In a recent issue of Martha Stewart Magazine, Alana Chernila wrote about “mommy guilt.” Chernila shared a story about running for public office and the toll it exacted on her family. An outing in a park ended with Chernila’s daughter, Sadie, disgruntled when she was not allowed to accompany a friend on a last-minute invitation for a canoeing session. In the car, Sadie declared, “I hate elections!” Chernila said her daughter’s words “hit me deep in my gut.”
Later that night, Chernila tried to make it up to Sadie by making homemade breakfast pastries, so that she could greet her children with delicious treats in the morning. Chernila’s “mommy guilt” was assuaged as her children reacted as she hoped, “marveling at the breakfast their mama had made for them.” So, mom attempts to make a difference and be a living example of an engaged citizen, and must feel badly because she has to deny her child a single canoe outing. As a result, she stays up later than the rest of the family, and gets up earlier than everyone else in the morning, so she can bake her way back into her children’s hearts.
What is this “mommy guilt” thing anyway? Why do women feel badly for having lives beyond that of their role as mothers? I ask myself these questions all the time. I wonder what it is in our society that makes moms feel guilty when we have to say “no,” or we can’t say “yes.” In my own life, I consider that my son will undergo surgery in a few weeks. There is no question that I will be at the hospital, and will accompany him every step of the way. My husband will not be there with us. Partly this is because his line of work doesn’t provide personal or sick days, and a back injury required him to use his vacation to heal earlier this year. Yet, my husband feels no “guilt.” He knows I’m capable of handling the situation with aplomb. In fact, I’ve done it a few times in our children’s lives. However, I know that if I was working as the main breadwinner, I don’t know that I’d be able to work if my child was having surgery. I would judge myself and demand my presence. My own mind admonishes, “What kind of mother doesn’t take off work when her child needs surgery?” No one, including me, judges my husband for not being there. He’s the dad. He’s out earning the money that pays the insurance premiums that help subsidize the operation and all the attendant costs and fees. Even when a mother is in that role, she is still supposed to be at the bedside.
It is this double demand of women, by women (of ourselves), that is what is known as “mommy guilt.” Why should Chernila feel so terrible for having a campaign event super-cede the whims of her daughter? Why should she stay up into the night and rise early to try to “fix” what was never really broken? Why did she feel it in her “gut” when her child lashed out in a selfish, childish manner when she couldn’t have her way? Why do women punish themselves for being human beings, even when we’re attempting to be positive role models through the actions and activities that might take us away from our families? It is only by answering these questions for ourselves, and catching ourselves before we allow guilt to settle into our hearts and stomachs that we might rid ourselves of this guilt.
Women are deemed selfish when we put our needs or desires before those of our families, especially our children. Whether it is an operation where both parents are not present, or an election and a campaign that takes a woman away from home, we need to stop feeling guilty and start realizing we are not and cannot be everything for everyone in our families all the time. That is the unhealthy role model and the bahaivior we should feel guilty perpetuating. When a father is on the campaign trail, no one questions his absence. Mom, back home, when the couple’s children declare that they “hate elections,” merely extols the virtues of the campaigning father. She tells the children how proud they should be of their dad, how they should be “extra good” so that it is easier on the father when he calls home. They should realize he is serving their community and see him as a role model of citizenship. They should see him as a man of conviction, who identifies things that need changing, and goes about putting himself in a position to make change. For his part, while the campaigning dad might want to be there for the Brownie Girl Scout ceremony or the spelling bee, he doesn’t ever express that as “daddy guilt.” And, when my husband can’t be at the hospital for our son’s surgery, he doesn’t feel guilty, either. Rather, he feels like he is doing something that is supportive, in fact, by working! The only way we can rid ourselves (and the world) of mommy guilt is to stop reprimanding ourselves for being autonomous humans once our children leave our physical bodies. We need to value what it is we do and who we are in the world. This might help us rear daughters who will not suffer mommy guilt themselves!
Kate Robinson, M.A. adult learning and development, is a Master’s in Social Work candidate at Bridgewater State University. She lives south of Boston with her family.
Kate enjoys writing, reading, collage and felting. She also works in medical education and as a counselor at a women’s health clinic.