99 Problems

Published on April 7th, 2022 | by Samantha Mann


It’s Time to Curb the Cultural Expectation of Mommy Guilt

During the two-week parenting marathon commonly referred to as winter break, I allowed my toddler to watch 60 hours of Peppa Pig, eat marshmallows the size of his fist in exchange for good behavior, and encouraged him to stay up later than his 7 p.m. bedtime in the hopes of getting an extra hour of morning sleep. I should also confess, I heard him say fuck no less than five times, and I never corrected him. In fact, I laughed at his perfect placement and intonation of the word. Moreover, I didn’t feel guilty about any of these parenting choices as they made the constant caretaking more manageable.

I worry about my son, especially his physical safety, to a degree that appears higher than average when I do a quick parent assessment at the playground. When he climbs and jumps, I wince and squint my eyes shut. I shove my hands inside my coat pockets so as to not grab for him as often as my brain demands. But, while I worry about him hurting himself, I’d never struggled with guilt. I think “is he going to crack his skull open on the slide?” not mull over “am I personally horribly responsible for his potential skull-cracking?”

Recently, I’ve started feeling a kind of guilt. But, it’s a secondhand guilt, the guilt of not experiencing the typical, ultra-popular mommy guilt. FOMO guilt.

When I talk with my friends who have children and random playground parents, it seems like an admission of guilt is the new salutation. Many conversations begin with “I feel so bad that I didn’t” or “I feel so bad that I did” or “I probably shouldn’t have” or “I should probably do more of.” What happened to A/S/L?

Before winter break, I was texting with a mom friend trying to set up a time for drinks. Over text she confided that she feels immense guilt for not being home to put her son to sleep every night, a task that in his two and a half years of life she had only missed once. I’m proud to say this only once was due to being out with me. A decision I wholeheartedly stand by as we found happy hour priced margaritas past 8 p.m.!

“Not to sound like I don’t care about parenting, but the first time I didn’t put [my son] to bed he was only a few weeks old! Attachment seemingly unaffected.” I work evening hours, but some of those nights that someone else puts the kid to sleep, I am out with a friend. This is the part where I am supposed to articulate that taking time for myself allows me to be a better a parent, which is true. But the compulsion to footnote derives from accepting the baseline that I should feel guilty at all for taking time for myself, which I do not. I’d meet my pals for dinner, go to a movie alone, or attend a weekend bachelorette trip even if it resulted in worse parenting. Parents deserve pleasures unattached to their children.

I hated that my pal felt bad for wanting to engage in activities outside of mothering and I hoped this text was a temporary balm to her stress.

The same week as the bedtime guilt text, I was at a playdate with a few families from my son’s preschool. A parent and I were talking about what annoying TV shows our kids like and within less than sixty seconds the parent said, “although he only watches a few hours per week.” As if I cared how much TV his kid watches. “Our son watches tons of TV,” I shot back, trying to make everyone feel cool about TV time, but then no one laughed.

Should I be hiding my lack of guilt better? Is this what other parents are doing?

Photo by Regis-Hari Bouchard on Unsplash

A quick google search of “mommy guilt” shows ten plus pages of results: Managing Mom Guilt, How to Let Go of Working-Mom Guilt, 10 Reasons You Feel Mom Guilt…But Totally Shouldn’t! Mothers, It’s Not Fair For You to Feel This Guilty, A Surprising Root Of Mom Guilt—And 4 Ways to Overcome It.

Everyone has the mommy guilt according to the internet. I began to wonder if maybe I was experiencing mommy guilt subliminally, masking it even from myself. Or, otherwise, something must be maternally broken.

My secondary guilt reminded me of Solomon Asch’s classic 1951 Conformity Experiment. Asch put one unknowing participant in a room with seven confederates (people who were in on the experiment). As a group, they had to examine a picture of a straight line and then decide from three choices which image most accurately matched the length of the example. The confederates purposefully chose a wrong answer and the experiment found that for the majority of the time, the naive subject would go along with the group. After the experiment, Asch interviewed participants to find out why they conformed and many of them confessed they were afraid to be ridiculed.

