“Hands up who feels guilty?” asks the woman in the charcoal skirt suit running the Working Mums seminar. Every hand in the room shoots up. Every single woman here flagging that she lives under the oppressive weight of Mother Guilt feeling constantly remiss for not doing a good enough job. Except me. I didn’t put my hand up. Because I don’t feel guilty. Not one bit.
I don’t feel guilty about working a few shifts a week because (while it might be another mother’s worst nightmare, her heart torn by economic necessity) it fulfills me and appeases me to make use of the skills and experience I spent two decades amassing. Then, when I am with my two boys I’m not pining for another life. I don’t feel guilty when I dish up chicken nuggets because they get veggies most other nights and sometimes nuggets are all I can rustle up after a frantic day. Too much TV? Doesn’t happen every day and it’s ABC4Kids for goodness sakes, not Breaking Bad. Late to bed? They can sleep in. Skip bath? One night won’t hurt. No birthday party? So long as there’s cake. I don’t feel guilty about hauling them to the supermarket (we have to eat), bribing them with Tiny Teddies (how else to get two toddlers in the car in a hurry?) or not teaching them to read (plenty of time for that).
Nor do I feel guilty when I go away. Sad, yes, and a little angsty but not guilty. I’ve done it twice since my children were born – a weekend wedding, and a meditation retreat. They could do with some Dad Time, I reasoned. And I could do with some time.
Despite the show of hands, I don’t think I’m the only one. But you wouldn’t know it. Mother Guilt has become like a status symbol of contemporary motherhood, something no mum wants to leave home without. We wear our guilt with pride – proof that if we’re in the throes of it we really must have a lot on our plates. We laugh off its “Bad Mummy” connotations, professing to be guilt laden for heading to the office. But genuine guilt about how we mother isn’t funny. It’s a cry for acknowledgement. Or help.
Maybe most of us don’t feel guilty at all. We just think we should. Guilt implies we feel bad about our choices, that we have our priorities all wrong, when perhaps we really don’t. Given proper consideration, maybe we’re actually au fait with the calls we make. Our children will move on if we forget Book Week. It’s just that guilt has become the default position for mothers rather than its alternative: to give ourselves a break. To cut ourselves some slack.
Mostly I feel proud. Proud of myself for all I manage to get done in a day, quite chuffed at the incredible feats I pull off juggling two exuberant puppy-like boys (nothing, I know, compared to many families) with domestic drudgery and, on some days, a job too. It’s amazing there’s dinner at all. When I roll them into bed at night, spent from another day of soaking everything in, I feel quite triumphant. They are happy boys and I play a big part in making them so. No guilt. Just gratitude.
It doesn’t mean I don’t stuff up. I yell. The neighbours heard me recently, a kerfuffle over a lost shoe. I rant, I nag, I snatch. I put our three year old in his room when I couldn’t handle the heat. But that doesn’t make me deficient. Just normal. To be guilt free doesn’t render me a better mother than those who are weighed down by it. It’s just that I accept I’m doing the best I can and I’m cool with that.
Perhaps guilt will come later. The teen years and beyond when we fear it is us who caused their angst or waywardness or struggle to fit in. Then I imagine it might be tempting – yet futile – to draw a link between our priorities in their formative years with their grown up view of the world. A posthumous beating up of our mother selves.
Surely love is enough. Boundless and unconditional love. I love my children until my heart bursts and I put them first. I protect and nurture them. I listen to them and hear them (two separate things) and go to them in the night. I read stories and sing with them (persisting even in the face of “Stop, Mummy, my ears hurt”). No grounds for guilt in any of that.
But I know what guilt feels like. Because there was one time. When our baby fell off our balcony. I took my eyes off him for a second, the fence was loose, and we nearly lost him. I howled with relief that he survived and don’t I know it every day since of his precious life. But the guilt. That may never leave me.
Perhaps that’s why I don’t equate guilt with going to work. When you bear the weight of a near miss like that it’s impossible to view it on par with pizza and Peppa Pig. I know Mother Guilt, and it’s nothing like that.
This article was first published in Sunday Life Magazine and DailyLife.com.au on 21 July 2016