My husband, kids and I are browsing furniture when I catch a telltale whiff. I pull back my toddler daughter’s pants to peek in her diaper and am rewarded with a finger full of poo.
“Ugh… Violet’s got a really bad diaper. I’m going to go get the diaper bag from the car,” I tell my husband. I scurry past the beds and couches and out the door, holding my finger out to the side like it’s been injured.
“Could I ask you a few quick questions about your experience today?” a woman standing by the door with a clipboard asks.
“Sorry, I have to change my daughter’s diaper,” I blurt, waving my filthy finger to illustrate.
“Oh, I totally understand. I have twins at home,” she says kindly. I am already halfway through the door.
When I get to my car, I grab the diaper bag. It contains two too-small diapers and no wipes.
The guilt hits me like a strong wind. Why aren’t you ever prepared? How come you keep forgetting the important stuff?
This is nothing new: I’m just not the uber-prepared mom. I could blame it on the ADD that I’m 90% sure I have (the other 10% just got distracted by a carrot). I’m perpetually forgetting something, whether it be sunscreen, snacks, or, like today, wipes.
I exhale a quiet curse, then head back to whisk my daughter to the ladies room, where I use a small forest of wadded toilet paper to clean her up. Even after she’s redressed and I’ve thoroughly washed my hands, the guilt lingers. Why can’t I be more prepared? The other moms always have wipes, right? And a plethora of correctly-sized diapers?
Mama guilt appeared the moment my egg was fertilized and has since blossomed at the same exponential rate as those early cells. It flares up in relatively benign situations like the poo finger incident, as well as during larger battles of attempting to balance self-care with the needs of my young children. It floods me every time I do something I swore I wouldn’t, like holler, “If you don’t brush your teeth right now I’m throwing away all your Halloween candy!”
The guilt likes to make me aware of the space between the parent I thought I’d be, and the parent I actually am. At times, mama guilt feels like a rising tide, threatening to pull me under.
When I start to feel that way, I try to remember to do one of these three things to help me float when I’m experiencing a mama guilt flare-up:
Ask a Question: “Will this matter tomorrow? In a week? A year?” In my example of not having wipes, it really didn’t matter to anyone but me. My daughter certainly won’t remember it.
When I was far more ready to stop breastfeeding than my then-toddler son was, pondering how much it would matter in five years helped me feel sturdier in my decision. As parents, we make dozens of small and large decisions each day. It can be helpful to look into the future in an attempt to get some perspective.
If it won’t matter down the road, let it go.
Call in Your Tribe: By far, my favorite antidote to a mama guilt attack is to talk to my friends. I’m lucky enough to have found an amazing tribe of likeminded friends who are, like me, imperfectly navigating their way through early parenthood. When I tell them I yelled at my son or that my kids ate two meals in which French fries were the main course, they remind me that my kids will be fine. That I’m still a good mom. Then, they usually tell me about their own temper tantrums and moments of less than stellar parenting. The connection and validation instantly calms me down.
In turn, I’m learning that being vulnerable and talking about my shortcomings as a parent is powerful. Sometimes, social media can make it feel like everybody else is doing it right. Most people don’t post pictures of their screaming children or their messy living rooms on Facebook. Letting others know I’m struggling can give them permission to admit their battles, too. We are not alone. Even when we’re out of wipes and have fecal matter on our fingers.
Ask for Help: Finally, if you find yourself repeatedly struggling with some part of parenting that activates your mama guilt, get some help. It doesn’t mean you’re a failure—it means you’re resourceful and responsible.
While there are billions of people parenting in the world, nobody in the history of the world has ever been you, raising your particular child. We are all unique, as are our children. Despite hearing advice from family members, teachers and friends, the intricacies of our own and our children’s personalities are stunning and often mystifying.
Really, how would you know how to parent your particular child in every situation that arises?
Calling in a professional, whether it be seeking out a counselor to help you get some perspective on your guilt, or talking to a 1-on-1 Coach to ask questions about discipline, you might find that getting some outside help takes some of the weight off of your shoulders.
Guilt may be part of the parenting package, but I’ve found when I take steps to lessen that guilt, I have more energy to be present for my kids. And perhaps, more energy to better stock that diaper bag.