“Don’t let the Mommy-Guilt get you down,” a well-intentioned female colleague who did not have children told me last week. She sat at the edge of the conference table twirling a pen as she casually bestowed her advice upon me. I hadn’t asked for the advice, but as a first-time mom I always welcome the wisdom of others.
The conversation had started because she asked about my 14-month old daughter and I had told her that my daughter had just gotten over another bout of croup. She continued, “That Mommy-Guilt really is not at all productive. Just let it go.”
To be honest, that particular day I didn’t have any “Mommy Guilt.” My daughter was finally feeling better, and I felt relieved to drop her off into the loving arms of her wonderful daycare provider, Karen. My daughter was happy too–I’m sure that playing with the kids at daycare is more fun than watching Daniel Tiger on repeat at home while your mom hovers over you with an ear thermometer.
Yet, the words my colleague spoke stung a bit in that moment. They conjured up memories of a warm November morning when I went back to work full-time and had to drop my four-month old infant off at daycare for the first time. She was so small and so helpless. Here I was leaving her all day with a near- stranger, taking a leap of faith that I was making the right decision by doing so. As I drove away from the daycare, the pit in my stomach started to grow. A deep sense of emptiness, of yearning, of uncertainty swept over me, slowly at first, and then quickly, until it covered me, filled me, and pushed me down. This was the Mommy Guilt.
The Mommy Guilt engulfed me for days after that.
I breathed for air every chance I got, but relentlessly it pulled me down again, gripping me tight, leaving me with a lump in my throat and an ache in my heart. Karen would text pictures and stories about my daughter throughout the day. She sent encouraging words like, “She slept for 4 hours. Now she is happy and having a baba!” These texts were little bursts of light, tiny bright stars in a night sky. But the lights faded as quickly as they came, and there it was again: the longing, the missing, the guilt.
Then, after a few weeks, it was gone. At work I was doing interesting projects with smart people. I was busy. I was making money. I was industrious. My daughter was thriving too, engaged with all of the bustling activities at daycare, doted upon by the older kiddos, eating and sleeping just fine.
Weeks turned into months, and the buoyancy carried us on as a family.
The Mommy Guilt stayed away for quite some time. My daughter was growing into a happy, healthy little person. She even had friends at daycare–a rich and active social life outside of me and my husband. That feeling of a deep well of guilt from the early days seemed like a distant memory.
Then, yesterday, it rolled back in with a roaring whooooosh.
I had dropped my daughter off at daycare as I do every day. Instead of running off to play with the little cars and trains and dolls like she usually does, she started sobbing, “Mommy!!!!” She clung to me tightly, her head pressed into my chest as she cried. “It’s time for Mommy to go to work now,” I said to her in a near whisper. “Nooooooo!!!! Noooo!!! Mommy!” she cried.
Karen gently tried to remove her from my arms, but my daughter remained steadfast in her grip. “You are going to have a great day! Do you want to play with toys?” I said, hoping to distract her as Karen and I attempted the hand-off. By now she had wriggled from both of our arms and was sprawled across the floor crying and screaming. I blew a quick kiss, said I love you, and walked away. Driving from the daycare I could still hear her cries.
That familiar feeling washed over me again, it was hurting, deliberate, and swift. The depth of the feeling was even heavier than when I had dropped her off that first time when she was four months old, if that could even be possible.
At work that day, I was distracted. Emails flooded my inbox, projects needed to be completed, my phone rang, and I went through all the motions. But I felt sad. I felt like I was missing out on the vibrant life of this little person. When she was a baby, it was her innocence and vulnerability that made me feel guilty for leaving her. Now that she was a toddler—a thinking, feeling, speaking, walking being—I felt like I was missing out on so much more of her, and worse yet…I felt like she knew it now too.
I thought of my colleague who just a week earlier had told me that the Mommy Guilt was not productive, that it did no good, and not to let it get me down. It seemed to me that my colleague got it all wrong.
Mommy Guilt is productive in a way.
It forces you to continually assess and process so you can recalibrate to stay on course. The push and pull of these feelings are a reminder that life is complex, and adulthood is a give and take. I work mostly because I like to work, but also because I have to work. I work because I want to learn and grow, and I work because I want to set an example to my daughter. It’s for her, and it’s for me, and it’s for our family.
The Mommy Guilt builds resilience, both for me and for my daughter. For me it is an armor that makes me stronger, it is a mirror that makes life clearer, it’s a bell that tolls inside of me only for her.
In the time I am home with my daughter, that hour in the morning and in the evening that we have together, the tides fall away. I am light, I am floating on air. I am drinking her laughter, her love, her messy dinner face, her splashing bath, her baby kisses, her rocking chair, her head on my chest, her favorite lullaby that my mother (also a working mama) sang to me when I was little.
And I know that when the waves come back someday, which is inevitable, that we will be okay…because Mommy Guilt is a reminder that we all have reason to feel profound love.
Mara Holiday works in the field of philanthropy and also holds an MA in Rhetoric and Writing Studies from San Diego State University. Outside of her full-time job, Mara enjoys writing (particularly long-form essays), reading, and spending time with her husband and 16-month old daughter. Mara currently resides in Tierrasanta, but her family will be relocating to Denver in the new year. She will miss San Diego immensely and will be blogging about the theme of “transitions” on her blog, welcometoadulthood.com.