The findings of Asch’s experiment revealed that participants went along with an obviously incorrect answer for two main reasons: 1) they wanted to fit in and avoid the feelings of being viewed as weird (normative influence) and 2) they believed the rest of the participants were better informed (informational influence).

Once a majority agrees on a conclusion, it is socially more difficult to have another point of view. It seems that parents, particularly those who identify as mothers, are being culturally influenced to believe that feeling guilty all the time is the only normal experience.

In the moment of allowing my kid to watch 900 hours of Peppa Pig, I feel good about choice, but the minute a playground parent tells me their kid only watches 20 minutes of TV a day because they have a doctor in their family who said TV is causing ADHD, I second guess myself. I know that if something is good for parents then it’s generally good for kids. I need my son to watch cartoons so I can clean the house, shower, or look at Tik-Tok for 20 minutes, but during these parent interactions the secondhand anxiety overrides my true feelings. I have never boldly said back to a parent, “well we watch lots of TV and haven’t seen any negative side effects.” Usually, I lie and agree with them. Just like Asch’s finding, I don’t want to be ridiculed or look stupid.

We have reached a point where the amount of influence exuded over parents, particularly mothers, regarding guilt could be interfering with our true feelings and thoughts. Not only is it socially difficult to go against the norm, but parenting is sensitive, so telling other parents that you don’t feel guilty can be perceived as bragging or undermining someone else’s experience of guilt. The plain statement that I don’t feel guilt could make you feel guilty that you do feel guilt.

It’s a trap.

I do not want to make light of those folks who suffer from true parenting guilt, particularly when related to post-partum anxiety and depression. I do wonder if there are other parents out there like me who are suffering from secondary lack of guilt-guilt?

Photo by Dušan Pokuševski on Unsplash

The mommy guilt media story feels similar to the abortion-regret story we had been sold. For years, we were led to believe that when a person had an abortion it was always an excruciating and traumatic decision. In the past few years, Margaret Cho, Stevie Nicks, and Chelsea Handler brought to light the ease in their abortion decisions. Many have reported having no emotional difficulty undergoing the procedure.

Michelle Wolf famously spoke of her own abortion in her stand-up special, Joke Show, saying: “If it’s a big deal for you, it’s a big deal. If it’s not, it’s not. Both are correct. My abortion, not a big deal for me. I left work, I got an abortion, I drank half a LaCroix, and then I went back to work.”

One might start to think that as a culture we prefer that women feel insecure about their choices. It’s as if we are content with the false notion that women don’t know what decisions are best for themselves. This mommy guilt is not only creating negative feelings for parents, but it’s also separating them further from their intuition.

Not only do women know what’s best for themselves, but they know what’s best for their children, homes, and communities. As I spring awake at midnight to the sound of my kid ralphing all over his bed, I do not hesitate with ideas about what I should be doing. I just take care of it. When he falls and inevitably does bonk his head, or skins his knee, or can’t find the exact right sippy cup, I never hesitate, I just do it. Moms know what to do. In the same vein as Michelle’s abortion, if you feel guilty about being a parent that’s ok, but if you know deep in your gut that handing your child an iPad at a restaurant so you can enjoy talking to another adult for 45 minutes is the right choice for you, then hand that iPad over with gusto and pop those headphones on your kid with pride.

Feature photo by Pasha Chusovitin on Unsplash

Tags: , , , , , , ,

About the Author

Samantha is the author of Putting Out: Essays on Otherness. She edited the upcoming anthology I Feel Love: Notes on Queer Joy (June 2022 Read Furiously Publishing). Publications include The Rumpus, Elle, Bust, Romper, and others.

Comments are closed.

Back to Top ↑
  • Subscribe to Mutha

    Enter your email address to subscribe to MUTHA and receive notifications of new articles by email.

    Email Frequency