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Have Mom Guilt? Good!

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The other day I was cleaning out my basement when I came upon a treasure trove of swings, strollers, toys, sound machines, clothes, diaper warmers, several types of bottles, flashcards and books in three languages and more.

Now, if I was mother to six or more children, this would have been a reasonable amount of stuff to have, but I'm not. I have one kid, and during the first year of his life I felt so guilty for being tired, for not having enough milk, for working, for leaving him with his grandma, and for not having the time or energy to make fresh purees every day, that I bought everything I could to make him, and myself, happy.

As a type-A, lost-sheep Catholic and middle child, I always told myself I was supremely set up to feel guilty, but the more I talked to other moms I learned that I was not alone. Even the most amazing super moms who managed to bathe, put on make-up and make flashcards felt it, which raises the question: what purpose does this serve?

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Before I had my baby I spent a year researching evolutionary psychology for a book that taught women how to thrive in the corporate jungle. In it, I learned that all of our behaviors—the good, the bad and the ugly—are linked to our survival, even if they no longer make any sense. Could mom guilt be doing the same?

Here's my theory:

First of all, our biological job as women is to ensure survival of the species

Yes, that's caveman talk, of course, but before we ever had language to talk about women's rights our drive was to guarantee our own survival and that of the species. If it weren't, we wouldn't be here. Therefore, our energies would mostly have been focused on that task, and I imagine that was a lot easier before we had houses to clean, errands to run, and jobs to do.

Therefore, guilt is a great motivator

Much like being threatened or frightened, guilt releases adrenaline, which allows us to focus and work hard, even when we'd rather just take a nap. Therefore, it's likely that your guilt is less a function of you doing a poor job, but rather your body's own drive to keep pushing you to simply do everything that's expected of you in one day.

Luckily we've got guilt to keep us in line, because if we didn't, this species would be doomed.

Guilt keeps us in line

Guilt also has important social functions. When life is hard it would be easy to lash out, eat our young, kill our mates, go on an eating binge and find someone new to procreate with. That's what happens in the natural world. Luckily we've got guilt to keep us in line, because if we didn't, this species would be doomed.

Guilt and anxiety can prevent terrible things from happening

A year or so ago I listened to a podcast that totally changed my thinking about anxiety. Invisibilia's "The Secret History of Thoughts" interviewed a gentle young man who was terrorized by horrific visions of him harming those around him, and later talked to his therapist, whose theory was that this man was overly cautious, and that his imagining these visions were a way for his mind to visualize what could happen in an attempt to prevent it.

Mom guilt and anxiety, when seen through this lens, become natural mechanisms to keep us alert and aware of dangers that could happen, just in case they do.

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And plus, it's not just you, it's them

Maybe you're not being unreasonable in wanting a little time for yourself, especially if you were used to being independent and free of responsibility before you became a mom. Kids, on the other hand, know nothing else but you, and so naturally they orient their every waking moment around Mom. If anyone should feel guilty, it's them, but you know that's not going to happen for another 25-50 years.

Therefore, you should celebrate your guilt

So celebrate your guilt. It's your inner primate giving you a powerful nudge, saying: "You can do this! This is the hardest it's going to get, and don't destroy your relationships because deep down, you probably still love your kids and mate."

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