Nine o’clock: It’s my favorite time of day. My boys are asleep and my husband’s at his weekly poker night. I pour myself some wine, plop on the couch, pick up the remote, and watch a talk-show host console a distressed woman holding a wadded-up tissue. She’s a stay-at-home mother of three, she says, and she feels guilty ignoring her kids while she plays on her phone, sometimes for as long as 20 minutes. She feels terrible that sometimes her children go to bed having picked at snacks all day, rather than having eaten three square meals. The sympathetic host reaches over to pat the mother’s hand, reassuring her that all moms feel guilty.
If I had her number, I’d text that mom with my free hand—the one not holding the wine glass—to tell her…so what? I do those things all the time. Twenty minutes on the phone? I’ve been distracted by mine for an entire hour while my 4-year-old drew lines all over himself with a black magic marker! Healthy meals? My kids have had hot dogs three nights in a row. Hey, at least I served them with green beans.
Right now, mom guilt, the close cousin of mom-shaming, is trending everywhere—on TV, in social feeds, and in real-life conversation. However, I don’t feel particularly guilty, not even when I have to pull clothes from the hamper so my two boys won’t show up at school naked. The only smidge of guilt I might feel is more insidious: I’ve started to wonder if I should feel guilty about not feeling guilty at all.
As media continue to bombard me with examples of stay-at-home moms, working moms, and just-plain-tired moms who feel they don’t measure up to an image of what a mother “should” be, I’m feeling left out of the crisis. There are the promoted links to cool clothes that I can’t afford—items that are apparently a “must” for a stylish mom. Sometimes I see articles that suggest that my kids, who go to public school, won’t get the attention and stimulation they need to get into a good college. I guess I’m supposed to be building up those extracurriculars, or considering switching to a private school, or hiring tutors—because it’s not enough these days to walk to your local school and drop your kids off, and assume that the teachers know what they’re doing.
I’m lucky: I had a mom who didn’t believe in mom guilt either. When I was little she stayed home, but she confessed to me that the best years of her life were those following her decision to return to work, as a teacher. I wonder if I should have felt slighted that she obviously preferred working to staying home with me. But looking back, I remember the whole transition as being particularly fun. To work with Mom’s new schedule, each family member was assigned a day to cook dinner. My 7-year-old brother specialized in mini pizzas made out of English muffins, I whipped up salads, and my father spent hours in the kitchen to produce dinner at nine—which he always flambéed. After Mom arrived home, dinner conversation often revolved around stories from her day, like her trials with Squeaker, the classroom’s escape-artist guinea pig. Evenings became so lively that I don’t remember resenting my mother for returning to work.
While there was no working-mom guilt for me to inherit from my mother, my husband hasn’t made me feel ashamed either. He could have loaded me up on guilt when we switched roles—I started working while he stayed home with the kids. (I was a stay-at-home-mom for four years, and I didn’t feel guilty then either. Plus, I liked the dress code.) He could have told me that I didn’t spend enough time with the family or complained about watching the kids and doing housework. He could have refused to work one day a week at our co-op preschool where a horde of hot young moms fawned over him like an older, doughier Ryan Reynolds. Instead he walks around like he’s won the happiness lottery. I’m not getting any guilt from him.
Meanwhile, my stay-at-home mom friends, who might definitely serve me up some guilt, instead seem genuinely interested in what I do outside the home. A couple of them like to come over at cocktail hour and indulge in adult conversation while the kids tear apart the house. I’d feel bad about the mess, but the kids can clean it up. Actually, last week I thought I felt a twinge of guilt when one friend brought over a casserole, because she guessed (correctly) I wouldn’t have gotten around to making dinner. Turns out, it wasn’t guilt—it was a hunger pang.
However, it’s my children who are the most remiss at giving me guilt. My arrival from work signals dinner and my attention on them and hearing stories about their day. Not only are they not piling on the guilt, they happen to think I’m pretty—which is one of the reasons we have children. They’ve been one of the best justifications not to beat myself up. Nothing eats away the hours and produces no results like self-recrimination.
For whatever reason, I was way behind the curve on mom guilt. And I’m pretty sure that I never want to catch up.