Guilt or No Guilt

I’m a dad with two boys well into their teens. When they were younger, I could make it to an occasional event during school but I missed a number of them due to meetings, schedules beyond my control and travel. After school was the same. Some evening events worked out but I wasn’t there between 3 and 5. Frankly you could say I wasn’t available between 7 AM and 6 PM most of the time. While I regretted not being able to attend events, I would not say the feeling ever made it to the point of guilt.

Countering this, I know a number of mom’s who must work but feel guilty for missing even one party or one PTA meeting. After school care is another source of guilt. Having to rely on others to care for their child when they feel they should be there. I sat down with Leigh Wilhelm, licensed professional counselor and founder of Rocket City Counseling, to ask should I have felt more guilty or should many of these moms not feel so bad.

Q: Let’s start with the obvious. What is wrong with me and should I have felt guilty about missing out?
This is all about different expectations we have as parents. Guilt is based on the belief we have done something wrong. So if your belief or value is “I should never disappoint my kid” or “I should never miss any activity my child does”, then it’s reasonable to experience guilt. If you don’t put those expectations on yourself, then why would you feel guilt?
The fact is the school day does not coincide with a typical work day. It is impossible to hold a 9-5 job and pick up your child at 3, be at every class party, teacher conference, volunteer opportunity, or field trip. It is impossible to take time off everytime there is a holiday, teacher work day, or school break. So we have to lower our expectations and allow some things to be good enough. And we fill in the gaps between school day and work day with help from neighbors, babysitters, after school care, and summer camps.

Q: Is it normal for dads, even ones who are around and involved, to not feel guilty? Is it societal or the way men are wired?
I think both are in play. Women are by nature wired to be more nurturing and are typically the primary caretakers. In our society it is acceptable for women to either work or stay at home. Most men are not asked if they are going back to work after a child is born. Nor is there a perception they are choosing work over their kids. Women are seen as having the option to choose (whether that is a fair assessment or not) and that’s where the guilt comes in.

Q: Is mom guilt prevalent or just a term we hear a lot?
In both my practice and among friends, I haven’t met a single mom that doesn’t feel mom guilt. We all want to be great moms. All of us have bad mom moments where we’ve lost our cool or forgotten an activity and guilt is an indicator we have made a mistake. A lot of mom guilt, however, seems to come from comparison. On social media we see highlights of other peoples best parenting moments, the educational trips they take their child on, the pinterest worthy birthday parties, the organic gourmet lunches they pack, and we compare them to our everyday life. None of us can live up to this. We have to recognize the difference between guilt based on comparison and guilt based on making a mistake.

Q: Is there a positive side to feeling a sense of guilt about having to work, not being there all the time?
We don’t feel guilty about things that don’t matter to us. On some level, guilt is an indicator of what is important. It is disappointing when we can’t be there for every school event or sports activity. We have to remind ourselves that missing these activities does not necessarily mean our job is more important than our child.

Q: How can someone find the right balance between working to be there and worrying?
Find other ways to be involved with your kids that don’t require you to leave your job. Balance is about learning to shift our weight between different responsibilities. Sometimes work will be dominant and sometimes family will be.The relationship you have with your child and the emotional tone of your household is more critical than whether you can make the Valentine’s Day party or volunteer at the school. Those are good things but they are not the most important. Recognize that you cannot be there for everything and find out from your child what activities or events are most important. If you miss a concert or ballgame - set up a movie night where you can watch a recording of it together with your child.

Q: How can someone know if they are taking their guilt too far? How can they get help?
Guilt is a feeling, it is not a fact. Just because I feel guilty does not always mean I have done something wrong. Sometimes it means I care so much about this role of being a mom that I want to do everything perfectly. Guilt can be a healthy emotion, it lets us know when we have hurt someone or compromised our values. It can lead us to re-order our priorities or to repair relationships. It can drive us towards action. Guilt that comes from comparison to others, however, causes us to withdraw. It leads us to think we are bad or not enough.
If you find yourself caught in the guilt trap it can be helpful to seek out support from friends and other parents. There is value in knowing other people struggle with the same feelings. You may also benefit from having an outside party such as counselor or pastor to help you sort through what is healthy vs unhealthy guilt.


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