When I became a mother, I learned the true meaning of guilt. I would feel guilty when I put the crying newborn down just so I could pee. I would feel guilty if I took a few moments to shove dried-up toast into my mouth instead of reading to my toddler when she asked. I would feel guilty if I left my kids with my husband for six minutes so I could take a shower. And now that my kids are older, I’ve had to face the hard truth: Widespread mom guilt is keeping us from having fun, and it needs to stop.
Because my guilt has only grown as my kids got older. I feel guilty for wanting to get out of the house without them. I feel guilty for going back to work and spending eight hours a day at the office. I feel guilty for having a night out with my girlfriends and leaving my husband to put our kids to bed. And it’s not healthy.
I know I shouldn’t feel tied down by my mom guilt, but I feel it just the same. Somehow, I feel I need to be with my kids during every waking moment — and the sleeping moments too. Like I should want to spend all of my free time with them and not worry about things I need — you know, like adult conversation and hot meals.
This summer, I spent three days on vacation without my children for the first time in their lives. And let me tell you: It was glorious. But I didn’t just drop everything and ship them off to their grandparents. I didn’t just pack my bags and hop into the car without a second thought. Plus, it took my husband months and months to convince me to take this trip (sure, “dad guilt” is real, but my husband doesn’t seem too affected by it — and he knew the two of us needed some alone time together).
Every time he suggested it, I shut him down. It was impossible. How could I leave my children for three whole days? They would be devastated. How could I spend three days sleeping in clean hotel sheets without being woken up at the crack of dawn? I should be at home taking care of my kids.
Little by little, my husband convinced me to go. He booked the hotel, he got the grandparents to watch the kids, and he packed the bags.
Every step of the way, I fought him. Well, my mom guilt fought him. My mom guilt told me I couldn’t do this. My mom guilt told me I was a bad mother for wanting time away from them. My mom guilt told me taking care of myself was no longer a priority — and while I’m mostly over it, that mom guilt still rears its ugly head from time to time.
Nevertheless, I’m thankful my husband pushed me to go away for the weekend without the kids.
We had a great time. We laughed at jokes the kids wouldn’t have found funny. We slept in till noon. We ate dinner at a normal time instead of 4:30 p.m. Everything about those three days was necessary. And best of all, the kids barely noticed we were gone.
Mom guilt, especially when it comes to self-care, doesn’t only affect me. It’s like a plague many mothers of young children are living with. Mary Fraser-Hamilton, a teacher with three kids ages 2, 5 and 7, says she’s had to modify her expectations of what self-care looks like since becoming a mother. “I used to wander aimlessly in stores or coffee shops as a way of getting alone time. Now, I ask my husband to take the kids on a bike ride so I can do the weekend chores without kids climbing all over me.”
Another way Fraser-Hamilton makes self-care work is changing her hobbies so they fit around her family’s schedule. “I used to sing in choirs, but the evening rehearsal time away from my family was too challenging. So now, I dabble in creative writing, reading really good books and learning to play the ukulele so I can sing and play with my kids.”
Krista McGrath, a palliative specialist radiation therapist and mom of two boys ages 2 and 25, has an insightful perspective on self-care. “Someone once told me to think of self-care like this: It’s like when you’re on an airplane and they tell you if the cabin pressure drops, you have to put your mask on first and then your child’s.”
McGrath explains, “It’s the same thing. Sometimes, you just have to put yourself first so you can take care of all the people in your life that you need to take care of. If I don’t take care of myself, I won’t have the emotional and physical fortitude to fulfill my role as a mom.”
Moms can’t sacrifice every part of themselves to take care of their kids. It’s just not possible — and it’s certainly not healthy. We need to push back the mom guilt in favor of self-care, self-love and continuing to be our own people with our own lives. Whether it’s having an uninterrupted shower, gabbing on the phone with a friend or literally leaving our kids for a few days, taking care of ourselves and having actual fun is an important — and necessary and healthy — part of being a good mom. And, you know, a human.