They’ll all land on the therapist’s couch at some point. (Wednesday’s Wisdom)

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I’ll bet you didn’t know this, but I’m an award winning mom. Spend any length of time with me, and you’d figure that out pretty easily. At one time, I had collected so many awards, I needed multiple shelves to hold them. I’d love to think I’m unique, but I’m guessing you’ve got at least a few awards yourself. Let me tell you how I amassed my collection… before I starting throwing it away.

When C was a tiny babe of 4 months old, she got a sunburn. I’m not talking “a little pink”; she rivaled a lobster on its way to drawn butter. Her daycare provider had two small boys in swim lessons and while watching her boys master the frog kick, she failed to get C out of the sun before her tender skin was screaming. Yes, I was mad. Words can’t possibly express the anger I felt, at least not words I chose to use on this blog. My blood boiled. However, the anger I felt was easily dwarfed by the  guilt that consumed me as I cooled her skin through the night with white vinegar compresses. Guilt found me alone in the dark with my thoughts.  My doubts, really. And my crying baby. And my breaking heart.

What if I hadn’t gone back to work? What if I hadn’t placed her in daycare? Was I just selfish? Was I more concerned with my needs, my career, the money, than my daughter? Was I….a bad mama? My daughter’s burning skin confirmed what my breaking heart already knew. Yes, I was.

I’ll never forget that day. Though it wasn’t the first time I was sure I had blown it, it was the first time I gave myself an official “BAD MAMA AWARD” and placed it upon the imaginary shelf in my mind. It was the one that started my shelf of shame.

At 18 months old, she fell, face first, into my office chair and ended up with a black eye. The pediatrician said she would be sure to put a note about what happened into our file– just in case we were visited by Child Protective Services! We weren’t, but another award went up on my shelf.

When C was around 2, she had a simple cold, which evolved into croup, which became pneumonia. After her pneumonia cleared, she was diagnosed with asthma. Those 4 months left me very familiar with the sound of gunky lungs, nebulizers, and inhalers. Add a few more awards to my shelf.

At the age of 3, she choked on a piece of ice when I wasn’t watching her reach into my cup. I was deep in conversation with my neighbor and though I acted fast, it was my ice that caused her to choke. One more award on my shelf.

I could go on– trust me I could! I haven’t even started on life after A and all the awards I’ve earned as her mama, or my failings at giving equal love to both girls, etc. But, I’m sure you get the picture. You may even be thinking about some awards of your own.

My award shelves came tumbling down about 10 years later when C was diagnosed with pneumonia three times in 18 months.  The poor baby had barely recovered from one bout before she was struck down again. Each time, I got her into the pediatrician quickly. I knew the sounds. I recognized the dark circles under her eyes and listless steps down the hall. I grabbed my stethoscope and carefully listened to the crackles as she took a deep breath. By the third round, I told the receptionist she needed to be seen for pneumonia–not suspected pneumonia. At some point during that appointment I muttered, “I feel so bad. This is her third go-around.”  The pediatrician casually replied, “Don’t feel guilty. These things just happen. It doesn’t make you a bad mama.”

I looked up with surprise. Had she seen my shelf? Read my thoughts? Sneaked a peek in my journal? Yet suddenly, from somewhere deep inside came the words, “There’s no more room on my “Bad Mama Award” shelf. I’ve stopped collecting.” She nodded without looking up and told me she was sending us to Children’s Hospital for a x-ray; even though she concurred with my diagnosis, insurance would insist. “Pneumonia be damned,” I thought as we drove to Children’s, “I was on my way to healing my chronic mama-guilt.”

A few days ago, I sat with a new mom. Her son is 4 months old. Such a good age. Such fertile land for mama-guilt. Her little man had a small, very insignificant scratch on his face. My friend fretted. She didn’t know how he got it. Did she scratch him with her earring? Did he do it himself? Were his nails too long? Mama guilt seeped from every pore. I could smell it long before she announced, “I’m a bad mama.” There it was. Up went the award on her shelf.

Far more important than any teething or diaper rash advice I could give her, I needed to tell her about the downfalls of collecting “Bad Mama Awards” and the weight they carry. They suck the fun out of mothering. They suck the joy out of a marriage. And, they suck the life out of a mother. “It’s a tiny scratch. It doesn’t matter where it came from. Just do the best you can and trust me, he’ll be fine. Even when you make a mistake. We all make mistakes. Let it go,” I pleaded. “Besides,” I assured her,  “I’ve learned there is only one guarantee in parenting; that we will all do something that’ll land our kids on a therapist’s couch at some point.” I prayed she heard me, so maybe by the time her son is 13, she, too, will take down her award shelves.

