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How guilt gives us permission to be “bad mothers”

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At the top of p. 146 of Pamela Druckerman’s excellent book Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting (read it! read it!), I found myself sitting and reading and then smiling and nodding and then getting up for a pen and paper so I could leave myself a note to remember to tell you about the brilliant thing she wrote about that old familiar friend, Working-Mom Guilt. Here’s what she says:

For American mothers, guilt is an emotional tax we pay for going to work, not buying organic vegetables, or plopping our kids in front of the television so we can surf the Internet or make dinner. If we feel guilty, then it’s easier to do these things. We’re not just selfish. We’ve “paid” for our lapses.

Here, too, the French are different. French mothers absolutely recognize the temptation to feel guilty. They feel as overstretched and inadequate as we Americans do. After all, they’re working while bringing up small children.  And like us, they often aren’t living up to their own standards as either workers or parents.

The difference is that French mothers don’t valorize this guilt.

Does that ring a bell for you? It banged a wall-sized gong for me.

Guilt, it turns out, doesn’t always make us feel simply bad, it sometimes makes us feel kiiiiinda sorta better about other things that make us feel bad. Guilt makes it easier to do stuff we think we shouldn’t (or perhaps better with air quotes: “shouldn’t”) be doing. When we do things like choose (”choose”) to go back to work after the baby’s born, or we say no to a playdate that will be good for the kid but boring/awkward/inconvenient for ourselves, or when we refuse to sign up our little achievers for as many extracurricular activities as they are years old because that’s what everyone else is doing, we often actually welcome that wave of guilt because if we’re guilty–if we feel “oh, just awful” about any lapse in parenting–that proves at least we’re not selfish, right? Our priorities are all squared away just fine, thank you, if we persist in feeling guilty about the proper things.

Before reading that, I never thought about guilt that way–that guilt gives us permission to be “bad,” even when “bad” is necessary, whether for reasons of financial stability, emotional well-being, or whatever else keeps us upright and functioning on the majority of days. That American mothers at large tend to, as Druckerman says, “valorize” that guilt is a familiar trope here on a forum for working mothers, but this idea that we might secretly use and need guilt to excuse behaviors [that may or may not need excusing]…this is new-to-me way to think about things.

What say you? Do you use guilt as permission or an excuse? Anything you want to confess? (I’ll confess to feeling oh, just awful about surreptitiously checking Twitter at the dinner table but then doing it anyway because I’ve let guilt make it okay.)

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