Days I work, I often dream about the time I will spend with my family once I get home. In my fantasy after a full day of work I make it to the gym for some physical and personal growth, and upon returning home I manage to spend quality and loving time with my children and husband. As the daydream unfolds, I walk in through the door, scoop my kids in my arms and gleefully offer to go for a walk/bike ride, or lay on the floor playing board games or some kind of imaginary intergalactic battle. Somewhere in this fantasy I manage to shower, make dinner, get lunch boxes ready for the following school day, and I don’t feel tired, overwhelmed or deprived of my personal time. In addition to being the world’s most fun, patient and warm mother I also expect that I can and should make time to focus on my marriage, build my business, see my friends and work on my personal growth. Did I mention I am perfect and have a 36 hour day?
I came across a blog post this week, Enough with the Mommy Guilt by Sylvie from Hollywood Homestead, and thought, yes, this is exactly what happens when the real world doesn’t match my ideal, I feel guilty. My and Slyvie’s stories have to do with the pressures of modern motherhood, but the same reaction is often triggered when people feel they can’t be top performers at work, or equally balance personal and professional obligations, or keep a perfectly clean house, or choose to turn down an invitation to go out with friends and instead stay home to rest.
Guilt is our response to the thought “I did something bad.” The value of guilt, when it is appropriate, is change; this unpleasant emotions triggers a desire to shift behaviors. But if guilt is a response to the belief that one has misbehaved or done something wrong, why is it that we so often feel guilty when we can’t live up to our expectations? The problem is that we confuse expectation with rule. We live in a time and place where we believe that we should be able to be everything to everyone and balance countless roles effortlessly – or at the very least without too much complaining. The current expectations are unrealistic and the worst part of it is that most of us would rather promote the myth than openly admit that we can’t live up to the hype. Trust me, I have people asking me all the time how I do it all, and the answer is that I don’t, I can’t, at least not all at the same time.
When it comes to my supermom fantasy, the standards I set for myself are based on my nostalgia for (1) the 1940’s stay at home mom, combined with (2) the wish to be a strong independent woman who is active, professionally and socially accomplished and self-aware, combined with (3) the ideal psychologically enlightened 21st century mother who is abreast of the newest information on emotional, intellectual and developmental growth. Although all three women have desirable attributes, it is not possible to be all three all the time. I can manage the roles and expectations of mothers (1) and (3), but that comes at the expense of the liberated woman who makes time for herself and forges ahead professionally. I can be (1) and the (2), but then don’t ask me to play with my kids because I barely have the patience to deal with requests for dinner. Finally, I can manage (2) and (3), but realize that meals, cleaning and laundry are all going to be outsourced.
The pressure we place on our lives to meet unrealistic expectations triggers guilt and even shame, which is driven by these impossible standards that we hold as factual rules and obligations. We are so concerned about being a super-parent, the best friend ever, the most amazing professional, the #1 go getter or super balanced chill person that we forget to ask ourselves three essential questions:
- Where did this expectation come from?
- Is it actually possible to meet the standards I have set for myself?
- Is this what I really want or what truly matters to me?
In answering those questions we can start to set realistic and meaningful goals. We can stop beating ourselves up and feeling guilty for being less than amazing all the time and move forward with being who we are, who we want to be. Supermom I am not, but I do want to be a good mother and a good role model for my children. I can come up with a working definition for those two labels and establish a realistic standard of behavior that will not contain words like, always or never. And you?