Ugh, parental guilt. It’s the pits. I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating - to myself anyway, like some sort of mantra that I hope will eventually get through. Parenting is a constant mitigation of guilt. We feel guilty about letting the laundry pile up but then also keeping up with the laundry and feeling like we’re not spending enough time with our kiddos. We feel guilty about having a work presentation up on our laptops while we watch Moana - again. We feel guilty about getting bored by the same unfunny knock-knock joke told to us 15 times in a row. We feel guilty about not planning a birthday celebration pretty enough to Instagram. Some of the trappings are small and shallow feeling (I’m looking at you, social media comparisons), but some are more substantive. Like returning to work outside the home, or not returning to work. Or concerns over feeling like you’re not present enough. And, there’s also a cute trapdoor we fall through where we feel guilty for not feeling guilty sooner or guilty enough. How’s that for a nice little ambush? You return to work and know it’s the right decision for your family, but then you wonder if you should feel guilt for enjoying being back in the office. Talk about a gotcha!
And doesn’t the term ‘guilt’ imply that we’ve done something wrong to feel badly about? But what have we done wrong? Tried to have a family and career at the same time? Tried to balance the needs of multiple people at once? Tried to self-preserve enough to not completely crumple under all our responsibilities? Hmmmm…I don’t hear any crimes committed in that list. So why are we so set on finding ourselves guilty? The only judge I know, the esteemed Judge Judy, would never entertain the foolishness of a case like this. (Ok, just being hyperbolic there - know all Supreme Court Justices as well as some Federal Appellate and District Court Judges. Gotta stay informed, folks!) So why are we putting ourselves through this constant trial?
When you start to feel that parent guilt creeping up your back and settling in squarely on your shoulder to whisper in your ear, take a minute to think whether you need to listen or not. Most times, you can tell it to quiet down and flick it right off your shoulder. Here are a few things we think you can let go of feeling guilty about.
10 Things to Not Feel Guilty About
- Being bored by your kids sometimes - It’s ok to admit that you don’t find playing trucks or sculpting Play-Doh cupcake creations riveting all the time. Yes, it’s good quality time with your little one but you are an adult after all. Hell, you may even have a PhD in Aerospace Engineering so it’s ok to accept that you can get a little bored by the same activities that interest your child. (Just maybe don’t let your little one catch wind of your boredom…)
- Not returning to work outside the home…or, returning to work outside the home…or, working from home - That’s right! You get to feel guilty no matter what you choose on this one! Moms especially are pulled hard in both directions where there’s a weird dichotomy like we’re expected to work as though there aren’t little kiddos waiting for us somewhere and when we’re with our kids, we need to mom-it like we don’t have a career. Ugh. You can see the dilemma. Knowing the impossibility of this balancing act can help you let go of some of the guilt you feel about it.
- Other people’s expectations of you - Sometimes we put too much value on what is said by our own mothers, mothers-in-law, friends, or random lady who passes by you on the sidewalk and says your baby looks small for his age (he’s not, thank you very much). Take to heart the good advice and true expressions of care from those around you and let the rest of the noise roll off.
- Keeping up with (fill in the blank) - It could be housekeeping, volunteer hours, calling friends or family, laundry, emptying the vacuum, sorting through the outgrown clothes, and on and on. Know that the world is not going to crumple inward onto you and that this treading water is temporary. You’ll get to everything eventually, even if it means you have a few nights where you eat takeout straight from the containers. And don’t be afraid to ask for some help when you need it!
- Social media - Jeez. The jury’s still out for me on whether social media is a net positive or negative on a personal level. I mean, I love seeing pictures of my family and friends from all over and finding out about activities going on in my town and new restaurants to order from, shops to check out, comedic bits and even news. (And I’m oddly mesmerized by these elaborate sugar cookie decorating videos that keep popping into my feeds…is that weird?) But, then there’s the whole comparison I run into of “holy cow, does she really have abs that defined after having three babies?” when I see a picture of someone snuggling her littlest one on some exotic beach all while wearing - no, while rocking - a bikini and a super trendy sun hat that I’m sure there’s no way I could pull off. There’s also the beautiful homes, perfectly curated celebrations, workout routines that I’d need a doctor’s note to participate in, and so much more that makes me feel inadequate and guilty that I myself am not enough or that I’m not doing enough for my family. It’s a fine line to walk and maybe we ought to take it in as just entertainment instead of a guilt-inducing commentary on how we’re doing. At least that’s what I tell myself.
- Needing some time to yourself - That’s right. We are indeed real people who occasionally need to check out. Whether it’s to catch up with a friend, scroll through a text chain on your phone, read that novel that’s been on your bedside table for the last seven months, or watch reruns of The Office, it’s perfectly normal (and encouraged!) to take some time for yourself to reset. Also, don’t lose sight of your own passions and interests. Keeping your own cup full helps you better respond to the needs of those around you.
- Eating the same meal multiple times a week/heating up frozen pizza/getting takeout/or hitting up a drive-thru - Hey, sometimes we don’t have the bandwidth for every single little thing. And while judging what your kids eat seems to be a major source of concern for other people at times, unless it’s coming from the mouth of a health care provider or a nutritionist, you can let go of feeling guilty about having tacos and strawberries three nights a week. (Obviously, we want to get to a place of healthy variety with food, but a little stint of the same thing isn’t going to break anyone. And on the plus side, your kiddos may be more excited about trying something new when you offer it!)
- Taking time to exercise - Mental and physical health go hand in hand and you can’t be at your best for those around you if you’re consistently putting one on the back burner. Taking some time to move your body - especially outside in fresh air - is nothing to feel guilty about. Yes, your kiddos may resist when they see you lacing up your running shoes, but the return on investment for such a brief time is major.
- Asking for help - Remember the proverb It takes a village to raise a child? Yeah, what happened to that mentality? Sometimes I think we’ve become insular in how we try to manage our households and raise our children and we end up running ourselves ragged and isolated. And none of that is beneficial to our kiddos. Don’t be hesitant or feel guilty about asking for help when you need it.
- Having an off day - What can I say? We are human after all. There are going to be some days when you lose your temper, when you have to prioritize work over building a fort, when you’re tired, when you’re sick, when you just feel like you need a quiet day. It’s ok. As long as you continue to model overall healthy behavior and emotional modulation for your kiddos, they’ll be fine! Maybe they get a little extra screen time, maybe you take a nap together. Just use kid-friendly language to explain what’s going on (and apologize if you lost your temper). You’ll be showing your kids how to modulate their behavior through some disappointments, big emotions, or frustrations and how we repair and work through those feelings. Having those emotional skills in their toolbox leads to well-rounded adult humans later in life.
Hopefully those little guilt-releases will help you feel a little lighter. And remember, feeling guilty essentially stems from compassion for those around you - you feel guilt when you care enough about the ones you love to think you are somehow letting them down. Despite how badly it makes us feel, guilt comes from a positive place. Let’s work to reframe those feelings of guilt as evidence of our love for those around us and let go of the negative messages we listen to when we feel we aren’t doing enough. Instead, we’ll know that as long as we keep trying to do our best, we’re doing just fine. Sure, there are going to be some off-days in there, but move past the self-defeating guilt to the positive emotions behind the feeling. Those are the ones to embrace and act on.