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Guilt-tripping down mommy lane

April 5, 2009

Since my post yesterday, I’ve been thinking a lot about the self-inflicted guilt that many parents suffer. 

Okay, perhaps my ever-present paranoia and self-doubt have had me thinking about (and feeling) the dreaded “mommy guilt” for quite some time.  Probably since the moment M was born.  Or since the moment I found out I was (SURPRISE!) pregnant with M and thought to myself, “Oh crap, that vodka martini I had last week is certainly going to make my baby come out with three arms…”

I often wonder: who’s judging me?  Who thinks I’m a bad mom?  And who is lying to me when they reassure me that I’m doing a good job as a parent?  (The paranoia creeps toward neurosis, I know…)

Strangely enough, I don’t feel all that guilty about the decisions I’ve made to pursue various career goals since having children (the object of “mommy guilt” addressed most frequently according to my very unscientific “analysis”), nor do I feel all that guilty about the couple of times that I needed to feed M formula when he was an infant (although the fact that I felt the need to italicize ‘couple’ may reveal just a smidge of personal disappointment in that fact).

No, the issues–or events–that make me feel the pangs of “mommy guilt” are silly.  Quirky.  Bizarre.  Some are controversial, and some are downright absurd.  (Am I describing myself here?)

I’ve listed a few of these events below, in no particular order.  I don’t know if writing them down (and serving them up for mass consumption) will make others laugh, cringe, or wag their fingers at me and toss their heads back in a chorus of “for shame!”  But I’m hoping for some sort of catharsis so that tomorrow, when I make my next parenting mistake, I can at least start with a blank slate and feel guilty about only one mistake (and not a whole heap of them).


I’ve used ‘God made dirt and dirt don’t hurt’ as a justification for various parenting decisions.

In fact, I once literally uttered that statement to a passerby upon offering A his pacifier after it dropped on the sidewalk.

And then I silently asked myself these questions in order to further justify my decision: was the pacifier in a pile of dog poo?  Was there a medical biohazard box nearby?  Did it violate the five-second rule?  Nope?  And is A screaming bloody murder because he’s teething and his pacifier is his sole source of comfort for the ten-minute car-ride home?  Yep?  Well, in the mouth it goes!

Hey, at least I wiped off the dirt speckles before I gave it to him.

I sent M to his first overnight trip with a peanut butter sandwich, a can of creamed corn, and a packet of instant oatmeal for his sustenance.

For what it’s worth, M was almost two, so it’s not as if I was sending a toothless, potentially nut-allergic infant off with a sack full of poison.  But this was truly an absurd collection of comestibles.

What’s even more absurd is that M did (and does) enjoy a variety of truly healthy and delicious foods (including easily-transportable foods such as black beans and rice, berries, broccoli, and chicken).  Also adding to the absurdity is the fact that our friends (who were kindly watching M so that Tim and I could spend a romantic night together) had already assured us that they were excited to prepare all sorts of tasty food for M during his visit!  What was I possibly hoping to accomplish by including a blasted can of creamed corn in M’s overnight bag?!

I blame the absurdity on the mind-clouding promise of a night alone with my husband.

I was once so engrossed in a game of online Scrabble that I didn’t notice A chowing down on a feast of small paper pieces.

Yes, I realize that the paper probably didn’t hurt him, and yes, I was able to retrieve (at least some of) the paper from his mouth before he swallowed it.

What makes me feel guilty, however, is that I was (momentarily) more concerned with figuring out how to use my ‘Q’ tile in a triple word play than with watching what inedible objects my son was putting in his mouth.  Ack!  The guilt pierces my heart as I sit here typing this!

(As an aside, A has really turned into our household goat.  Whenever he sees a small piece of paper on the floor–and we accumulate lots of them with an art-project loving three-year-old, a teacher, and a lawyer in the house–he starts salivating and making “yum-yum-yum” sounds.)

I’ve spanked M.  Twice.

I’ve tried explaining the context of these (mis)deeds in so many ways, and each time, it sounds as if I am justifying child abuse.  And some of you may think that this is the case.  And I suppose that’s fine.

But if it gives you any idea of what I was up against (and of what my spanks are actually like), I’ll have you know that after the second spank, M looked me in the eyes and said, “Mom, you can do better than that.”

Say what?!

Tim once put M in a hotel closet as a makeshift “time out.”

(Should I be seriously worried about a visit from Child Protective Services?)

Although I realize that the action itself was not one in which I played any agential role, I also recognize that I was present during this parenting decision.  So I take partial responsibility (and all of the guilt, I’ve discovered).