Guilt, I’ve tried to teach my kids, can be useful if you use it to course-correct. Mama-guilt, however, is rarely used so productively. We compare ourselves to other women whose children are without black eyes. We use it to flog ourselves when we slap a PB&J down for dinner because a client wants a summary report in the morning. But, most often, we use it to penalize ourselves for being human.

And humans we are, doing the best we can to love and parent our young’ins, in between visits to the therapist. 🙂

Please share how you’ve handled mama-guilt when it rears its ugly head?

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14 thoughts on “They’ll all land on the therapist’s couch at some point. (Wednesday’s Wisdom)”

  1. That’s been the running joke with my friends since our kids were little, “Better put some money into the therapist account for that one!” I still suffer from some guit, but usually try to do what you said – only use it to help me course correct.

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    1. Heather, isn’t there always comfort in laughing with our friends–especially at, I mean, with our kids. Guilt can still find its way under my skin depending on where my “mama resolve” is, which is usually linked to my fatigue level.

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  2. I had so much guilt with my first. He was born with a birth defect, had to have stomach surgery at 6 weeks old, didn’t eat well, couldn’t nurse. I was a nervous wreck thinking I had somehow failed my baby. I really beat myself up about it for months and months. I worried about every little thing, was I doing this right? Would he be okay? He had so many other medical issues, croup, asthma…I think the stress got to me.

    With my second? totally different. I had her four years later and I was a seasoned pro by then. I knew she would get sick, maybe fall down and get scratches. It was okay, no big deal. I just rolled with it. I didn’t worry about much of anything, just spent my time loving and laughing. No guilt allowed. (well, sometimes I get little twinges….) Being a mom is tough!

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    1. You did have a rough road into motherhood. Lots of “guilt mines” with your first. C had surgery at 6 weeks, too, and I remember wondering (blaming myself) if it was something I had done, etc.

      Getting older and recognizing my kids are going to be fine, honestly better, without all my worry/guilt helps. But, you’re right, being a mom can be tough!

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  3. Omigosh. I have to say I do not suffer from this affliction. Seriously. Is there something wrong with me? 😉 I just don’t believe guilt is productive. If I screw up, I apologize and move on. Done. So I apologize a lot. But I don’t lose sleep over anything I’ve done as a parent. Yet.

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  4. Aw, you’re a wonderful mama! I agree that noticing mistakes we’ve made can help us if we can achieve course-correction . . . but guilt, oh man, guilt is so rarely a good thing, especially when we use it to chew our self-esteem up from the inside out. I’ve been through the same award-collection process, but talking to other moms almost always eases the burdens inflicted by collection trophies inscribed with our guilt.

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    1. Thanks, El! (Can you speak slowly and clearly into my microphone?)
      I hear what you are saying, El. Guilt versus “noticing mistakes” is an important distinction. I think we, as moms, often beat ourselves up, over and over again, in particular when we think we are the only ones making mistakes by failing to open up to our friends.

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  5. This is wonderful Mary, I think you read my thoughts too. I was just thinking of the “bad Mama” label in relation to my own world, just the other day. Thank you for reminding me that we are all connected and thank you for your salve for the mother’s soul. -Rita

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  6. “But, most often, we use it to penalize ourselves for being human.”

    Wow. Why on earth do we do that? Why do we forget about the bazillions of wonderful things we do for our children, yet remember in vivid technicolor the details of a sunburn from decades ago? I scratched my firstborn’s face with my fingernail TWENTY YEARS AGO and it got infected (because it was right next to his ever-snotty nose). I can still see the faint trace of the scar on his handsome face. Every time I notice it I get a wave of guilt because I scarred him for life.

    Two decades into this parenting gig, I’m now seeing the fruits of my labor. Since the first two turned out rather nicely, I’m cutting myself some slack for the rest of the time the little dude is still with me. But it sure was a long time coming. I hope that young mama heeds your advice, and spares herself the time in the penalty box that you and I have endured.

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    1. “Two decades into this parenting gig, I’m now seeing the fruits of my labor. Since the first two turned out rather nicely, I’m cutting myself some slack for the rest of the time the little dude is still with me.”

      I feel the same way about my second born. However, I still remember when my younger sister (who became a mama 6 months before I did) said the only “work review” we will ever get to know if we are “on track” as parents is when our kids are able to move out and support themselves.

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  7. I think it always helps to know we aren’t alone… Chatting with a good friend always helps my momma guilt subside (at least for a bit), knowing that I’m not the only one who’s made mistakes, to get encouragement from that friend and to also encourage her. 🙂

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