While having coffee with a friend one afternoon, I admitted to her that if my daughter Maybelle wakes up in the night, I often just get into bed with her. I shared this with some fear, waiting for her to explain to me that this establishes bad patterns — how could I be doing this?
She said, "Oh, good grief, last night I woke up in my son's bed with him, our daughter was in our bed, and my husband was on the couch. I have no idea how that happened."
A Saturday morning not long ago another friend and I were at a dress rehearsal for our kids' dance class. As we sat in the theater seats watching our kids dance, I said, somewhat apologetically, "I think after this is over, I'm going to let Maybelle watch some TV."
She looked at me, almost rolling her eyes, and said, "My kids have already been watching TV this morning!"
Conversations like this are a huge relief to me. I have this idea that the good mother isn't supposed to let her kid watch TV. She's supposed to be spending all weekend hours helping stimulate her child's mind and body. To let a kid sit in front of the TV midday on a Saturday — it just seems unacceptable. To get into bed with Maybelle rather than continuing the lesson that she's got to sleep on her own — irresponsible.
I find that I'm almost asking permission from these friends, who have happy, well-adjusted, wonderful children. My friends laugh and tell me stories that illustrate that all our behavior falls short of the ideals. These conversations let me know I have a lot of room to play in before I become an unacceptable mother.
I'm an overachiever in so many areas of my life that I guess it's no surprise that I'm willing to push myself to work harder in the field of parenting, too. This isn't just me, though; it's a national phenomenon that many authors have critiqued in books like Perfect Madness: Motherhood in an Age of Anxiety and The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined All Women. And here I sit, writing an article while Maybelle sits next to me, playing on her iPad. Mother's guilt, anyone?
In a 2013 article in Forbes, Maggie Warrell wrote about her own struggle with mother's guilt. "It became a constant companion until one day I realized that I didn't have children in order to spend my life feeling forever inadequate," she said. "I wanted children to enrich my life, not enslave my conscience."
Many of the reasons my friends and I blame ourselves is that we're concerned that we don't see our kids enough, so we have to make every minute fit with all the best child-rearing practices recommended by magazines, books, and websites we read. But it turns out that many of those recommendations — and our assumptions — are based on terrible information. Research over the last decade has consistently found that working mothers today spend more time with their children than stay-at-home mothers did in 1965.
My friends' responses are effective. It's one thing to say reassuring platitudes — "Oh, you're fine. Nothing to worry about." — but it's more powerful to admit things that we've done and then provide each other with more dramatic counter examples. By sharing our own practices as mothers, we help to give the lie to our unrealistic expectations — expectations that hurt us and our kids.
I sometimes reflect on what Roseanne Barr said in a comedy routine in the 1980s: "If my kids are alive at the end of the day, I've done my job." That seems like a reasonable expectation. I think, too, about one of my parents' favorite slogans: "As long as you raise your kids with love, you can't go wrong."