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Parental guilt: Learning to forgive ourselves.

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I recently came across a post online in a group of physician moms. I couldn’t find it again to quote it directly, but I don’t really need to, since I live it every day. Basically, a mom who works as an obstetrician-gynecologist asked for reassurance from the other moms. Her 5-year-old had asked why she was with her nanny so much, and the physician mom was slogging through guilt to answer her daughter’s question.

I’ve been thinking about parental guilt since I saw the post. I remember when my daughter was five years old and in kindergarten. She asked me why the other kids’ moms picked them up from school every day and I could only pick her up two to three days a week. I went straight to self-flagellation, guilt and over-explaining until my husband broke it up. “Your mom works, sweetie. You’ll have to get over it.”

A few years later I was working on a Saturday and couldn’t make my son’s basketball game. Again, I was beating myself up over missing this one game (though I’d seen 100 more) until my husband shut that one down, too. “We’ve got three kids, two jobs, and 1000 activities, son. We’ll be there when we can, but sometimes we can’t be there, and that’s that.”

I was amazed how his communication style made sense to the kids. They got it, even at their young ages. When I decided to write this article, I asked my kids (now ages 17, 14, and 11) over dinner: “Was there ever a time growing up that you needed us and remember us not being there?” “No,” they said in unison as they ate their spaghetti. I tried again: “Was there ever a game or event you remember our not being at?” “No” was the answer again.

So then I asked my own parents if there was any guilt they carried about parenting, knowing that my perspective as one of their three daughters is that we had a pretty great upbringing.

My mom mentioned that she didn’t always handle things well if she hadn’t experienced them before; that she sometimes lost her temper; and maybe carried feelings about being “anything but serene and loving all the time.” My dad mentioned making me wait to go see an Orthopedic Surgeon when my arm was broken because he didn’t think it was broken, and forcing my sister to try to climb a Colorado fourteener when she had strep throat and fever (which he didn’t know at the time).

So then I asked others: what parental guilt do you carry?

There was one blessed and lucky soul who answered “none,” and one humorous one about sending her kindergartener to school with a broken leg she didn’t think was broken (sound familiar, dad?), but the other answers were universal.

Some thought they could’ve modeled healthy relationships better for their children. Yep, there are times I could’ve done that better. Others felt they are not doing enough for their kids. I’ve felt that one, too. One mom even said she should be able to “do it all.”

Balancing work and home responsibilities was a common worry. We all felt we should have more energy to play with the kids and more quality time to spend with them. One felt her kids deserved her undivided attention more than they got it.

Now, I don’t personally know every person who responded. But I know most of them, and I know them to be attentive, responsive, pretty great parents. And I would be curious to see how the kids would answer the questions. I’m leaning toward thinking they would say, like mine did, that the guilt I carried was unnecessary. I think most kids would say that mom, or dad, or foster parent, or grandparent is doing a pretty good job. Sure, there are times that I royally screw things up. But I also know how to say “I screwed that up and I’m sorry.”

In my practice as a pediatrician, I see a lot of parental guilt. People will start many conversations with “I guess I should have…” or “I wish I could have…” If I hadn’t taken her to the museum, she wouldn’t have gotten sick. If I’d chosen a different school, he would be happy.

We feel guilty if we work, guilty if we don’t work. Guilty about nutrition, screen time, taking the easy way out of discipline sometimes because we just don’t have the energy. We take on our kids’ failures as our own failures. I think it’s OK to verbalize our regrets and allow ourselves momentary guilt. But let’s take a lesson from the kids and be able to move past it. Most of us parents are doing our best. Most of the kids will turn out OK.

I wish I could find that young doctor mom and tell her that one day, her daughter will get it. And one day over spaghetti, she’ll ask her daughter if she thought there was a time she needed her mom and her mom wasn’t there, and her daughter will barely look up to say, “nope.”

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