I like to think I’m a pretty good mom. My three kids are happy, secure, and kind (at least to everyone except each other). They are doing well in school/daycare and have friends. They wear sunscreen and got all their vaccines on time. I try to respect their feelings. I bathe them at least once a week. I make them eat vegetables, at least occasionally. I make time to play with them and read to them, though not as much as I’d like. I’m pretty sure they know how loved they are.
Yet as a busy working mom of three, juggling a demanding job as a med/peds primary care doctor with a desire to be the most involved, most nurturing, and most perfect parent possible, the mom guilt creeps in. I remember when as a new mom with a 1 year old, I felt deficient when I compared myself to my stay-at-home mom friend, the kind who has premade washable vinyl stickers to label her son’s food containers for school and whose cabinets are color-coded. In a moment of mom guilt, I got her recipe and learned to make pancakes from scratch. (Turns out, it’s not so hard!) I will also admit that I bought the same vinyl stickers to label my own kid’s Tupperware too, thinking this was some necessary baby item of modern-day parenting. It took us about 5 years to use all the stickers, and it turns out the Sharpie works just as well. But I was feeling inadequate, and it’s easy to feel like you’re falling short.
I had wanted to be a mom since I was a little girl, so I’d had a lot of time to think about it. Before having kids, I had parenting all planned out. I was going to be the perfect mom. Our newborn of course would be breastfed, and she would not get a drop of formula. She would have the safest bed, carseat, and clothing available. She would wear gender-neutral colors so as not to be prematurely genderized. I even had her birth timing lined up perfectly to come at the end of my residency so I wouldn’t have any more work shifts, and far enough before board exams to make studying manageable.
Things didn’t go as planned. My water broke at 34 weeks. She spent 17 days in the NICU. She had a tongue tie so breastfeeding was painful and ineffective. Not only did she get formula, she got it through a tube down her nose. I had to finish up some of my residency after she was born. But we rallied, and when we took her home, we got back to the plan. And we were exhausted. I’d try to nurse, then we’d give her a bottle to top her off and I’d pump. That process took about 45 minutes, which left me an hour and 15 minutes to eat and sleep before we had to start over again. And she didn’t like to sleep on her back in her bassinet, so her fussing would interrupt even those hour-long snippets of sleep. We were so tired. So tired. My mom asked me why I didn’t just co-sleep so I could get some rest. I was horrified – I’m a pediatrician, after all. My baby would sleep safely, period. My mom shrugged her shoulders and didn’t push it – she knew we’d cave. We kept it up for 4 days before we totally gave in:
We violated pretty much every safe sleep rule there is… on her stomach, co-sleeping, with sheets, too close to the edge of bed, and no pacifier. I felt somewhat uneasy about it, but not enough to force something that wasn’t working for us; we had found a way to function, even if it wasn’t according to my perfect plan. (For the record, we kept co-sleeping, but we found ways to make it as safe as possible, including ditching the sheets, moving the mattress to the floor, and making other modifications.)
Oh yeah, and despite our efforts to dress her in yellow and blue and green, by the time she was a toddler, she was obsessed with pink princesses and would only wear dresses, mostly pink.
As a med/peds primary care doctor and mom of three, and I hear the mom guilt all the time from friends and patients – sometimes it is amplified to the point of postpartum depression or anxiety, but short of that, some level of mom guilt seems universal to some degree:
“I don’t read to her enough. Is that why her speech is delayed?”
“We missed our last dentist appointment… do you think she has cavities already?”
“I know I should sign my kids up for more extracurriculars, but I’m just so busy!”
“I let them use their screens because how else can I get my work done?”
“Should I be giving him vitamins? How many ounces of milk? Which kind? How important is organic? Do you think his nutrition is deficient?”
“My 3 year old hates learning letters. How will I get him ready for kindergarten?”
The mom guilt seems to be particularly intense in women physicians. We tend to be high-achieving, well-meaning perfectionists who are used to excelling at everything we do. Even for those of us in pediatrics, actually being a mom is a humbling experience that totally changes us, as people and as physicians. For example, my hard-line stance on recommending vitamin D has softened now, as I realized I only made it through one bottle (i.e., one month’s worth) in my second child’s first year. Now I just say, “Ideally you would give vitamin D every day for best health, but if you remember it most of the time, that’s a win.” I see mom physicians who don’t practice pediatrics – ones who work at the top of their field, saving lives, doing invasive procedures that almost no one else in the world can do, solving complicated cases – who are completely embarrassed to admit that they don’t know how to cut their baby’s fingernails, that they are completely overwhelmed by night-time fussiness, or that they are totally perplexed about how to handle a diaper rash. There is the occasional mom physician who has ensured her toddler is trilingual by two years old, only feeds them organic food, and does not even own a screen for them to watch, but these are the exceptions (and I’m sure there are things they feel guilty about too). Most of us are juggling and occasionally dropping the ball, wishing we could do more for our kids, and making compromises between real life and our pre-parenthood plans. The opportunities for mom guilt are particularly amplified during the COVID19 pandemic, when we try to do our jobs, be parents, and also shepherd our kids through distance learning. There are so many new and unpredictable ways to feel like we’re falling short. And you know what? Our kids are going to be just fine.