M’s offense was that he had kicked me in my 32-weeks pregnant belly in an attempt to avoid his already past-due bedtime (which, I’ve learned, can be exceedingly difficult to enforce in a hotel room). 

The rest is a blur.  Tim picked up M and carried him off to “time out.”  I sat wondering where “time out” was going to occur.  I panicked, ready to tell Tim that you can’t leave a toddler alone in a bathroom.  I heard a door slide shut.  I realized that the bathroom door did not slide shut.  I leapt off the bed, simultaneously making the case that you can’t “lock” a child in a closet.

As Tim and I exchanged a fast-paced debate over the chosen “time out” location, we heard our child’s calm, sweet, precocious voice from behind the closet door:

“Uh, guys?  It’s a little dark in here.”


Ugh.  I can’t write any more.  The effect of this writing exercise has been anything but cathartic and will probably leave me contemplating my failings as a mother for the rest of the night.

(I exaggerate.  A bit.)

For what it’s worth, I do have many moments with my beloved children in which I get some indication that I am, in fact, doing an alright job.  And these include:

When A, our ten-month-old, greets me first-thing-in-the-morning with his giant, nearly toothless grin and his heart-melting newfound hugging skills.


When M turns to me, unprovoked, and says, “Mommy, I really love you.”

I guess if I’m teaching these kids to love, then I must be doing something right.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. renbeth permalink
    April 6, 2009 7:49 am

    As the friend in question regarding M’s overnight trip, and therefore as someone who has been watching your parenting skills for years now, I can assure you that you are definitely a great mother! Gretchen says she does remember the creamed corn and that she thought it was funny 🙂 But that was hardly something to feel guilty over. I send Isaac off to places with all sorts of random food.

    And the M in the closet thing? I can see why *you* might feel compelled to have mommy guilt, but it is one of *our* favorite M stories ever. We STILL, when it is dark or we have left Isaac in a room (etc, etc) will turn to each other and say “Uh, guys . . it’s dark in here.” I mean, I am just grateful that Tim couldn’t think of anything else to do 🙂

    But, more seriously . . . I think you are totally right about how easy it is to feel an enormous amount of guilt as a mother. A lot of my guilt comes from all of the balancing acts I am compelled to attempt – and my feeling that I cannot possibly keep them up. I think it is easy to put pressure on ourselves to be able to do everything all the time – and since that is not at all feasible we are doomed to fail at *that*!

    I actually always admire how well you are doing at handling two crazy kids (you know I couldn’t love M more, but he is a wild thing!) and finishing your dissertation and cooking these tasty things and being a doula and being such an awesome friend all at once! I know you have your hard days (weeks?) but I really appreciate your support and example.

  2. renbeth permalink
    April 6, 2009 7:50 am

    Oh, and speaking of not balancing? I was so busy blogging and commenting away that I ignored Isaac entirely as he began to bang his cereal bowl . . . and then he threw it from his high chair and the bowl shattered all over the floor. Alas . . .

  3. jenny permalink
    April 6, 2009 7:10 pm

    This post was great. I couldn’t help but laugh as I read it. I am sure you are a great mother judging by your blog and fb page! I almost fell off the couch when I read the part about your one son saying that you could do better when you “spanked him” lol! Thanks for another great blog!

  4. Kristen permalink*
    April 6, 2009 8:10 pm

    RenBeth–you and Gretchen are too kind. For what it’s worth, I’ve learned a lot about parenting from both of you. Isaac is so lucky to have parents like you, and it really shows in his incredibly sweet demeanor. (By the way, I was cracking up about the bowl! Sorry to hear that it broke, though. :-))

    Jenny–thanks so much! I really couldn’t *believe* it when he said that to me! In fact, I started laughing, and then he started laughing, and we both forgot about what went wrong in the first place. (And that’s how I learned that humor can be a great way to distract kids from destructive/dangerous behavior!)

  5. Paul R permalink
    April 6, 2009 10:22 pm

    Parenting seems to be like most disciplines in life; easy to criticize from the outside and hard to fully explain from the inside.

    We like to think that we simply have to find some strong sounding ideals or strategies and simply stick to them. Life, however, always has other plans for us. It is tactical pliability (bend not break) and honest self assessment that makes us truly effective and is indicative of the idea that if we didn’t truly want what was best we wouldn’t take time for valid retrospection.

  6. Kristen permalink*
    April 6, 2009 10:36 pm

    So does that mean you think I’m a good mom, dear brother-in-law? 😉
    (Just kidding…)

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