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  • The Reflective Doc

Guilt-Free Motherhood: Is it Possible?

Just sitting here at the dentist, waiting for one son to have his teeth cleaned after arriving late. Turns out I scheduled both boys for a 3pm appointment, even confirmed it, and then totally forgot.

Bring on the mom guilt.

As emotions go, guilt is a rough one. Rather than anger or sadness, something you can experience and eventually move through, guilt, like resentment, is an ugly and energy-sapping, sticky feeling. It often rears its head at inopportune times: “How could I burn the last bagel?” “Look how their faces fell when I said no to a playdate.” “I totally forgot to donate to the school sock-a-thon!”

I don’t think I’m striving for perfection in my parenting role. My work exposes me to the truly damaging experiences young minds can witness, and we are nowhere near that dark place. But I am not immune to feeling the inadequacies suggested by carefully curated social media posts and the sidelines of suburban athletic competitions.

In psychology, D. W. Winnicott, a pediatrician and psychoanalyst, described the “Good enough mother.” Adapted to her baby’s needs, over time she also allows her child to experience some frustration as they encounter the outside world. Though a challenging balancing act, this approach to parenting can provide the child room for building confidence and exploring independently.

This concept is certainly less critical than many. Women have been through the ringer when it comes to my field. At different points in the past, a mother’s “coldness” was blamed for her child’s autism, obsessive-compulsive disorder was attributed to her poor potty training, and her uterus was held responsible for such outlandish behavior as speaking her mind or expressing interest in working outside the home, a “hysteria” she was unable to control.

Today, the emotional influence of my reproductive organs may be stated less explicitly, but I am still suspected of a monthly hormone fluctuations when I express strong emotion. In the workplace, an assertive approach to management will still evoke far more critical language than my male peers. “A woman president?,” they ask, “What if she has her time of the month when she’s holding the nuclear codes?”

At the heart of society’s expectations for women is our role as the primary caretaker in the family home. A selfless offering of nurturing, dedication, and sacrifice are preached from custom t-shirts and cleaning supply commercials (why does she always seem to enjoy mopping so damn much?)

Think of the relief we would feel as mothers if we could flip a switch and eliminate the guilt pervading our lives. One moment we are replaying our child’s face when we missed that 15-minute “concert” on a Thursday morning, and the next we are sailing through the day, proud of how hard we are working, and excited to see what parenting challenge might need our attention next.

Slogging through a recent 2-week cold from my progeny, I was lying in bed with my pillow over my head, cursing all leaf blowers and waiting for the Dayquil to kick in, when I realized I was feeling something else. Not just guilt that I had to reschedule my patients or had crashed the night before without “tucking in” my kids, but also shame. Ugh.

Shame, suggesting that rather than having done something wrong, we feel we are something wrong. I realized I felt at fault for my illness, weak for succumbing to a virus due to a lack of will or attention to hygiene. A perfect mom wouldn’t need time to recover. She would power through.

As I read of the many benefits of mindfulness and meditation in reducing anxiety and improving mood, I remind myself that an informal practice could also help with guilt reduction. I take a moment to focus on my breath, and then begin a loving kindness meditation: “May I be safe, may I be happy, may I be healthy, may I feel loved.” Starting with myself, I then expand these thoughts to my loved ones and beyond. I try to remember that these tasks are my goal as a mother, a wife, a daughter, a physician. I don’t need perfection. Right now, just as I am, is enough.

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