truth: that I need a real break every now and then. That work is not a break. That errands are not a break. That sitting in our living room after the children are asleep is not even a full break, because there is always the chance that once of them will wake or that I will sidetrack into picking up toys or worrying that I did not turn on the night light. But getting outside, going to dinner, turning my parenting knob all the way off (or, at least, on super-low) is, and I need that space every now and then.

Now just how to get that mom guilt off my back…

Who can relate?

Post Scripts.

+This dress in the brown is absolutely adorable! Possible Thanksgiving dinner contender.

+Love this knit sweater jacket — can’t decide whether to go with black or camel. I am dismayed by how much I’m drawn to black this year! I feel like I’m becoming a true New Yorker without meaning to.

+Baby gear I wish I’d bought.

+These wide leg cropped pants came (they are currently marked down to like $15 in the color I got — “ivory frost”) and are SO cute! I’ll be pairing with finer knit sweaters like this and this for a flattering silhouette.

+Speaking of chic sweaters: I absolutely love this. The buttons, the sleeve, the color, the fabric. So good.

+Fall Vejas!

+I was reluctant at first about the polo sweater styles I’ve been seeing everywhere — I thought they might be a little slouchy and masculine for me — but this cashmere style may have changed my mind.

+Love this cheery little bucket bag.

+Melamine bowls in a cheery blue and white print – these are great options for children’s snacks/cereal/ice cream.

+Trust me when I say you need this during sweater weather. I’m obsessed.

+Love this fun silver tray even just for decorating the top of a sideboard or serving cocktails and snacks.

+A woman of serious backbone.

+This is a condiment caddy but my favorite elegant way to serve up an arrangement of snacks while enjoying cocktail hour — fill each with a different treat, like marcona almonds, truffle potato chips, and sesame sticks.

+These wood-topped glass storage bins are CRAZY chic.

+These Gucci logo sweaters are so loud and fun.

+The best bags for fall.

+Getting a lot of mileage out of this chic headband this fall.

26 Comments

  1. That date night sounds so lovely!

    I SO hear you on the mom guilt, Jen. When I lose my cool with my toddler I feel guilty about it for at least 3 days after… ugh.

    One thing I learned from my therapist that has helped me with guilt is to avoid thinking of things in an either/or way; rather it’s most often both/and. I feel that this captures the push-pull of motherhood — and all the emotions that go along with it — so well. For instance I can BOTH love my daughter fiercely AND need space from my daughter. I can love being a mother AND miss the aspects of the person I was before motherhood. Both of those emotions are valid. I can be a calm parent AND lose my cool sometimes.

    I stay home with my daughter during the week, but I recently started doing my writing work on weekends to try and get some research published, and found a separate, quiet space outside our home to do so (we’re not comfortable with child care just yet, hence only on weekends when my husband takes care of her). The first weekend I worked, it felt ah-mazing, to tune back into my old self. At the end of the weekend, I felt like I genuinely MISSED my daughter, and it was an almost foreign emotion — as I had not had the opportunity to miss her since March! It was interesting too, that for maybe the first time, I felt ZERO guilt, and I think it’s this “both/and” thinking I learned about that helped. That I can both love her and give of myself fully AND also give to myself by allowing myself the separate time and space to do my own thing and have some healthy boundaries (which I felt was sorely lacking for me during our sheltering-in-place). After missing her, I felt like I connected with her in a new way that following Monday… that I showed up for her better.

    Here’s to refilling our cups however we can!

  2. I empathize with you and all of the other commenters who are experiencing this special brand of guilt! I also feel it (albeit to a lesser extent), being a stepmom to two. I love Amy’s suggestion to schedule in “me time” and, of course, your own mom’s generous and wise advice that caring for yourself should always come first. My mom has always said the same to me — it’s not possible to care for others in the best way unless you yourself are healthy, sane, etc.!

