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Guilty is a word you hear a lot as a mother. When we moms say we feel it, a chorus cries out that we shouldn't.
We toss the word around as though it goes with the territory of parenthood, as if mothers are locked inside a self-made prison of guilt, servants to our fear of failure, needing to be reminded to put ourselves first.
I am frequently told I shouldn't feel guilty, when I actually don't. But this is not yet another blog post telling people what never to say to a mother. Rather, my point is that moms should reframe how we talk about the decisions we make as we try to achieve balance between work, children, our relationship with our spouse and friends, and our desire to pursue our own goals outside of all of these things.
I spend what I think is a reasonable amount of time away from my husband and children, either with friends or on my own. And even when home, I get space in my own little office when I need it. But it's been an adjustment not being able to say yes to everything that sounds interesting or fun.
I have to make choices. These choices are based on preference and priority—not guilt.
What I really mean is that more than occasionally leaving my husband to care for and entertain our children for a full weekend day isn't the way I want my family to operate.
If I'm told I shouldn't feel guilty for not staying home or focusing on my children or their schedules, I often find I've used the wrong language when saying I can't do something. When, for example, turning down an invitation to an all-day concert, saying, "I feel bad leaving my husband alone all day" will only lead to a well-meaning, "Don't feel guilty, you deserve a day off."
But it's off point.
What I really mean is that more than occasionally leaving my husband to care for and entertain our children for a full weekend day isn't the way I want my family to operate. I don't feel guilty or conflicted. I'm making a decision based on my own principles. What I'm really saying is, I only feel good doing that sometimes. This particular invitation is one I'm choosing to decline.
I made this guilt miscalculation myself recently with a friend with whom I've been taking an evening fitness class. The instructor asked if we'd mind doing the class an hour later each week, which actually suits me better. My friend said it would mean she'd miss her children's bedtime routine.
Immediately, I pounced on it: "Don't feel guilty, your husband can handle it one night a week."
In reality, it is easier to say I feel guilty or I can't than to say it would be great, but I can't afford what it will cost me.
What I hadn't considered, until she set me straight, was she works an evening shift at a television news channel. Her limited evenings off are the only times she is home to put her kids to bed, and that's important to her.
Talking about your children as a restricting factor in your life—or using guilt as a reason not to do something—opens you up for people finding solutions for what is not a problem but actually a decision.
Yes, I could meet you for a drink after the kids go to bed. In truth, I'd rather not. In reality, it is easier to say I feel guilty or I can't than to say it would be great, but I can't afford what it will cost me.
I am grateful for every invitation or opportunity I get, and I don't want them to stop coming. But I will sometimes decline and that's just how it is. Of course mothers can get a sitter, pump and dump, let our kids stay up later than they should so we can stay longer at your party. We can, but it's an exception.
I'm someone who doesn't like to let people down or miss out on anything, so this priority-setting thing has been a bit tricky. But when I'm honest about what I can handle and what I can't, life just goes a lot more smoothly, with a lot less guilt.