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Mommy Guilt

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Like so many others who have come before me, I suffer from chronic, persistent parental guilt. Though triggered by a diverse number of parenting failures, it most often strikes when I am presented with an opportunity to enjoy an amount of time between 30 seconds and 3 hours of maternal freedom. I really can’t blame anyone for it; my husband has never made snide remarks when I am on my way out the door, or sighed passive-aggressively when I inform him that one of my friends has invited me for coffee. It is a deeply rooted internal mechanism, which is much more problematic than having an outsider make me feel bad for desiring time alone. I feel guilty when scheduling a hair appointment, having a quick drink with girlfriends, or even taking an extra-long shower.

In fact, I usually only shower when my husband is home, due to the highly unpredictable and reckless nature of my youngest child, and I am always mindful of my family members waiting downstairs for me, likely in the throes of a pivotal family disaster while I suds away. This vexing awareness causes me to rush, taking as hot and quick a shower as possible, leaving me the human equivalent of pan-seared.

My husband has never demonstrated any ineptitude when left alone with our two daughters (though his wardrobe choices for the baby are a bit avant-garde) and he never rolls his eyes when I announce I would like to shower. So what is my problem? Why am I unable to fully enjoy even the most diminutive of daily pleasures?

I often wonder if fathers have this problem. I say that in a genuinely curious, not at all snarky way. I have a hard time believing that men feel guilty when lingering in the bathroom on a leisurely Sunday morning. But, who knows? Maybe they are unable to truly enjoy the Reader’s Digest, picturing us frantically scrubbing the kitchen sink with a toddler clinging to our legs.

My guilt works both ways, however. I very rarely venture out with girlfriends, a state of affairs I can attribute to my baby’s age, nursing schedule and complicated bedtime routine. While I feel guilty on those sporadic occasions when I do go out, I feel equally uncomfortable with the fact that I am inflexible and generally unavailable for socialization. This remorse rears its ugly head most often when I am declining the opportunity to spend time with my childless friends, many who have graciously altered their expectations and come to my Lame Den of Baby Einstein and Princesses to hang out. Plus, I feel like I am giving parenthood a bad rap, providing them with a bitter foretaste of the un-fun fest to come.

My temporary solution is a simple plan I refer to as “taking whatever the hell I can get and liking it.” I wring out every possible ounce of pleasure from events, such as being the lucky adult who gets to pick up the takeout food. One day, I greedily volunteered to take my oldest daughter to her school assessment, leaving the husband home with Barnacle Baby; a clever way to indulge in 20 minutes of uninterrupted reading. Alas, I was thwarted when another adult sat down next to me and engaged me in conversation for the entire time I had allotted for myself. I genuinely enjoy this woman and would love to spend 20 minutes talking to her under normal circumstances. But, let’s get real: I have very few opportunities for parental hedonism, and not everything makes the cut.

What really stings is the fact that I have always proclaimed myself an advocate for mommy rights, urgently believing that mothers thrive when they afford themselves guilt-free time for whatever makes them feel human. And here I am, depriving myself, martyr-like, as I try to balance my own needs with the delicate, thought transient, decisions we are making for our youngest child. I feel like I should be doing this more gracefully. I remind myself how fleeting this stage of extreme dependence is, but there are times when my resentment runneth over.

During my thrilling fifteen minute escape to pick up Mexican take-out for dinner, I coaxed myself into soaking up every second of my sensory experience, unburdened by tiny hands and voices. I stood a bit straighter, shoulders back, and breathed deeply. I felt the breeze in my hair, the sun’s warmth on my cheeks, and absorbed the sensation of my shoes slapping the pavement. I turned everything else off, tuned into my own solitary voice, and succeeded in momentarily slowing time.

On my drive home, a Red Hot Chili Peppers song came on the radio, one that I heard nearly daily when I was a college student. The memory of my former self — divested of any real responsibility, desperately living life – brought a lump to my throat. I rode silently home, unable to sing along, while hot tears spilled down my face. I realized that during my late adolescence and early twenties, like pretty much any pre-child adult, I had absolutely no appreciation of my freedom. In fact, I’m quite certain I longed for the day when I would snuggle up on the couch with my family, never again to succumb to loneliness.

Well, great. Now I feel guilty again, as my melancholy traipse down memory lane suggests that perhaps I’m not grateful enough for my family. See? Even my attempt at emotional purging smacks of culpability. It appears that I’m stuck with you, guilt, tenacious fungus of my soul.

Stephanie Sprenger is the mother of two daughters, ages six and almost one. As a control freak living amongst chaos, blogging has been a satisfying outlet for her parental angst; combining her passion for writing and helping mothers connect. Please visit her blog, Mommy, For Real.

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