Is "mom guilt" false guilt?

After spending three glorious nights in New York City attending the ASJA conference and a few work-related meetings, not to mention making plenty of time for pleasures like taking in a Broadway show, eating the most delicious fish tacos ever, and using the rest room whenever I wanted without worrying about small people following me, it was time to come home.

As it turns out, leaving the kids was good for me. It was so refreshing to have some time away not tending to anyone else’s needs but my own, and there’s also something comforting–and, I admit, humbling–about realizing that my family’s world will not come to a complete standstill if I’m out of it for a few days.

I surprised myself by feeling very little guilt, even in the face of these three facts:

1) I didn’t miss my kids while I was gone. Not even the baby. As my sister cleverly defined for me, I missed the idea of her, and if I took too long out of the whirlwind trip to really think about her, I would wish for just a moment or two that I could be snuggling her and feeling her soft head. But I didn’t miss her, not really–not in that aching, sad way–until I was off the plane and still faced a 90-minute drive home. This surprised me. I spend a lot of time with my kids; they are a huge and constant part of my day-to-day life; I especially consider Clara and myself very attached.

2) While I was gone, Clara got sick. For the first two days it was just sniffles but by the time I got home Sunday night her eyes were red and goopy and she was spiking a pretty high fever. No, I probably could not have stopped her from getting sick by the sheer force of my breastmilk and snuggles had I been home, but still, I felt sad when I learned of it.

3) When I arrived at home, for the first five minutes Clara wouldn’t have anything to do with me. She looked at me and burst into tears, burying her face in Jon’s shoulder. For a minute I was disappointed–I’d expected a much warmer welcome home. But then I realized that she wasn’t feeling well, and was probably confused by my absence, and when she saw me she wasn’t sure what to do with her emotions. So she cried. Five minutes later she was happily sitting on my hip and babbling. It just took her a few minutes to switch gears.

So those three realizations brought up a few different emotions. I was surprised that I didn’t miss my kids more. I was sad that Clara had to be sick and deal with missing me at the same time. And I was disappointed that she didn’t immediately throw herself into my arms with a smile and a happy shriek as I’d anticipated.

What I wasn’t feeling?Guilty.

Still, it was hard to overcome the temptation to claim a dose of mother guilt. “Clara is sick,” I told a friend after hanging up the phone with Jon during a break at the conference. “…and I feel so guilty,” I almost continued, stopping myself only when I realized that actually, I felt no such thing. This happened several more times during and after the trip. How eager I was to lay claim to an emotion that seemed appropriate, even though I wasn’t actually feeling it.

I might not even have been aware I was doing it if not for an experience I had over and over at the conference. Friends and colleagues who knew how torn I’d been about leaving Clara would say “Do you miss her?”

“Oh, yes,” I said the first few times I was asked, without skipping a beat. Until I noticed that I actually didn’t. My knee-jerk response wasn’t a lie, per se. It was more that I had expected so fully to feel sad and to be missing my kids that I almost didn’t notice that I didn’t, and I wasn’t. Similarly, though leaving your kids is supposed to bring up a socially-accepted feeling of guilt, when I really looked at my feelings, well, I simply didn’t feel guilty.

I wonder how many times we moms do this in our day to day lives. We claim a feeling of guilt when in reality we’re feeling something else, but don’t recognize it because we assume guilt is what we’re experiencing. Or maybe simply fear of being judged if we don’t cop to the guilt we’re supposed to feel.

I think this is harmful in two ways. First of all, it dilutes the effect of true guilt. According to the dictionary definition, guilt is an emotion of remorse or regret you feel in response to a wrongdoing, whether real or perceived. So the emotion you’re experiencing can only be true guilt if you really think you did something wrong.

In that way, guilt can be a useful tool. It keeps us from making mistakes over and over. If I lose my cool with my kids and say something hurtful, guilt is an appropriate response. Next time, the distinctly uncomfortable memory of the guilt I felt will help remind me to think about what I say. But if there’s no wrongdoing, there can be no guilt. If I call every uncomfortable feeling I experience “guilt”, then true “guilt” stands out in my memory less sharply and serves as less of a deterrent or guide in the future. After all, if everything makes me feel guilty, does anything, really?

Second, constantly talking about our guilt perpetuates the idea that for moms, “guilty” is a normal state of being. The more we talk about how guilty we feel, the more it seems like we SHOULD feel guilty all the time. And as a result, whether out loud or to ourselves, we start to assign guilt to feelings that are actually something else: sadness, disappointment, or frustration, for example. And sometimes we say we feel guilty when we don’t feel bad at all about our actions (or non-actions).

I’m tired of hearing that guilt is just a normal, perpetual state of mommy-dom. We owe it to ourselves, to our kids, and to each other to examine our feelings more closely, and not to force or claim a feeling that doesn’t exist.

Next time you think you’re feeling guilty, look more closely. Is it true guilt? Do you feel remorse? Did you do something hurtful or use bad judgment? Could it be another feeling you’re experiencing, perhaps? Or do you just feel a free-floating sense that you should feel guilty because your child is unhappy, or because you haven’t been sufficiently self-sacrificing today, or maybe for no reason at all?

Real guilt is useful. False guilt helps no one.

Moms, let’s quit cloaking ourselves in it.

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