    I love that KULE bucket bag, too! Did you see the collab they just released with Madewell? I have my eye on a few items…

    xx

    1. Ugh SO good. They are so serving what I want right now.

      And for sure — it’s so true about needing to make sure your own cup is full before sharing yourself with others. xx

  3. The mom guilt is SO real, but your wise mother is so so right. A night off from bedtime, a few minutes here and there- it makes a huge difference! I completely agree that you feel recharged and like a better mom after the fact xo

    1. Yes!! What is it about the break from bedtime routines that was especially rejuvenating? Thanks for chiming in here! Always so nice to connect with other moms experiencing the same things. xx

  4. Oh gosh yes absolutely feel this. Carving time for myself has been increasingly difficult with each child! I have yet to leave all three for more than a glass of wine with a neighbor (after bedtime no less!). I hate rushing through showers and the tiny pockets of time for me… and yet I feel like I’m never playing enough with someone etc! It doesn’t help that I’m everyone’s favorite!

    1. I so hear you — ahhh! How to work our way through this? I like the earlier suggestion of blocking out “me time” in your schedule just as you might time to play, bathe, feed the children. I do think taking a little time for myself makes me a better mom…

      xx

  5. Hi Jen! I totally think mom guilt is real and something I relate to, as a SAHM of an almost one year old. I do want to throw a different concept out there too, in case it resonates: the pathology of productivity. Your first example of wanting to sit on the couch and chill for a bit but feeling like you needed to play with your son made me think of this. When I find myself in situations like that, sometimes I wonder: was I EVER good at just letting myself chill? Letting myself do “nothing” and not feeling guilty for it? Or did I always derive some sense of worth from doing, doing, doing, to the point where being productive is (somewhat) of a personal obsession, and I can’t let myself rest? Sometimes I think it’s mom guilt, sometimes I think it’s the latter. For whatever reason, I find myself more able to tackle my pathological need to produce than my mom guilt. So I’ll remind myself of little mantras: you are a human being not a human doing, rest IS revolutionary, and the like. 🙂 Just some thoughts. Xoxo.

    1. Joyce – this is so astute! I do think part of this is the need to always be doing things — going to tuck that away and evaluate next time I am beleaguered by that creeping feeling of guilt. Thank you as always for the thoughts you share around centeredness in your comments.

      xx

    2. I get a little off topic in my comment below, but it is related (in my mind, at least!) —

      This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately in schools, spurred on by posts from Liz Kleinrock and the Nap Ministry: disrupting grind culture.

      Teachers are taught in grad school to “over-plan” and always have something in your “bag of tricks/toolbox” so as to avoid the dreaded 5 minutes left of class with nothing to do. But they’ve got me thinking: what is so bad about letting kids do nothing? We ingrain children from an early age to always be working and moving to the next thing to be completed. Why can’t I just say “take a moment to relax” when kids tell me they’re finished with their work? Teach them to enjoy resting after finishing something?

      I’m trying to be more intentional in my planning this year – to not pack my class periods with so much STUFF. I’m finding that we are spending more time digging into a singular topic rather than rushing from content to content, skill to skill. And if we finish early, we rest.

      Anyway, I think it relates: we were taught in school to always be productive, so it stands to reason that we feel that way about parenthood/adulthood – that these things are actions, and resting means we aren’t “doing our jobs.” Let’s disrupt this in the classrooms so that the next generation doesn’t feel this way.

    3. This is fascinating and so well-put, Anne. Also slightly tangential to your point, but one thing I occasionally think about is a class I took at UVA on the rise of “dandyism” at the end of the 19th century. One of the points the professor made was that at the time, everyone talked about “bile” as a kind of loose pathologization of a vague form of angst/anxiety that many people then experienced. Before that, generations had talked about “humors” in a similar way. Nowadays, we talk about “stress” as a parallel catch-all, though I have to imagine that the notions of productivity, wellness, being our best selves, self-actualization, etc that are so prevalent in so much pop culture and the general cultural identity/imagination of our times has put even more pressure on us all. Anyway, I like the idea of taking a minute to ask why we’re all rushing around and anxious to optimize every portion of our lives. One of my good friends often says: “Life happens between the drumbeats.” It is so true. It’s the quiet moments, the routine habits, the little exchanges that really form the fabric of our lives. Might be nice to focus on those instead of the drumbeats.

