February 3, 2008

Oh, the pressure! Oh, the guilt!

Being a mom is hard. It is the hardest job I've ever undertaken. And what makes it even harder is the pressure and the guilt that is forced on mothers by society. Why do we beat ourselves and each other up so much?

The pressure to be a perfect mother is a constant. Our picture of what makes a perfect mother is unrealistic. Like Mary Poppins, she should be practically perfect in every way. Unlike Mary Poppins, who leaves at the end of the movie, the perfect mother should never be away from her children. According to
Ayelet Waldman in her article, The Bad-Mommy Brigade:

The single defining characteristic of iconic Good Motherhood is self-abnegation. Her day is constructed around her children’s health and happiness, and her own needs and ambitions are relevant only in relation to theirs. If a Good Mother works, she does so only if it doesn’t harm her children, or if her failing to earn an income would make them worse off. She takes care of herself for their sake, to make them better people: “She is in shape and works outside of the home so she can be a good role model.”
This is, obviously, an impossible ideal and yet we kick ourselves when we can't live up to it. If you search in any of the mommy blog directories using the word "guilt" you come up with a seemingly endless list of entries, all by hard working, loving, concerned mothers asking themselves and the world if they're good enough (like Trieste in her blog So Unoriginal), or confessing guilt over their bad-mommy "sins" (like MommyZabs, in a post called Mommy Confessional).

It seems every mom feels guilty, whether they're stay-at-home, work-at-home, or working moms. Midlifemamma said it well, in a post about mommy guilt:
Working mothers feel guilty they don't spend enough time with their children. Work-at-home mothers feel guilty as little ones who don't understand why Mommy can't play paw at their feet. Stay at home moms feel guilty that they sometimes need a break from their children or that the time they spend together is of the Mom trying to get household chores done variety.
What about Dads?

According to Ayelet Waldman in The Bad-Mommy Brigade, fathers don't have to do much more than show up to be considered "good" dads:
A Good Father shows up. In the delivery room, at dinnertime (when he can), to school recitals and ball games (whenever it’s reasonably possible). He’s a good provider who is not above changing a diaper or wearing a BabyBj√∂rn.
Mothers are held to a much higher standard. According to Rosie Millard, in her article Thanks, Britney, from all bad mothers: Women struggling to live up to the myth of the perfect mother should bury their angst and just be grateful that others fail far more spectacularly:
Mothers, however, are living through a permanent exam wherein we must meet some impossible ideal: we must be endlessly patient and available, always cheerful, never yell, not project our own neuroses on our children, have perfectly turned out children, cook like Nigella and never be too tired for sex.
If Waldman and Miller are correct it's no wonder that women punish themselves more often with guilt for not living up to the impossible standard than do men. My husband, who is admittedly a very good father, never questions his abilities or effectiveness as a parent. The need to question his fathering skills simply does not occur to him and he finds it confusing when I feel the need to question mine or when I feel guilty about my parenting.

The fantasy versus the Reality:

We all have a picture in our heads of what motherhood should look like: "The attractive, well-dressed and made-up mother, with her happy, smiling family" (Weaver & Ussher, p.57).

According to a study in the Journal of Reproductive and Infant Psychology by J.J. Weaver and J. M. Ussher, "How Motherhood changes life - a discourse analytic study with mothers of young children", mothers' actual experiences rarely live up to ther imagined ideal:
Motherhood was burensome in terms of the workload involved, and isolating, tying them to the home. They described a loss of identity, realted to their perceived need to consider their children and spouses before themselves.... At the same time motherhood gave them enormous enjoyment and pleasure, in terms of the way it made them feel needed and wanted, and in their pride in their children. (p. 52)
The mothers in this study talked about the need to live up to the "...societal image of the mother as self-less madonna , prepared to sacrifice her own need for her child." (p. 58). And the difference between their own parental obligations, "The duties of a mother are... mandatory" (p.59) versus those of the father:
...it was plain that the men had a degree of choice as to how involved they got... the optional nature of father involvement, even when both partners are equally available for their children. (p.60)
So what can we do about it?

