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Have you ever felt the searing pangs of mommy guilt? Has the social pressure to become the best parent you can be, made you feel like a bad parent instead?
I hear you. As the work-from-home mother to a four-year-old and five-month-old, my days do not go by without a sudden mommy guilt attack. Of course, my social media feed doesn’t reflect this. How could it, in a culture where expert motherhood has been elevated to an art form?
Unless you have been living under a rock, you must have been bombarded with images of the various mothers who have somehow managed to have it all. They work, they turn out the most Instagrammable meals, they keep their children’s brains free from screens, they work out and they do this with no help. They also raise the bar impossibly high for other mothers.
Cue the ‘Bad Parent’ theme song right here. Social pressure, even of the virtual kind is not the best thing that can happen to a new mother.
For example, I had always been the kind who revised three times for an exam, the person who went for months without weekend offs during her stint as a TV news reporter, the person who edited her manuscript four times. Come motherhood in 2011, naturally I wanted to ace the class. My husband and I had just moved to El Salvador with our five-month-old daughter and so acing the motherhood game meant taking care of my daughter, ensuring her mental and physical development, making homemade baby food, cooking adult meals, working on my (then unpublished) novella and travel columns and learning Spanish to get by.
I must add here, that no one told me that I must do all of these things on my own. But I had somehow internalized the message that not doing all of these things by myself would make me a lesser mother as compared to the high standards I had set for myself, based on what I had seen.
You don’t need to be a psychic to divine what happened next. I found myself floundering and denying that I was floundering. My days revolved over my daughter’s every need and the attempt to fit in work during the brief periods that she slept. And feeling guilty for thinking of work when I should be thinking only motherly thoughts in my daughter’s waking hours. Of course, the mommy guilt was not always triggered by virtual social pressure, sometimes it was very clearly articulated by friends and family.
When I joined Salsa classes, a ‘well-meaning’ relative emailed me asking how I had mustered the strength to leave my 8-month-old daughter at home with her father while I went to dance. The implication being that I was a bad parent who had the gall to think that I could afford to have me-time as a Mom.
After the release of my novella, a ‘friend’ wrote to me that my “daughter looked poorly but then that’s what happens when you call your books your babies.”
This is not by any means a unique experience. My friends based in India too talk about how the onus to take care of the child/children has always been on the mother. So much so, that they face discrimination in the work place as it is assumed that they will now be focusing on their child, instead of their job.
And where does that leave us parents? Drowning under the social pressure to be perfect and the mommy guilt that comes from silently believing that we are bad parents.
It was around the time my daughter turned two that I realized the toll this was taking on me. I was the primary caregiver to my child as my family though supportive was three flights away and my husband while hands-on was mostly traveling. In an attempt to raise her in the best way I could, I had put a hold on my writing, cancelled my dance classes and dedicated myself to her.
As someone with zero social interactions apart from that with other harried mothers at chaotic play dates and the babbles of a toddler, my personality had taken on a whiny tone. While I strived to keep the resentment out of my parenting, I could feel myself being far more impatient than usual. I was lonely and listless and trying to mask it with happy pictures and a smile that didn’t reach my eyes. I also found myself tearing up – a lot. And while my daughter was too young to realize that her mother was lost, my husband soon understood that not all was well.
Two things helped me pull back from the edge of the chasm I was teetering on.
The first was my husband, who stepped up by valiantly taking on more of the childcare duties and chores at home, after his long days at the office. I started getting the time to write again and I felt like the writer part of my self that had left with new motherhood, was slowly returning.
The second thing that helped me combat mommy guilt was a mindfulness workshop by a friend. There, in a small air-conditioned room, I sat with other parents and child-free individuals listening to their lives’ anxieties and the social pressure they are all subject to. And later, as we sat in silence, meditating on our thoughts, I finally felt something shift.
I realized that everyone is at war with himself or herself. We struggle to rise up to expectations that are not even ours to begin with. As mothers especially, and parents in general, we battle with other parents trying to be the best. But the truth is that, no one can win those battles. No single parent can be the best breadwinner, chef, craftsperson, artist, nurturer and everything else. You choose what you can do best, take a deep breath and let the rest go.
Motherhood or parenthood is about the path you take with your children. It is not up to friends or family to tell you which direction to take or turns to avoid. And even if they do, think of their voices as the chirping of birds and babbling brooks that we encounter on hikes. Sometimes we choose to slow down and pay heed and otherwise they merge into the soundtrack of our lives.
Of course, the mommy guilt never quite goes away but as long as you realize that the best parent for your child is you, you can mute it. And then, you keep walking, one step at a time.
Image source: Indian mom and child by Shutterstock.
Shweta Ganesh Kumar is a Novelist, Award-winning Blogger and Founder-Editor of The Times
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