I thought that I would be immune to mom guilt, because I typically am not subject to the pressures that come from wanting to be socially accepted or approved of, since I am genuinely comfortable being entirely isolated from other people (this is not really a good thing). However, I have been surprised to find that I am not immune.
By “mom guilt” I specifically mean guilt over something that I do not truly believe is harming my child, but still feel guilty about due to social stigma. This is to be distinguished from worry over things that I do suspect might be harming my child, which I shall term “mom anxiety.” I have a shitload of mom anxiety; I’m constantly worried that I’m not doing enough for Edith, or that I’m doing things wrong or making mistakes that will harm her, or even just short-changing her in some way. But this is surely inevitable if you actually care about your child? As a parent, you assume 100% control over the body, environment, health, happiness, and life of a tiny, helpless, extremely fragile infant. If you don’t worry constantly that you’re messing that up, you’re a sociopath.
Mom guilt is different. Mom guilt is feeling guilty for not adhering to the social expectations for mothers even if you don’t feel those standards actually affect the health and happiness of your child. I did not expect I would give a shit about these pressures, and I mostly don’t, but I do find that I constantly feel guilty and bad for doing my own thing instead of playing with Edith while the nanny is here.
Strictly speaking, I do not technically need a nanny while I’m on parental leave. I hired one to come a few days a week in preparation for something that didn’t end up happening, but she really is wonderful, so I’m glad that I hired her anyhow. Edith adores her and has an excellent time playing with her. I do not worry that spending time with the nanny instead of me is harming Edith. For one thing, research pretty clearly indicates that it’s good for children to bond with multiple adults and to have lots of people who care about them in their lives. For another, I am dealing a lot better than I thought I would with the lack of sleep that comes with having a baby, but still, I am largely braindead and frequently on autopilot, and even on the best days, I am not fresh and creative and engaging as a playmate, and the nanny is. I’m pretty sure Edith has more fun with her than she does me, and while I’m occasionally jealous of this, I do not worry it’s a bad thing — I want Edith to be having as much fun as possible. I want her to have fun with lots of people. I want her to be having fun all the time!
So, I don’t have mom anxiety about the nanny, but I do have mom guilt. I do not feel guilty if I use the time to exercise, or to shower, or to nap, or to do necessary chores and errands. And I would not feel guilty if I used the time to do something that would advance my career or earn money (I don’t), or to cook (I don’t cook). That is to say, it seems acceptable to take advantage of help in order to look after my physical or financial needs.
But I can see after all my physical needs and still have time left over, and what I mostly want to use that extra time for is to read, think, write, etc. That is, I want to use the time to look after my intellectual needs. And I feel great guilt about this, because as a new mom, I am not supposed to have any intellectual needs. I am only supposed to be interested in my baby. But I have not had a lobotomy and I need to use my mind now just as much as I needed to use it before I had Edith — more actually, because I have so much more to think about now.
I didn’t realize I was feeling this way until one day, I noticed that I was pretending to be napping when I was actually reading. Why was I pretending, I wondered? And I found that I felt guilty about reading while someone else played with my child. And then I thought that if I had a husband, he would 100% slip off to watch sports or something while the nanny was here, and people might think that was exasperating or even shitty of him, but no one would actually expect any different, because we do not expect men to be endlessly absorbed by the mostly stultifying work of caring for an infant, but we do expect for that work to be inherently interesting (or at least satisfying) to women.
Women admit to each other pretty readily that there is little more tedious than caring for an infant, but still, I feel like it’s not acceptable to outsource any of that. And I can already hear the women reading this saying, “but taking care of your own needs will make you a better mother to her!” and ok, that is true when it comes to my physical needs (which is maybe why I think it’s acceptable to take advantage of help to meet them), but honestly, spending time on my intellectual needs doesn’t actually make me a better mother; I’m the same with Edith either way. It’s just for me. And that’s the key of the mommy martyr pressure — once you have a child, you are not supposed to care about yourself at all anymore.
And the thing is, I don’t! Hell, I barely cared about myself before I had a child. But I still get bored, and I find boredom is a more difficult thing for me to tolerate than exhaustion, and I’ve surprised myself by feeling ashamed of this.