If you need one more thing to feel guilty about, you can feel guilty about feeling guilty. TheMentorMom argues in her post, Mommy Guilt, is it such a bad thing? that mommy guilt can be dangerous if we can't move past it:
It can interfere with how we interact with our children, e.g., becoming hypervigilent about our children's safety to the point where we cause them to feel anxious about their own safety. In addition, constantly second guessing our decisions or replaying our mistakes undermines what I like to call our "parenting self-esteem." If we don't have confidence in our own abilities, why would our children?
So with this and our own happiness as parents in mind, how can we move past mommy guilt?

The answer lies, according to TheMentorMom, in four easy steps:

1. Acknowledge the mistake (whatever we're feeling guilty about)
2. Apologize if necessary (your kids will respect you for it and will learn by your example how to behave when they make their own mistakes)
3. Learn (MentorMom suggests making a plan for next time the situation comes up)
4. Move on (Let the guilty feelings go, stop beating yourself up. You're doing your best)

I think we need to be easier on ourselves. Nobody is perfect, not even mothers. Just look at Martha Stewart. She was the picture of the uber-woman for years. She was crafty, an excellent cook, a wonderful entertainer, a good mother, all while running her very own enormous multi-million dollar company.... That is, until she went to jail for fraud.

We need to remember that taking care of ourselves and sometimes putting our needs first is the best way to care for our children in the long run. If we're happy, healthy and well-cared for we'll better be able to effectively parent our children because we'll have more of ourselves to give.

Aurelia Williams, in her article
Mommy Guilt No More!, points out:
If your children see you constantly suppressing your needs and not speaking out and taking the time that you deserve, they will be more inclined to follow those patterns as they grown into adulthood. What you do today can determine the kind of life your child will lead tomorrow.Life is short and motherhood goes by quickly, enjoy it to the best of your ability. A guilt free mom is a happy mom!
The other main factor that I think could really improve the quality of life for overly-guilty moms is a change is our attitudes to each other. It is easy to judge other mothers and, often, we do it simply to make ourselves feel better. We feel guilty that we're not living up to the perfect mother ideal and look for failings in other mothers to minimize our own. According to Ayelet Waldman in her article, The Bad-Mommy Brigade:
One way to find consolation in the face of all this failure and guilt is to judge ourselves not against the impossible standard of the Good Mother but against the fun-house-mirror-image Bad Mother. By defining for us the kind of mother we’re not, the Bad Mother makes it easier for us to live with what we are. We may be discontented and irritable, we may snap after the 67th knock-knock joke, our kids may watch three hours of television a day, we may have just celebrated the second anniversary of the last time we had sex, we may have forgotten to pack a snack, or, God forbid, bought one replete with partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, we may yank on our daughters’ ponytails while we’re combing their hair, but at least we’re not Britney Spears.
I read an interesting post the other day on the momblog TheMomCroud. MomCroud argues that we shouldn't be judging each other, we should be supporting and congratulating each other:
We all have difficult and enjoyable jobs raising our kids and caring for babies. Be an ear or shoulder when it is needed... Tell another mom what a great mom she is! Say it in a card, in person, in an email. I don’t know a mom that doesn’t mind being praised for being a good mom. Drop off or mail a little gift to a friend. Stop by and do her dishes. There are so many ways we can celebrate each other. Lets remember to stop judging and celebrate our victories with one another!
And, in conclusion, I feel compelled to point out that Dr. Phil, everybody's favourite TV psychobabbler, always says: "If Mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy".

Now ain't that the truth?

Special thanks to all the great moms whose blogs I mentioned or quoted above.



Amanda said...

Hi! Thanks for The Mom Crowd shout out at the end of your post! :o) You really put a lot of work into that post. It's really good.

I have written about guilt before on TMC too, its hard. I feel really lucky that when I complain about not getting the dishes or laundry done to my husband he always points out how great Ace is doing and that is all that matters.


Susan said...

Agreed. All moms feel guilt. We started a blog just around the topic of working-mom guilt, aptly named Working Moms Against Guilt. It's a neverending struggle, but worth fighting.

Glad I found your blog!