      I’m sort of rambling here, but just to say you’ve stirred some serious thinking in me. I appreciate it.

      xx

  6. FYI…Mom guilt remains very similar generation after generation. So mothers, prepare your daughters!
    I love that cashmere polo sweater. Just GORGEOUS!
    Please let me forewarn you NOT to go to black clothing too soon, because as you get older your only choice of age appropriate dresses, tops, pants, etc will only be in black. Let it be a color you look forward to wearing later in life. For now, enjoy variety in your wardrobe!

    1. I hear you Cynthia! Will try to stave off the impulse towards black. I LOVE color! I have to remind myself of that.

      Isn’t that cashmere polo gorgeous?!!

      xx

  7. Jen, sometimes I feel like we are living such parallel lives! We, too, just went on our first date night since February and it was glorious! I ordered a drink and dessert and felt zero guilt about any of it.

    I also relate to rushing through my time “alone” – showers, errands, walks, yoga (“do I really have time for this savasana?”). And, on the flip side, getting extra annoyed lately when I do try to squeeze in something for myself during nap or after bedtime and someone wakes up early and needs me. Or I’m just trying to finish the last three pages of this book for heaven sake! Five minutes is all I ask!!

    It’s a tough time (early motherhood) on top of a tough time (global pandemic) to be a mom. Here’s to letting ourselves off the hook just a tiny bit more this week. As they say in What About Bob…baby steps! 😉

    1. Yes — yes — yes! To everything you wrote here. It is a tough time on top of a tough time — baby steps indeed.

      xx

  8. Ugh…I can definitely relate to this one. I find mom guilt is “loudest” when my attention is divided. If I designate time for myself (this is my time to shower, drink hot coffee, read, etc.) and treat it the same as the designated times for playing, helping with homework, work, errands it helps ease my guilt. Similar to the philosophy you use for running — just build it into your day. If I don’t do this, I tend to get mad at my husband later for some silly reason (the real reason of course being resentment for him being able to have his “me time”). Sometimes my kids won’t nap at the “right” times or things will come up, but the older two tend to respect my time because they know they have their time with me too. I also try to remind myself I gave them siblings for a reason! It’s good from them to learn to play with and help one another. This is all a long way of explaining my “me time” is good for everyone! Anyway, I think this is a struggle for all moms and everyone just has to find the balance that feels right for their families. Xx

    1. This is SO helpful, Amy. I’d never thought about it that way — that reading/showering can be conceived of as blocks of intentional time versus sneaking something in when I should be doing something else. Thank you for that! Breakthrough!

    2. It’s harder than it sounds of course, but I am trying to be more intentionally about my time, even when it’s being used for me (which always feels so unproductive — such a trigger word for me — but so important these days).

  9. It is so hard! I never understood the lament that there are not enough hours (or minutes, really) in the day until having a baby. The hours after work feel like a game of mental tetris, trying to fit in play time with a tired one-year-old, a walk for the dog, dinner prep for everyone – I feel you. And the guilt of choosing to go to a workout class or out to dinner knowing that I’m foregoing my already too-short time with the baby… I try to just tell myself that there simply aren’t enough minutes in the day, so all I can do is weigh one evening at a time against the balance of a week.

    It helps sometimes when I think of my own parents having weekly evenings out and taking time for their own hobbies, and I appreciated it even as a child. It made me see them as their own people and look forward the idea of being a grown up with interests and a life out in the world.

    Anyway – good luck to you! I know it’s not easy, but even the micro decisions are the right ones for your family and yourself in the moment.

    1. I love this so much, Sarah – so many gems here, especially “all I can do is weight one evening at a time against the balance of the week.” That is so right. Especially during this pandemic, I feel it has helped to focus on the hyper-local, the right here and right now that I can control versus “oh my gosh what will we do in six months if…” Thanks for that!

      xx

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