“I didn’t sign up for this!” Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, I have heard this phrase multiple times from my sister and other mom friends. Between work stress, navigating online learning, and trying to keep kids occupied so they do not wreak havoc around the house, moms are doing much more than ever before. Such stress and looming expectations, especially around parenting, may lead to feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy. While “mommy guilt,” or the guilt that comes from being unable to meet all the self- and society-imposed standards of motherhood, has been present since the beginning of time, it has never been more pervasive for many moms. Whether it is off-hand comments from family members about the choice to engage your child in in-person or online learning, or the general fear of making a decision that will negatively impact your child’s future, moms have felt the pressure to excel at motherhood during these “unprecedented times.”
So what can we realistically expect of ourselves and other moms? What standard must be met to be considered “successful”? According to Donald Winnicott, a renowned pediatrician and psychoanalyst, a successful mom is a “good enough mother,” or a mom who, over time, starts to pull back from granting her child’s every wish. This means that a mom might stop meeting her child’s every request (such as asking for a straw to drink the syrup or making a sandwich right this second) and instead takes the time to care for herself again. While this is not pleasant for the child, as the mom is now “failing” to meet their child’s every need, the mom’s decision to allow her child to be disappointed in her helps the child learn how to live in the real world. The child learns how to start solving their own problems, tolerate discomfort, and become his or her own person. In essence, a “good enough” mom who allows herself to disappoint her child is more helpful than a “perfect” mom.
I am not suggesting by any means that “mommy guilt” can be easily solved or that concerns for your child’s future are unwarranted. Parents should absolutely continue to do their best to protect their family’s well-being, especially during a pandemic. However, striving for perfection does not necessarily provide any additional benefit to your family, and your well-being will suffer for it. So, if we are not irreparably damaging our kids by allowing toys to be strewn across the floor, how does one deal with mommy guilt?
It’s okay to have bad days
Even when not in a pandemic, everyone has a few bad days here and there. Heck, people even have bad weeks or months. While sometimes there is the expectation of treating ourselves and our bodies as machines, we must recognize that we are humans with a limited capacity. If you have ever been on an airplane, you have likely heard the flight attendant tell you, “secure your own facemask before assisting others.” This is because we become powerless to help others, including our partners and kids, without first taking care of ourselves, both mentally and physically. Therefore, allowing ourselves to have bad days and taking care of ourselves when we do is imperative.
We are all in this together
We have all seen the beautiful, picturesque social media posts made by moms about their kids, giving us the impression of motherhood perfection. However, in reality, a family picture is just that, a picture—a snapshot of a single moment in time. I once messaged my sister after seeing her post a picture of my nephew sitting nicely in his chair, looking attentively at the computer screen during virtual learning. She immediately messaged back, “yes, but you didn’t see the meltdown that happened 10 seconds after!” Our lives are made up of many moments. Some of these moments are Instagram gold, and others are not. No matter how beautiful and sparkly others appear in their pictures, they likely have their own stories of hardship as well. The social media age has led us to believe that other moms are perfectly adjusted with no difficulties. However, in reality, the pandemic has hit everyone and altered everyone’s lives in a different and unexpected way. So even if you see a post of someone’s child sitting perfectly still in front of their computer for virtual learning, there is likely something else happening behind the scenes.
Breathe in, breathe out, and embrace “good enough.”