I had plenty of great ideas about the kind of parent I'd be before I had kids. My children would never watch TV. I'd cook delicious, nutritious meals from scratch, read to them for at least 30 minutes every day, and I would never lose my temper, or God forbid, yell at them.
I was a wonderful mom-until I had children.
With a son who's nearly 6 and a toddler-aged daughter, I've failed at all of my lofty expectations. My son is addicted to the BBC show "Top Gear." My daughter spits out every kind of green vegetable I attempt to feed her and gnaws on Goodnight Moon when I do manage to grab five minutes to try to read to her. And yes, I have lost my mommy cool and yelled-more times than I care to admit.
So, I feel guilty sometimes. But guess what? So does every other mom I know.
Devra Renner, author of Mommy Guilt: Learn to Worry Less, Focus on What Matters Most and Raise Happier Kids, surveyed more than 1,300 parents and found that 96 percent said they felt some guilt associated with their parenting.
"I view 'mommy guilt' as the catchall phrase for every negative emotion that a mom might feel about her parenting, like anxiety, frustration, anger, sadness and feeling that you're falling short somehow," says Renner. "If you put all of those emotions in a salad bowl, guilt would be the vinaigrette."
Why so guilty?
You're likely to experience more mommy guilt than your own mother did, simply because we have more options than they did, says Meagan Francis, mom of five kids, author of The Happiest Mom: 10 Secrets To Enjoying Motherhood (Weldon Owen, 2011) and creator of thehappiestmom.com.
"Today's moms have more choices than ever in the way we live our lives and raise our kids. But while choice is great in theory, it can be hard to handle in reality.
"All of those options and a constant flow of information have also raised the bar on what it means to be a good mom. There's a constant flow of new studies, statistics, products and services available, aimed at helping us raise happier, smarter, healthier, more successful children," she says. "The pressure's on to not only know all this information, but to be able to analyze it and act on it. The list of things we're 'supposed' to do to raise our kids right seems to grow by the minute."
Even a seemingly minor incident can trigger the guilt, too.
Avani Shah of Niles has three sons-10-year-old twins and a 3-year-old. "It is difficult to say 'no' to your children," Shah says. "I feel really bad after saying no the kids for items such as buying candy, trips to Chuck E. Cheese or not allowing them to spend their money on arcade video games."
Recently, she experienced guilt when her son asked her to play a board game with him and she told him to wait until she finished writing an email.
"Any mom faces dozens of these moments each day-moments when she sometimes has to put her child's desires on hold for a moment," she says. "But when I thought about it, I realized that he wasn't being hurt by having to wait five minutes, no matter what he was trying to do to me with those big puppy-dog eyes. It was really OK to ask him to wait.
"Ultimately it's (refusing them every treat they ask for) good for them," she says. "So I have to think positively and say, it's OK for them to get used to the 'nos,'" she says.
Is the grass really greener?
Interestingly, research reveals that moms who stay home and those who work outside of the home experience similar amounts of guilt, though they describe it differently.
"Moms who stay home feel a lot of pressure to justify their decision by 'professionalizing' parenting-enrolling their kids in tons of activities, arranging play dates, teaching them, playing with them, and doing art projects ... all on top of keeping up the house," says Francis.
"Moms who work feel pressure to cram all that at-home mom stuff into the evening hours," she says. "And since nobody can actually do it all, all by themselves, both parties tend to feel guilty: the at-home mom might feel bad because she'd really rather not play another round of Candyland, while the working mom gets down on herself because she has to miss the school play scheduled for 10:30 a.m."
Keri Norris has four boys-9, 6, 4 and 2-and says even though she stays home by choice, most of the mommy guilt she experiences is related to not being able to spend enough one-on-one time with each child.
"Honestly, I feel I probably have the same amount of guilt that a 'working-outside-of-the-home mommy' has. It happens way too often in my life," says Norris, who lives in Downers Grove. "Sometimes I feel if I were working outside of the home, the time I'd spend with my kids would be more positive. I feel I would miss them a lot during the day, and when I got home in the evening … I'd be more positive, loving and patient with them."
Mommy guilt, decoded
If you're feeling guilty about something, ask yourself what triggered it, says Renner. Did another parent criticize you-or worse, your child? Did your 8-year-old daughter cry when you refused to buy her a ticket to the Justin Bieber concert? Or, like me, were you out of town for work and had to miss your son's open house at school?
Second, ask whether you truly feel guilty-or whether you feel like you should feel guilty.
"Sometimes we say we feel guilty because we're doing something we fear other people will disapprove of," says Francis. "What really matters is how we feel about our choices. Cutting out the 'false' guilt helps us hear more clearly what our own consciences are saying."
Francis also suggests asking questions like, "Will this decision matter in five years?" "How about one year?" "Am I hurting anyone?" "Is there a positive consequence I'm not considering?" This will help you determine whether you're feeling guilty for a valid reason or it you're simply being too hard on yourself.
"Guilt can be a useful tool--it helps us make decisions that are good for us, for our families and the rest of the world," says Francis. "But it only works when we use it sparingly! If we feel 'guilty' every time we don't make the absolute best possible choice-which is pretty much impossible to do all the time-we're just wasting it."
Make no mistake, I felt terrible about missing Ryan's open house at first. My husband took him instead. But the truth is that I want to work, even if it sometimes interferes with my role as a mom. I promised Ryan we would spend time by ourselves, which I know is what he really wants (and needs) from me.
"Spending quality time with my kids is the only way I can alleviate my mommy guilt," agrees Norris. "The more time I spend with them, the less guilt I feel-even if it means putting housework off-like my constantly dirty kitchen! I will do it."
Finally, remember that 96 percent of parents say they've experienced parenting-related guilt, yet nearly the same percentage describe themselves as "mostly happy."
So feeling occasional mommy guilt doesn't mean you're a bad mom. It just means that you care about your kids, and about being a good parent. And that's nothing to feel guilty about.
Kelly James-Enger is a former lawyer, a mom of two and a freelance writer.
See more of Kelly's stories here.