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How I’ve Learned to Cope with Mom Guilt

March 29, 2016

'We can all do this'

It’s Monday afternoon, and my husband and I are in our new pediatrician’s office with our 14-month-old. Ear infection, they tell us. Her first one—and timed perfectly, too. One week after she started daycare and 10 days after we moved our family 500-plus miles from Washington, D.C. to Charleston, South Carolina. My husband had been traveling internationally the prior week, and I was about to head to the airport for a week of West Coast travel. We certainly weren’t making this big life transition easy on our toddler.

Enter the guilt. It was palpable as I said goodbye from the curb, it solidified as my plane took off and it became increasingly painful as the week wore on. As my daughter’s infection traveled to her other ear and my husband tried to play executive and doting dad in a new city where we had no help, my guilt grew exponentially.

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Guilt isn’t just a parental thing, but women tend to feel guilt more; researchers have confirmed gender differences in guilt. That means it’s important to think carefully about how to manage it. Here are the steps that other moms tell me have helped them—and that I’ve come to use myself.

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1. Be open and honest
Since guilt can happen in any relationship, being up-front is key. Be clear about where you’re going (on a work trip or to the coffee shop) and why. And if you’re still feeling guilty, Rachel Bell, a communications consultant, military spouse and mom of two, recommends saying it out loud to a loved one—or even just to yourself. When her daughter recently took a tumble at school (on a day when she was late to pick her up), she felt bad for not being there.

“Saying it out loud helped me realize it sounds so silly,” she says. “Of course she’s going to fall a lot, whether I’m there or not.”

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2. Use technology
Time away from your family is unavoidable. Video chatting, sending video messages or even just writing emails can make it easier. Regular phone or webcam dates give you something to look forward to and remind others that you’re always there and accessible.

3. Fill your own cup
Stephanie Brown, a family-based clinician, is fond of saying, “Remember that you need to put your oxygen mask on before you can help your child with his or hers.”

Although it may be trite, the idea that you can’t save someone else until you’ve saved yourself is pretty powerful. If you’re so out of the habit of saving yourself that you don’t know where to start, Brown suggests identifying what reinvigorates you and making a point of doing it on a regular basis. Perhaps meditating or walking in the woods helps you recoup energy. Knowing that and working those into your schedule will enable you to show up more as a parent.

“Once we create the space [for that activity] and add it in as a small goal, it starts to become a practice of self-love,” says Brown.

And filling your cup doesn’t have to be hard. It’s all about reprioritization. You can be better in your relationships if you fill your own cup first. And when you’re feeling better, you minimize those emotions of guilt.

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As my plane took off from Seattle back to Charleston, I made a decision. I could worry for the next five hours, or I could accept the fact that I couldn’t parent from a plane—and tell myself that was O.K. I can do this. We can do this.

Susan LaMotte is the founder and CEO of exaqueo and a wife and mom based in Charleston, South Carolina.