It's Not A 'Mommy' Problem, It's A 'Guilty' Problem

It was only 10:00 a.m. on a Monday morning and I had already felt guilty more than 15 times. My guilt gene is not even particularly well-developed, but apparently it was still in my DNA.
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It was only 10:00 a.m. on a Monday morning and I had already felt guilty more than 15 times. My guilt gene is not even particularly well-developed, but apparently it was still in my DNA.

For starters, I had let my daughter fuss for a couple of minutes in the morning while I read The New York Times op-ed article "Our Mommy Problem."

More importantly (or higher on the guilt scale) I had let her watch a few minutes of TV while I prepared breakfast. I had spent 10 minutes responding to emails without speaking to her in "parentese" -- and that, according to one parenting book I had read, is one of the four ways to nurture more intelligent kids. I had not stimulated her enough since she got up, the banana wasn't organic that morning, and the list goes on... and on... and on.

While I enjoyed reading the mommy problem article to the soundtrack of a 10-month-old's complaints, I do not think the issue, as Havrilesky framed it, is that our "current culture demands every mother be all in, all the time." The problem is that we feel guilty if we're not. That is not our culture's fault alone -- it's also ours.

In fact, we live in an "all-in" culture in general -- men and women alike. If we choose to work, we are expected to "lean in," to be the most dedicated employee and to give a hundred percent of ourselves to our jobs. If we choose to stay at home, then we are expected to be super-moms (or super-dads) who give a hundred percent of ourselves to our children to ensure they are raised in the most conducive environment to a bright future -- to ensure that they are happy. But it's unrealistic for someone to spend a hundred percent of his or her potential on any one activity. And if we do, then inevitably there will not be much substance or quality to that one hundred percent. Moreover, giving all of ourselves to our children is not always the best way to raise them.

When my husband was brought up in the U.S., his parents were recent immigrants. His father often held two jobs where he did not get home until 10:00 p.m. His mother cared for four children and a house and certainly did not have time to fret over hand-made beaded school costumes. Do you think either of them felt guilty about this? Absolutely not. If anything, they felt proud that they were able to build for their children a life that many back home could only dream of; and they ended up raising four very successful and down-to-earth children.

They were not alone. Many of my close and successful friends recall childhoods where their parents seemed eternally busy with work and chores. There was little time for coddling and some school functions were inevitably missed. Our parents did not feel guilty or try to make this up to us. Rather than feeling slighted by this, it seems we all felt indebted to the sacrifices our parents made to ensure our future was brighter than their own.

So why did our parents not feel this same sense of guilt, or at least not to the same degree, that we seem to feel it today? Part of it is probably due to the fact that we look at jobs today not as means to an end anymore, but as an experience that in and of itself should be enjoyable, fulfilling, and meaningful. We used to work to provide for our children, now we work for our own benefit as well, and we end up feeling guilty that we are doing something for ourselves away from our children.

It also seems that guilt is primed into our generation of parents. Many women claim that their biggest guilt factor is leaving children at home in order to work. For men, although this guilt is more nuanced, the pressure to be more involved and present as fathers also leads to feelings of guilt and shortcoming. With the common trend of working longer hours, guilt seems to be an inescapable side effect -- for both men and women.

Psychologists refer to guilt as an "other-focused emotion" which means it involves thinking of others. So feeling guilty is beneficial to the extent it makes us feel closer to other people and encourages us to improve our relationships and ourselves. But guilt should motivate not demoralize us. When guilt bleeds into shame and makes us feel inadequate, or drives us to give up who we are to fit in with culture, trends, or other people's expectations, then it has gone too far and no longer serves its social function.

We have indeed made strides in our lives, compared to our parents' generation, and are able to offer our children more than our parents could offer us. Yet are we truly preparing our children for the future by giving up who we are to be so involved in their lives that they think they are the center of the universe?

I love my daughter more than anything in the world, and if I had to, I would give up anything for her. But am I doing her any favors by giving up who I am? By ceasing to exist as an individual with an identity unrelated to my mommy one, how can I give my daughter an example to look up to, admire, and emulate?

Carl Jung once said "Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on... children than the unlived lives of their parents."

So instead of feeling guilty for doing things for ourselves, for not being all-in all the time in all that we do, we should feel proud that there is more to us than a single identity or label. The better rounded we are, the more we have to offer each sphere of our lives -- from work, all the way to home.

Rather than lamenting a culture that wants us all-in all the time, we can choose to change it starting with ourselves. We can stop feeling guilty about or apologizing for not giving one hundred percent to everyone and everything -- for not being "super-human." As Havrilesky said, "we can rip the S of our chests." But we should do this at home, at work, and anywhere else that demands we be all-in all the time in order to show our children that life never revolves around a single thing, not even them.

In so doing, we prepare them to more easily navigate life, enjoy it, and become better parents themselves one day. Guilt-free.