In the heat of this contentious 2016 election cycle, there was one sound bite that stuck with me more than some of the others. (Though to be fair, there was plenty in all that madness to remember.) It was the media crucifixion of Chelsea Clinton for not being present for her child’s first day of preschool drop off.
Apparently, according to some, a mother needing to work out of town and leaving her children in the capable hands of their father while she does so amounts to abandonment, neglect and a cold hearted lack of maternal instinct. It pegs her as a bad mother, or really, hardly a mother at all. What kind of mother puts work (or anything else) ahead of her precious children even for a single day!? How could she miss even a single life milestone like that!? That poor child! Can you imagine the emotional scarring? The therapy she will need one day to work through the damage that will be caused from having such an absentee mother?!
Yeah...reading nonsense like that gave me the same disgusted, exhausted and annoyed feeling it does for working moms everywhere. For every feminist, mother or not, who doesn’t have to think for more than a second to see that no one would EVER make statements like that about a man, these assertions are ludicrous and disgusting. For generations men have worked away from the home, often to the point of spending so little time with their children that they hardly know one another. Cat’s in the Cradle anyone? Yet in this modern era of a more equitable division of income earning, mothers are criticised for allowing their spouses to take a pull at the child care from time to time. We’ll just never mind the sentiments about daycare. (But seriously though, if one more sanctimommy mutters anything about preschool “raising” my kid for me, fur is gonna fly.)
But as I worked through my outrage and disgust at the double standard that Ms. Clinton is being held to, it hit me. I wonder how SHE feels about missing that drop off? Does it give her pangs of regret and sadness? Because I would, despite my firm convictions that the child is fine and Dad is a capable parent too, feel a little bummed about missing a first preschool drop off. And I had to ask myself, “why?” Why would I feel guilty to leave my child with his DAD for the first day of preschool while I was doing a job that I love, have worked hard for, puts food on our table, and sets a positive example to my son about the role of women in the home and workplace?
Is it really innate? Is the guilt and sadness because I went through the lengthy hormonal roller coaster and physical output of making him? Maybe. Probably at least a little. But really, I think it is deeply entrenched programming about what is expected of me as a mother. That mothers should be there to see and experience every last moment of their children’s lives. That we should nurture our children constantly. That good mothers miss nothing. In many ways it doesn’t matter how much I logically think it’s horse shit. The programming is in there and it is crazy hard to shake.
And if we have a hard time shaking the mom guilt in order to work, in order to help provide life necessities and a solid future for the very children we feel guilty for leaving, how much harder is it to leave for a purely self serving purpose. To plan and actually go on an adventure to recharge our batteries. It’s incredibly hard. When I’ve been working all day it can be tempting to skip that bike ride after work because dang it I miss my kid. I worry that I’m being selfish to take another chunk of time away from him just because I want to. Going for three or four days? Whew! He might just graduate college when I’m not looking!
But I go. I go on that ride after work. I take that weekend away. I take that time to be with myself, with my friends. To remember who I am, what makes me tick. To resonate with the universe. Because when I do that, I come back ready to reconnect with my son on a deeper level. To be fully present with him and focused on him. I don’t believe that children need some vast expanse of time in which they receive our half attention. I’m not sure it is building up HIS reserves to wander on my periphery as I distractedly try to get him to go do something else so I can think straight. When I have been buried in piles of life stuff and childcare too long, that’s exactly what happens. When I have properly cared for myself, I am refreshed and ready to give him my full attention. If kids benefit from their parents being present, I want to have the stamina to actually BE present. Mind, body, spirit.
Let’s also not forget that when I’m out there taking care of myself, it isn’t like my son is stranded with the wolves. Me getting out of the way gives my husband the space to connect with our son too. To be fully at the wheel of parenting his child. To do their father son things without my interference. To decide to eat broccoli for dinner, or skip straight to the ice cream. By walking away placing full confidence in my child’s dad to care for him, I empower them both. It sends my husband the message that I trust him completely to Dad. That I know he is capable as a parent and doesn’t need my list of dos and don’ts while I’m gone. Dad is not a babysitter. He’s a parent. It sends my son the message that people other than me are capable of meeting his needs and that the entire world is a safe place, not just mom. When I return, I come home to two happy healthy men, who have grown closer and more understanding of one another. Then it’s my turn. I take on the parent cape to ensure my spouse gets time for himself too while our son and I focus on each other.
If you are a single parent with no family near, you too can step away sometimes. That’s what community is for. When I think about the villages of a traditional people, everyone pitched in to share the load of child rearing, and everyone got a break sometimes. We don’t have a village anymore, so we need to make one. FInd your tribe. Find mamas you love and trust who you can trade babysitting time with. Find an amazing sitter who your kids love and you trust like a sister. Then go without guilt. It will be good for you and your children.
No one criticizes a man for working, for taking a weeks long hunting trip, for doing whatever he needs to do to feel whole and happy. We don’t need to accept that criticism either. Especially from ourselves.
The next time you feel that twang of guilt for taking care of yourself, let’s examine where that comes from. Ask yourself if a man would feel guilty for the same thing. As we work to dismantle the patriarchy that holds women to a different standard than men, we must identify the programming in ourselves first. Because mom guilt is a feminist issue.
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