Mom guilt is real. When my youngest child happily kicks a ball around our backyard, a nagging voice in my head reminds me that I’ve been meaning to sign her up for soccer — for about two years now. Meanwhile, I’ve been starting to feel badly that my 12-year-old still shares a bedroom with her younger sister.
All my visions of sisterly bonding over chats in the dark as they drift off to sleep have lately given way to the reality of loud, unruly Beezus and Ramona-style turf battles. When I can manage to tune out their bickering, I silently worry about my insistently more independent 16-year-old’s course selection for his upcoming junior year. I’m walking that prickly line that parents of teens know well, of saying too little or too much, while fretting and hoping his choices will put him on a good path to college and — gulp! — life.
Working Through the Worry
While the rational part of my brain knows my worry doesn’t do any good — not for my children, or me — I’m awake most nights at 2 a.m., staring at the ceiling, pestered by my own thoughts, while my husband sleeps peacefully beside me. (How do they do it?) It’s always at night, when the house is finally quiet, that my mind goes into overdrive. I’ll suddenly remember I need to order the dance recital tickets or get something for the bake sale. It’s when I’ll replay a work situation that didn’t go smoothly or think about my forgotten vow to go to the gym.
When my children were babies and toddlers, the worries were different, but just as persistent. When I commuted to work, I tallied the hours I spent on a train, time I wasn’t spending with my kids. Yet on weekends, I wished I could be more patient sitting on the floor beside them, wearing a tiara, and holding a scepter as I played my appointed role in their imaginary world.
Instead, my mind would be on all the laundry I needed to fold or what I was going to slap together for dinner or the thank-you notes from the birthday party two months ago that I still needed to write. I felt, surely I must be an inferior mother for secretly wishing the most difficult part of some of those younger years away, particularly when I was blessed with perfectly healthy, spirited children who loved me in spite of my shortcomings, like my inability to do a French braid or properly throw a baseball.
Overcome the “Bad Mom” Blues
“It goes so fast!” smiling passersby would say to me in the store while my little ones hung on my shopping cart. “Enjoy it!” As I’d admonish my kids to behave at least long enough for me to get through the checkout, those strangers’ sweet sentiments made me feel more guilty for most certainly not enjoying every moment. Of course, feeling guilty seems to come with the territory of motherhood. So how are all these social-media supermoms, with their picture- perfect homes and children, doing it? A steady stream of visual perfection can make even the most confident mom feel inferior, even if we all rationally know the off-camera reality. Wine sales aren’t at their peak for nothing, and there are reasons that games like Mom Guilt Bingo exist: Birthday party wasn’t Pinterest-worthy. Forgot picture day. Hid in the bathroom. Yelled.
For all those “bad mom” moments I’ve experienced myself, though, you know what? My children don’t seem to notice or care — and I bet yours don’t either — whether the birthday cake is homemade or store-bought, or if their mom is better at putting on a movie and making popcorn than at doing crafts. On one recent occasion, I felt terrible when I showed up late to my older daughter’s swim meet and missed her event, after having run there from a birthday party drop-off for my youngest. She waved her hand. “It’s OK, Mom,” she said. “You can’t do everything.” She gave me a quick hug then skipped off to hang with her teammates. That’s the great thing about children: They love us, no matter what.
A Bit of Perspective
A friend of mine tells me her worry and guilt lifted considerably when her oldest went off to college. When your children are no longer under your roof, she reasoned, you can’t worry every second. Until then, my shelf is stocked with books that praise a more hands-off approach to parenting, with delicious titles like The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed and How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success. These authors, bless them, claim that being less of a supermom is actually better for raising independent, capable kids, and they cite convincing research. If none of this mom guilt and worry matter, I might just have to let it go.
Having just one good friend who can put things in perspective helps too. I remember the first time our Tooth Fairy forgot to make a scheduled appearance. “What kind of mother forgets the Tooth Fairy!” I said at the time to my best friend, Justine, a single mom of four girls (with twins sandwiched in the middle) who doesn’t have time to fret much. She reminded me that the Tooth Fairy is very busy, and children are understanding — but it’s up to you to set the tone. Even if you screwed up today, there’s always tomorrow. The Tooth Fairy can always fly back and make everything all right again. And it worked — my youngest was thrilled with the Tooth Fairy’s improvisation of an interest payment for having forgotten. She’s got superpowers that way. Just like a mom.
A version of this article appeared in our partner magazine The Science of Raising Happy Kids.