I came home from work one day, excited to see my three babies. I had a long shift in the ER, and all I wanted was to be with my family and relax. The girls were sitting at our table quietly coloring. There was no chaos—surprisingly—and for a brief moment, they were perfect angels.
My 4-year-old looked up at me with her blue dollish eyes and asked if she could have a Go-Gurt. I lightly told her no, because it was almost dinner time.
“Mom, why don’t you just go back to work? You have sick patients that need you.”
I … was … speechless. She really knew how to plunge in a knife, and twist it just so.
You would be proud of my resolve in that she didn’t get her beloved tube of yogurt. I think I sputtered out something like, “That wasn’t nice!” and pouted on the couch for a while.
I’m still on the fence about that whole interaction. Do kids intrinsically know how to manipulate us? Do my kids know my weak spot and use it against me?
I’m sure my kids know that I feel guilty about working and not being around as much as I’d like. They may not consciously manipulate the situation, but kids are smart! And, for a long time, I let my guilt overrule my good judgment.
Let me give you an example. My 3-year-old hated getting dressed. Every day, it was a struggle. I’d be in her room, holding up different shirts, and she would nonchalantly lie on the bed saying things like, “Too stripy! Too fluffy! Too orange!” This would go on until I erupted in a rage and forced her to choose something—which made us both feel bad. Then, it suddenly occurred to me that maybe my 3-year-old was capable of dressing herself, and that I didn’t need to do it for her out of guilt.
It was ugly when I announced that I no longer would be dressing her. The tears flowed. Fists shook in the air! Every morning, she would throw a tantrum as if I had told her that Christmas was cancelled forever. This lasted about a week. Every day, I would sit calmly in the living room while her emotions ran rampant. I would tell her that I believed in her and that I knew she was old enough to dress herself.
Eventually, the tantrums subsided, and she dressed herself. Don’t get me wrong; the outfits she chose were interesting, to say the least, but she proved to herself that she was capable.
Mommy guilt reared its ugly head again when I sent my kids to school. I seriously considered home schooling—not because I am a gifted teacher, nor because I have an issue with public schools, but because I felt bad that I work. I was going to miss out on things, yet again, because of work. My crazy dial got turned way up, and logic went out the window.
Anyone who knows me could tell you that, if I home-schooled my kids, they would end up going to the movies with me—a lot. And, the fact is, they wouldn’t learn to read!
I recognize that mommy guilt is my default. In those moments, I feel bad that I work and can’t do “mommy” things. I assume all of the other kids have moms who have time to, not only dress them, but to sew their clothes from organically grown cotton. And, I believe all the other kids have moms who can be at every performance, volunteer for every preschool field trip, make a beautifully home-cooked meal every night and have time to run a half-marathon daily.
Guilt led me to do something for my child that she needed to learn to do for herself. It wasn’t benefitting anyone to treat her like a maharaja and dress her royal little self. We need to let our kids know that we love them, but that work brings us joy as well. If we think we are depriving our kids by working, they will feel deprived. If we view work as something rewarding and cool, our kids will feel proud of us.
A hopeful outlook is contagious, and letting go of guilt makes family life so much more enjoyable. My kid with the plaid shorts and polka-dot tights can vouch for this!
Rachael Jarman, PA-C, works in the ER of a busy Minneapolis hospital and as a pre-PA admissions coach, and occasionally, as a guest lecturer for PA programs in Minnesota. She is a graduate of Philadelphia University’s PA program.