Reading is something a lot of us feel guilty about. After all, reading is supposed to be one of the most important things you can do to foster a child’s learning and development, as well as strengthen social-emotional bonding. I was feeling guilty recently because, yet again, we were running late on bedtime and had to cut our bedtime reading shorter than I’d have liked. With my first child, we always meant to read to her for long periods of time, but we never seemed to read as much as I felt that we should. We tried to teach her letters and sounds, but she resisted and we guiltily gave up. By the end of her year of kindergarten, I was completely surprised to find she was ahead of the standards for reading, and more importantly, she loved books. I felt even more guilty when my second child came along and we were even busier, and it felt like we had even less time to read and almost no time to practice his letters. But when he was four, we realized he had taught himself to read! Now we have a third child, and I’m not going to worry about it. I think he’ll probably make it to college. As a pediatrician, I find that the parents most worried about fostering their children’s development are the ones who have the least to worry about, because they’re making an effort. The bottom line is that when we try our best, our kids will be ok – and we should let ourselves off the hook when we’re not perfect. After all, none of us are perfect, at parenting or anything else.
Now that I have three kids, and the first one hasn’t turned out to be a total delinquent, I’m getting better at taking a more relaxed approach – I know they’ll be fine because we try our best. Sure we fail at times. But we need to cut ourselves some slack and congratulate ourselves on what we have accomplished, which is a ton. For example: My kids went to the dentist last month. Running late as usual, I grabbed all 3 kids and ran out the door, pulling up just in time for their appointment. As we walked in, I realized that I had brought the toddler with no shoes or diaper bag (my bad) and he smelled like a very clean dog (my husband had accidentally washed his hair with the dog’s oatmeal shampoo). But hey – we were on time, he was bathed, and nobody had cavities! Where’s my medal?
As parents, we make a lot of choices and concessions. My house is a wreck. I buy all the kids’ clothes online from Target or Amazon only, and only throw them out when they have gigantic holes in them. I haven’t read a book on paper in years and I only have one hobby. My kids only speak one language, and don’t play any organized sports. They are not in magnet schools, and they usually don’t choose to do their optional homework assignments, which of course disturbs me. But they are curious, smart, friendly kids who build dog mansions out of giant Legos and who are learning to follow their dreams, whatever they are at the moment. (My son wants to invent real-life Spiderman webs so he can jump off buildings. I’ve told him if he can figure out how to make real web-shooters and safety-test them first, he’s allowed to jump off buildings.) I make it to all the school plays, I know which foods and in what shape each of my kids prefers them, and I make time to teach them to tie shoelaces and ride a bike. I think we should congratulate ourselves on all that we have achieved rather than feeling guilty for what we have not.
The twinges of mom guilt still come, of course. While emailing 250 women in my organization in an attempt to orchestrate a positive change in my work’s breastfeeding policy, I did let my toddler dip his pacifier repeatedly in the dog’s water and then lick it off, because it kept him entertained for 5 minutes. Then I was feeling pretty awesome for trying to bake granola from scratch, but I totally negated that achievement by letting the toddler play on his older brother’s skateboard (definitely an appropriate toddler toy, right?), inside the house, for another 10 minutes while I cooked. But the baby did wear a helmet and shoes, so I get some credit for teaching safety, right? I will also admit that I let him watch YouTube on my phone when I really need to get something done… and it’s not high quality educational videos all the time, oh no – he has learned how to swipe around and find videos of babies grabbing each others’ pacifiers because for some reason that fascinates him, and I guiltily let him because it keeps him out of trouble (I toss in a “Poor baby!” comment here and there to assuage my guilt). Although I feel guilty about my imperfections, as you read this, I suspect you would be more compassionate and congratulate me on my work for breastfeeding, my super cooking attempt, and the fact that I got all my work done while none of my children ran out the front door or set the house on fire. We need to learn to show ourselves that same compassion we would show others, and stop with the mom guilt, because we are all awesome moms.