Moms experience almost constant worry and guilt. From the moment our children are born or even when we first feel those little flutters and kicks, it consumes us. We worry about our children every second of every day and for many sleepless hours in the night when things are dark and quiet and our minds can really take control. This worry and guilt, it’s forever.
With one child now in high school, I am grappling with the very real fact that in three short years, she could be living somewhere other than under my roof. I can only imagine what my nighttime thoughts will be then...
Moms worry about every single step of parenthood: Did I stop breastfeeding too soon? Did I breastfeed too long? Should I have tried harder to breastfeed? Was it wrong to let them cry it out? Was it wrong to pick them up right away? Did I start solids too early and cause allergies? Did I wait too long to start solids and cause allergies? Do they eat enough vegetables? Do they eat enough of anything? Should I be more firm? Why do I yell all the time? Why aren’t they speaking? Why aren’t they walking? Why won’t they use the toilet? Am I pushing them hard enough in school? Should I push them harder in school? Should I know their friends better? Should I respect their privacy? Should I have let them quit the team? Should I have pushed them to try out for the team? On and on and on and on and on, and the emotions are always the same: worry and guilt. No matter which direction we took or which decision we made, moms always feel guilty about the outcome and question if we're somehow letting our children down. It’s exhausting.
I have a message for all of you amazing moms out there: it’s going to be okay.
When I was a little girl, my parents rented a farm for the first truly memorable years of my life. My father was an alcoholic and a pathological liar, so obviously things were not easy for my mom. We were extremely poor. My father spent every penny that he could get his hands on to buy alcohol or eat out at a local pub while his children and wife were at home with nothing to eat.
My mom doesn’t talk about those years very often and I'm always surprised when she does. There's such sadness and regret in her voice when those memories surface. She talks about the fear, the sadness, and the poverty; about feeding my brother and me oatmeal for breakfast, lunch, and dinner because it was filling and there was no money for groceries. She talks about buying large men’s jeans at the Salvation Army and using them to cut and sew overalls for my brother and me. She talks about surviving thanks to our large garden and our animals. I can hear the guilt in her voice. I can hear how desperately she must have wanted a different life for us.
Here’s the thing, I don’t remember this time period in the same way she does at all. I remember a magical place filled with rolling fields and animal friends. She remembers a crappy plastic swimming pool and a rusty swing set. I remember a place where I pretended I was in the ocean on hot summer days and swings where I used to imagine I was flying to far-off lands. I had no idea that our garden was the only reason we would have food into the winter. I remember that a carrot pulled from the ground with a bit of dirt still clinging to it was delicious. I remember watching her can and preserve, the jars filled with color, and the time spent with her in the kitchen. I remember her showing me how to knead bread and the laughter we shared while doing it. I had no idea that our chickens were the only reason we ate some days, I just remember how proud I was when she showed me how to collect the eggs and then gave it to me as my own special job. I didn’t know that we were “missing out” on store-bought yogurt, I only knew that I desperately loved the goats that provided our yogurt, and that I got to help my favorite goat bring her triplets into this world when I was a very little girl. I remember adventures in fields where the wind blew grass that was taller than me; finding fiddleheads hidden in the dark, cool woods; where the chokecherry bushes were, and helping my mom pick them and watching in our kitchen as she made jam.
No matter how much pain, frustration, desperation, and, yes, guilt she may have been feeling, I don’t remember. I had no idea. I know she worried constantly about not being enough and not having enough, and she didn’t need to. I remember a woman who was always laughing with us, a woman who always had hugs and cuddles and read us extra stories no matter how exhausted she must've been. I remember a woman who knew how to grow anything, cook anything, bake anything, and who taught me to respect animals and the earth, probably without having any idea she was doing it. I remember thinking my mom was the strongest person in the world. That has never changed.
Fast forward to my twenties. Even though my mom went on to leave my dad and eventually meet and marry my step-dad, changing our lives dramatically for the better, I still managed to meet and marry a man almost exactly like my father. I had my first two children with him. He was also an alcoholic with assorted other addictions and emotional issues. Life wasn’t easy. After our children were born I spent almost every day worrying about what I had brought them into. I was consumed with guilt that this was their lives and powerlessness to change it for them.
If the funds were not available for their father to spend on his assorted habits or whatever material possessions he felt would make him happier, he would turn into an angry, emotionally abusive person who would fill me with such fear and dread that I would simply give in, letting him have what he wanted to keep the peace. Then the money ran out and, while he got what he wanted, I couldn’t pay our bills and struggled to buy groceries. There were countless dinners of hot dogs and macaroni because I knew the kids would eat it and it was all I could afford on our insanely tight budget. So many hot dogs. I worried and worried about not feeding the kids properly.
I felt like a robot. I was getting up every day and doing what needed to be done to get through the day at work and then the very long nights. I remember the guilt of feeling that I wasn’t emotionally available for my children. There were no vacations or special activities because I couldn’t afford them. However, there were walks in the swamp and the woods, frog catching, and turtle finding. Yet I always felt like I wasn’t doing enough when we watched other families go away on amazing trips or head off to weekends at water parks.
Then the money became even tighter (if that was possible) and I couldn’t find the funds to indulge their father’s whims. He became even angrier. The yelling and insults increased tenfold. So we stayed in the tub far longer than we needed to or should have, every single night, waiting for their father to pass out and for the coast to be clear. We sang and sang and made up games and stories in that bathroom, and we survived.
Yet the guilt continued to consume me. How could I let them live this way? Finally, one day, we ran and didn’t go back. Life became so much better and so much easier, and I married an amazing man who is an incredible father to all four of our children (we had two more). Even though we left that life behind, the guilt followed. The worry followed. I still questioned, every single day, what damage I had allowed to be done to my children by staying for so long.
Then, one day, my older two children and I were watching television together and the people on the cooking show were asking what memories people had of their childhood kitchens. What did they smell and feel like? My oldest son turned to me and said, “Mom, do you know what I remember from being really little?”
I cringed inwardly. Here it was, the moment I'd been dreading.
He said, “I remember hot dogs and love.”
Hot dogs and love? Really? I was as shocked as I was relieved, and then of course amused. The three of us started to chat a bit. The kids talked about all the songs I sang at bath time that they loved so much, and the extra stories at bedtime. They talked about how funny it was to watch Mommy climb into the muddy swamp barefoot to try and catch frogs, and the countless walks and animals we spotted and the trips to our free local zoo. Whether or not they remember how truly awful things were at the time, what they have focused on is the love. They remember the time I spent with them and the love I showed them.
Here’s the thing: this Mother’s Day let’s take a break from the worry and the guilt, shall we? Life is challenging and heartbreakingly difficult at times. At the end of the day, what our children remember most are the stories we read, the snuggles we gave, and the time that we shared with them. They recall when we showed them how important they are, what they mean to us, and when we made them feel safe. Those are the memories and moments that will sustain them through the hard times in their lives. We can worry ourselves sick and let the mommy guilt eat us up inside, but all that truly matters to our children is that we love them and that we show them that every day. Love: that's what they will remember the most.