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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?
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
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
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.
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."