The sources of guilt in the early days of motherhood can be numerous and all-consuming. Here's why you should give yourself a break, starting right now. Don't let these common guilt trips trip you up!
Why Don't I Love Every Minute of Motherhood?
The image of Mother that we have filed away in our head -- selfless, always caring and available -- is hard to live up to. Although you're in love with your new baby, you're not always in love with how much work it requires to care for her. "I felt guilty about enjoying my newborn best when she was sleeping," recalls Jessica Engelhart, of Hoboken, New Jersey, mom to Julia, 2 1/2 years old. Moreover, the pervasive idea that your life should revolve around your baby can breed guilt when you go out alone with your spouse or, horrors, do something for yourself. "I feel guilty when I do things like getting my hair done," says Deborah Moniaci, of Brooklyn, New York, mother of 5-month-old Gabriella. Though, she adds, "when I actually do something for myself, I come back feeling so refreshed and rejuvenated, I'm happier to see my daughter. So I hope that I remember those feelings for the next time."
Am I Doing Everything Right?
The plethora of child-rearing advice out there makes your job as a parent easier, but also harder. It's great that all this information is available, but it ends up putting a lot of pressure on moms to have all the answers. "Throughout that first year, I pored over articles and harassed my friends. How long should I breastfeed? Can he sleep with us once in a while? Am I going to damage him if I let him cry it out?" says Kristen Donohue, of Verona, New Jersey, mom to Bobby, 3, and Sean, 8 months. "The list went on and on. I never felt I was doing things perfectly or doing enough for my sweet baby."
The fact that the advice you hear or read is often conflicting -- two people saying different things -- can make you second-guess everything. The key is to remember that there really is no right way to be a mom. "Eventually I realized that I had to just trust myself and know that I was doing the best I possibly could," Donohue says. "That's all any of us can do." Another way to ease those nagging insecurities is to be supportive of other moms' choices too.
Should I Go Back to Work?
Your work situation can easily top the list of things that spark guilt when you have a baby. "You're guilty that you do want to work, that you don't want to work, that you have to work, and then you feel guilty when you leave your child to go to the job," Berman says.
"What makes me feel most guilty is that although we're in a financial situation where we can afford to have me stay home, I have no desire to," says Kelly Bikel, of Bentonville, Arizona, mother of Eve, 20 months, and Will, 8 months. "I enjoy having time where I don't need to be the one worrying about whether they're doing enough of everything they're supposed to be doing. And although I feel guilty about not wanting to stay home, I do believe that it makes me appreciate the time I have with them more."
If you're struggling with this issue, Berman recommends taking a wait-and-see approach. Whatever you're doing now -- working or not -- doesn't have to be permanent, she says. If you're miserable, you can make a change -- though there may not be a perfect solution. "Sometimes the decision is the better of two imperfect choices," adds Debra Gilbert Rosenberg, author of Motherhood Without Guilt.
Every Minute of My Baby's Life Isn't Quality Time
Whether you're a working or a stay-at-home mother, it's hard to escape the feeling that when you're with your child, every moment should be stimulating or educational. Somehow the idea of quality time and what is expected of parents has gotten out of control. "I'd feel guilty when I'd put my daughter in the swing," Engelhart remembers.
Even taking care of necessary tasks can make you feel at fault when it means spending time away from your child. "I feel guilty doing housework and running errands," says Terri Korolev, of San Francisco, mom to Emma, 2 1/2. "Since my daughter won't play on her own for more than 15 minutes, I often resort to turning on a half-hour TV show and then sneaking out of the room so I can cook dinner or do the laundry."
Our culture has become so child-centric, agrees Rosenberg. "But not everything has to be entertaining to be valuable -- and you don't always have to give rapt attention to your kid. Even the smallest child can learn from having time to himself."
I'm Not a Perfect Mom
I feel like a terrible parent when we've eaten too many take-out dinners during the week instead of eating nutritious, home-cooked meals. As a mom, it's hard not to feel you're always falling short of your own expectations -- you're not cooking enough, your home's not tidy enough, you're not spending enough time with your husband -- but as you become a more experienced parent it does get easier to put things in perspective.
Also, keep in mind that feeling guilty is not all bad for you. That nagging feeling that your toddler is watching too much TV can help you stand back and assess: three hours a day is way too much for a 2-year-old; I have to find some other ways to keep her occupied. The tricky thing is figuring out whether what's stressing you is really something you need to change or whether you're just being a perfectionist. During those first overwhelming days of motherhood Rosenberg says it's important to be realistic: "If at the end of your day you and your baby are alive and reasonably healthy, that is a success. If you've done a load of laundry, that's a bonus. As you and your baby are sleeping more regularly, your hormones adjust, etc., then you can start to raise your expectations." Amen to that.
Guiltier the Second Time Around
Having another baby opens up a whole new reservoir of reasons to feel culpable. Feeling a stronger draw to one baby over the other, especially if one child was colicky and the other easy, isn't uncommon, but it can make you feel like the worst mom in the world. Then you may be torn because there's not enough time to dote on your younger child the way you did with your first -- noticing every gurgle and sigh, even starting in the womb. "When I was pregnant with my second son, I was too busy with the first to notice the kicks and turns," says Marissa McCanles, of Minneapolis, mom to Shane, 5, and Dallas, 2. "Then, after he was born, I didn't feel the instant bond that I had with my first, and I kept thinking what a horrible mother I was for not being instantly in love with this child."
You can just as easily feel lousy because you're no longer able to give undivided attention to your older child. That's the case for Alessandra Rafferty, of Jersey City, mom to Saorla, 2, and Grian, 6 weeks: "The fact that I was breastfeeding the baby and not able to lift my toddler for six weeks because I had a c-section made it even worse." Of course, that intense newborn period doesn't last forever, and making time to do something special with your older child can help take the edge off your feelings. Rafferty says keeping up with a gym class that just she and Saorla attend has helped. But having a second baby is also a great opportunity to let others pick up the slack. "I couldn't hold Saorla in my lap or do the physical things kids love, like swinging her around," Rafferty adds. "But she does that kind of stuff with her dad, and that's strengthened their bond."
Father Knows Best
We can learn a thing or two from dads about kicking the guilt habit. Granted, it's easier for them because they don't have the societal expectations that we moms do. If a man changes a diaper, he's a hero. But, for whatever the reason, fathers have got their thinking right. Here are three good manly lessons.
- Dads don't try to do it all. "Men don't expect to work full time and be the primary caretaker to their kids, a great cook, sexy for their spouse, and a good friend," Rosenberg says. Yet women do.
- Dads don't feel guilty about taking time for themselves. Does your husband think twice about heading out to the gym? Enough said.
- Dads don't blame themselves for everything (er, anything). Your child didn't bite the other toddler at the playground because you didn't breastfeed him or you fed him too much sugar. Kids act out, and they get hurt...just because they're kids.
Originally published in the October 2008 issue of American Baby magazine.