11 June 2009

Guilt-free mothering

I am in the midst of reading Ayelet Waldman's book, Bad Mother, and then today, I stumbled upon this piece on Lisa Belkin's Motherlode blog, entitled "What Mothers Are Unhappy About". It is a guest blog by Jen Singer of MommaSaid.net, which references an economic study, The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness, and a recent New York Times op-ed piece entitled Liberated and Unhappy, by Ross Douthat, the newest addition to the Times' Opinion page.

I won't pretend that I have read the study, or that I ever will, because I would be lying to you. But I did read the column, and Douthat's piece with great interest. Perhaps I am late to the pity party, because I am just beginning to understand the extent to which mothers subject themselves to guilt regarding their mothering skills. I find this sad beyond belief.

I am glad to say that by and large, I do not suffer from this guilt anymore. A few years ago, my book group read Judith Warner's Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, and I skipped that month. I did not feel much anxiety about being a mother at that point in my life, so I had no interest in reading it. Now, I would like to revisit that book, because I enjoy Warner's writing in general, and I'd like to gain a better understanding of what is motivating all this gut-churning angst.

I think a lot of mothers, especially new mothers, spend a good amount of time berating themselves as they adjust to the major life shift and their new responsibilities. And because many women have tendencies toward perfectionism, this berating of one's mothering skills becomes a bad habit that is hard to break.

I did experience my share of guilt early in my mothering career. The key years for me were when Sarah was a baby, also known as the time when I had no idea what the hell I was doing. I remember feeling so overwhelmed and stressed out by the job that I spent a lot of time worrying, beating myself up, and whining to my therapist about what a bad job I was doing raising my child. She gave me much sound advice on the subject—she was full of such wisdom; if anyone wants her number, contact me offline!—but there are a few things in particular that I really took to heart.

I would obsess about some perceived mistake I'd made in the rearing of my child, and cry that I was so very afraid that I was going to fuck her up, like my parents fucked me up, which was after all, the reason I had checked myself in for outpatient treatment gone into therapy. She responded, "You will not fuck her up like your parents did. You will fuck her up in your own way."

I found this very sensible, and freeing advice. I will fuck my children up, but I will do it MY WAY!

Mistakes in child rearing will be made; as in any other part of life, they are unavoidable. But most mistakes are also correctable. Everyone has had the experience while eating out where your waitperson messes up your order, or spills something on your table, or even worse, you. If your waitperson handles their mistake with aplomb—apologizing sincerely, taking money off the bill, bringing you a dessert gratis—do you not give them an even bigger tip?

So for me, the issue became not would I make a mistake, but what would I do about it when I did. As a new mother, I used to get very worried when I yelled at my children; my parents yelled a lot; at the kids, at each other, at the dry-cleaners, and I was so afraid, that if I too, yelled at my children, I WAS REPEATING THEIR MISTAKES.

That is, until I realized a mother, you will lose your temper with your children. That in and of itself does not make you a bad mother. If you lose your temper for good reason, you do not need to apologize. If, on the other hand, you explode at your children because you are tired, or PMS-ing, or are generally having a bad day, you have just had yourself a temper tantrum, and you owe your children an apology.

Own up to your mistakes soon as possible, and make amends. It is only when you let your stubbornness get the best of you that you run into trouble.

Perhaps the most important piece of advice on mothering that my therapist gave me came deep in the mire of postpartum depression, when I was sleep-deprived and extremely hungry all the time, because I was nursing, and spent so much time caring for this baby that I did not make time to eat. It was a truly vicious circle.

My therapist reminded me that there is a reason why, when you are on a plane, in the event of an emergency you are instructed to put your own respirator on before assisting your children. If I was hungry, it would be alright to let my baby cry in order to feed myself. She assured me that if Sarah had to wait a few minutes before nursing, she would not starve. Once I inured myself to the sounds of my wailing infant, I could eat a sandwich, if not in peace, at least confident that when I was sated, I would attend to her.

A mother needs to feed herself in order to serve her children. This is not only literally, but metaphorically true. If as a mother, you give all of yourself over to your children in selfless service, there will not be much of you to share with your children.

It is very easy to lose sight of this, especially in the early years, when you are responsible for all your children's needs. If you have the luxury of a stable marriage, and decent living conditions, I believe it is imperative as a mother to find something besides child-rearing that you love to do, and then, to make time to do it. If you love your job and can't stand the thought of spending your days at home with your children, then find the best child care that you can, and go to work. If you are home with your kids, and enjoy volunteer work, whether for your PTA, Junior League, your church or synagogue, do it. But if this does not bring you great satisfaction, you need not feel guilty about it. Cultivate your hobbies, and if you don't have one, make the time to discover something you might find interesting.

Do not do everything for the sake of your children; if it doesn't serve you, it will not serve them. Your children's mental health and stability are very much tied to your own. If you remember to feed yourself body and soul, you will be a happier, better-adjusted person, more interesting and well-rounded, and, as an added bonus, your children will be the beneficiaries.


  1. I could not agree more! Only one quibble but I will address that elsewhere. :)

  2. I think we might have the same therapist! :-)