I had walked out the front door, closing it firmly behind me. I could hear my toddler on the other side of the door crying. He was in good hands: our part-time nanny was there; I could hear her lilting Irish accent over the sobbing of my son. My husband was home, too, working away at his computer upstairs, so if my son truly melted down, Bill was there to save the day.
I was leaving for work, which I had done many times before. I had scheduled massage therapy clients for the rest of the afternoon and into the evening, typical for a weekday.
So why did I feel so guilty leaving?
And why did I feel even more guilty about looking forward to going to work where I’d be around adults who used their words and who didn't demand every bit of patience and energy I possessed?
When I left my son for something fun for me, like a solo walk without him or to meet up with a girlfriend for a rare coffee date without kids in tow, the guilt I felt was even worse.
It felt like a never-ending equation I was trying to balance. Giving to myself meant taking away from my child. There was only so much time and energy available. There was only so much me.
But that me was miserable.
It was a never-ending loop: I wanted to feel happier so I added “self-care” activities into my schedule that took me away from my son (and later both of my boys ) but I then felt guilty about the time away from my child which made me feel miserable which made me want to spend more time taking care of myself to feel happier which meant taking time away from my child...
I wasn't sure what to do about the imbalance that was sending me into tailspins. But I knew I had to do something.
Back then, when my now teenaged son was just a toddler, I came across the work of Ellen Galinsky, author of the book, Ask the Children. In her research, Galinsky spoke with more than 1,000 children, ages eight to 18, about how they viewed their parents’ balancing act between family time and work.
Galinsky found that the majority of children interviewed believed they were spending enough time with their parents. (It didn’t matter whether the mom stayed at home or worked outside the home.) Children in the study didn’t wish for their parents to work less. Instead, a large percentage of children in Galinsky’s study wished for their parents to be less tired and less stressed by work – so that the time that was spent with children was quality time.
In Galinsky’s studies, more didn’t equate with better.
“I asked kids what they were going to remember most from this period in their life, and I asked parents to guess what the kids would say,” said Galinsky in a Frontline interview. “And parents almost always guess the big event, the vacation, the wonderful family reunion, you know, the five-star kind of family thing. And kids talked about the very small, everyday rituals and traditions that say to them ‘We're a family.’”
After reading Galinsky’s work, I wish I could say that I had an ah ha moment and the guilt vanished. It didn’t.
I still calculated the equation of the time away from my children and the time spent with them. I still evaluated the quality of our interactions – did I seem enthusiastic when we were rolling Thomas and Edward around the train track again? However, I became more aware of being truly present when I was present. I noticed that when I added the activities I enjoyed into my schedule (with and without my sons), I was happier and more patient. And, per the laws of Algebra, when I added happiness into my side of the equation, it had to be added to the other side, too, which generated more happiness all around.
Although the mom guilt didn’t disappear, it softened. Less judgment, more acceptance, more love.
Author and lifestyle guru Danielle La Porte describes guilt as “the price of admission to fulfillment.” Guilt is the price for doing anything that you desire: everything you say yes to means you’ll have to say no to something else. Your time/energy/happiness equation isn’t going to balance all the time. Sometimes work or other activities will get more of you. Sometimes your children will. Balancing the equation is like homework: an ongoing assignment, different problems every day.
As Danielle La Porte observes: “Guilt and joy are not part of the same equation.”
Which one do you want to work with?
Join me and a little more than a handful of other moms at this month's mini-retreat. We'll be talking about guilt and ways to ease out of its stranglehold on your happiness. For more information and to register (space is limited to six moms per mini-retreat), go here.
I'm a mother of two incredible boys, wife to Bill White of Happy Baby Signs, author of the books The Well-Crafted Mom and Signs of a Happy Baby, and an intuitive life coach. I like to blog about my adventures with my family and the life lessons I'm learning along the way. I hope you'll join me on this journey.
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