The Mom Guilt Catch-22: Crazy If You Do, Lazy If You Don’t

Recently, I had an awesome day with my infant son. At 11 weeks into my mat leave, our day while my husband was at work included:

  1. Put the baby down for his first nap.
  2. Have a shower.
  3. Take care of some overdue mat-leave-related admin with my employer.
  4. Walk to the cafe for a caffeine fix.
  5. Host a date with other moms and their babes in the backyard, chatting and playing.
  6. Have lunch.
  7. Take a walk with another soon-to-be-mama friend, then sit on her porch sipping sparkling water with coconut.
  8. Stop to grab a few groceries on the way home.

Idyllic, no?

Of course, this day also included feedings and naps, diaper changes, songs and tummy time interaction, but these all turned out to be pretty convenient to what I wanted to do anyway – NOT always the case!

On the surface, I could take this as an achieved life goal – as you may know, I’ve been trying to take more of a paternity leave this time around. And this day seemed to fit the bill. I seem to recall that when my husband was on parental leave, the story he would often tell me about his day included a lot of playing and socializing, and not a lot of stress, chores, disappointment or guilt.

So on one hand, I feel I should be proud of myself. I’m successfully avoiding the isolated, lonely difficulty that befalls so many women on mat leave, right?

On the other hand, I felt guilty in the back of my mind for the entirety of that day. Not so guilty that I was not able to enjoy it, but a nagging underlying guilt was constant, making me question constantly if I should be enjoying my mat leave as much as I was.

I felt particularly guilty about having sent my toddler to his child care for the day, especially since I was having other people over who had kids. But I knew that my patience had been slowly draining all week, and I absolutely felt he would have a better time with the daycare provider than with me. And yes, I was looking forward to being able to talk to my grown-up friends while only dealing with one child, not two. This makes me sound like a horrible mother in many circles, I know. I know it also speaks to a wonderful level of privilege to even have the option of sending one kid to daycare and keeping the other at home with me. I am beyond grateful for this.

But I also felt guilty just for enjoying myself, period. Women are caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to the expectations of how we will experience parental leave, or staying at home. We’re stuck between the expectation that we’ll be zombie-like buckets of stress who can’t manage to get anything done and the pervasive illusion that we’ll basically be on vacation for a year.

There are assumptions that every day is like the one I experienced yesterday. Being ‘home with your kids’ is somehow equated to simply ‘not working’ (ie. not going to work). It’s assumed that you’ll spend your time mostly lounging around at home, perhaps doing a few chores but mostly enjoying yourself with your children. And logically, I get where this comes from: basically, you have what working parents have on the weekend all the time, so therefore, it’s a ‘break.’

Yet somehow, while having all that fun, you are also supposed to achieve domestic perfection: a well-managed, well-fed, well-rested, well-organized and flourishing household. So people who’ve been home with their kids tells you that the ‘on vacation’ notion is a fantasy, that mat leave or being home full-time is often very stressful: your work day doesn’t end at 5pm, and you don’t really get weekends anymore, because your job is 24/7, holidays included. You might, if you’re lucky, have kids who nap regularly, giving you some valuable ‘me time’ to do laundry or dishes (or to pen a quick blog post). You might, if you’re not so lucky, have to listen to incessant crying or whining all day, and then also NOT have the opportunity to leave that stressful ‘workplace’ at the end of the day.

Straddling these competing experiences is the finger-wagging advice that it is essential to ensure you build self-care into your routine, so if you don’t make time for that haircut and yoga class… we’ll, you’re dropping the ball again, Mom.

So judgment, that old adversary, which others/the world throw at a woman whichever side she falls on is the worst part:



If you actually try to achieve the domestic expectations set before you, you’re crazy. If you work really hard and don’t have time for yourself, if you get stressed out about housework or getting your kids places on time, or if you get too emotionally invested in getting things done and being organized… you’re crazy and you just really need to chill out a bit and realize things aren’t such a big deal.

new mom on vacation


But if you try to escape and manage to avoid these judgments by being lax about your housework, or enjoying your day with friends, or allowing yourself some time for self-care when you could be taking care of your children… you’re lazy and spoiled. Oh, and you’ve waived your right to ever complain about anything ever again, because at least you had a chance to do something nice during the work day.

The reality may be that stay-at-home parenting/mat leave is a bit of a trapeze act between these two things. Some (okay, most) days, I feel like I get up with the baby’s first cry and don’t stop carrying/feeding/cleaning/tidying/catching up/working until the last kid eyelid closes… and after the dishes are done… oh, and after the laundry is in. At that point I’m ready to collapse into bed, more likely than not. On those days, I feel crazy for caring so much, for being stuck in a rut, for being so slow at getting things done (because it simply can’t be possible that such rudimentary tasks could have taken me all day, could it?). And then on rarer, glorious days, like the one I described, I sit on a friend’s porch and feel lazy, and not in a good way. I feel lazy for enjoying myself, guilty for not getting ahead on chores or cooking or home maintenance when I have multiple hours available through the course of the day.

Do other moms feel caught in this catch-22, or is it just me? Do most of us feel alternately lazy and crazy, guilty for stressing and guilty for not? Binaries like these don’t generally make us happier or better people. They keep us from pushing through the tough days and from enjoying the luxurious ones. But how do we get out of this rut?


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