I don’t think I’ve met a mother who has not felt mom guilt about something, in terms of raising her kids. I’m convinced that we are biologically wired for mom guilt as a survival mechanism. But also it comes from the feeling that we’re not enough. In modern times, there are superhuman demands on mothers: work, but not too much; protect your kids, but don’t coddle them; and by all means, read the trending parenting books, so you don’t look like that mom when disciplining your children in public.

It took extreme circumstances for me to realize that when I can drop my agenda for what I think I should be doing, and embrace what is actually happening, that I don’t have to feel guilty about anything.

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This year marks the fifth year anniversary of my daughter’s cancer treatment. While living in the rigid confines of the immune compromised unit of a pediatric hospital, one’s life is stripped down- literally- to life and death. I took respite in the fact that I didn’t have any other responsibilities. I didn’t have to question my role as a mother. My objective was to keep my daughter alive, fueled primarily by love. What unfolded for me there, during the ups and downs of inpatient pediatric cancer care, still serves as a reference point for me today. During the hardest of hard times, I learned to lean into the fullness of the moment. To embrace what was right in front of me, even if it was something I didn’t want to feel or face.

During her treatment, my job was to help my daughter adhere to the strict cleanliness regimen required with her care, to help administer her ongoing schedule of medications, and to navigate the effects thereof. Under those circumstances, there wasn’t room for my personal agenda or preferences. I had to learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable, and to deal daily with the unknown. I didn’t question if I was doing or being enough; my being there for Chloe day in and day out was all there was.

On particularly bad days, where I was grappling with the unknown more than the known, the hardest moments were my biggest teachers. The intensity of juggling some touch and go circumstances forced all of the subtleties of being into my awareness. There was so much to feel… from the compassion and concern in the doctors’ eyes, to the way my personality clashed with that of my least favorite nurse, to how Chloe lit up in when I would enter her room. Life was FULL, from simply being. All of my “ordinary” moments were magnified, as if I were experiencing life under a microscope. 

After hospital, life gradually returned to normal. These days, with healthy children, I have to remind myself to catch the grace in the ordinary moments. When one is not dealing with life-threatening illness and treatment, one has room for a lot more distractions. And I’m as guilty as anybody for being highly distracted. Here’s some tools I employ to keep me present to my children, who are growing up much more quickly than I imagined:

  1. Trust. What if we could TRUST that we’re doing the right and best thing for ourselves and our families? What if we could relax into knowing that that our choices (to work or not work, to formula feed or breastfeed) are for the greater good of all involved? What if we trusted the exact way that things were unfolding in each moment? 
  2. Stop comparing ourselves to others. Notice the inner judge, the one that tries to keep up with the Jones’, and vow to give her a backseat. She doesn’t belong at the head of your table. And besides, the Jones’ are struggling anyways. Things aren’t always what they seem.
  3. Celebrate your uniqueness. What are your superpowers? Never mind society’s standards. I’m not a fashionista. But I’m goofy as heck. So, I make a fool of myself at times, on purpose, to give my kids a good laugh. These are the things that they will remember about me. They won’t remember that I wasn’t wearing lipstick.
  4. Schedule time away from your family for self care. Whether that’s a massage on the weekends, an evening walk with a friend, a yoga or meditation class, or weekly calls with your sister. Do something regularly to refuel and recharge, so that you have more energy to give during the crazy demands of family life.
  5. Have the courage to advocate for your needs. Guilt can come from not doing what you think is best. The new job offer comes with a shiny paycheck, but requires you to miss weekend soccer games? No thank you, my family comes first. Standing up for what you value, and for your kids when they can’t, will fuel your sense of purpose and belonging. Set your life up in a way that works for you and your family. And trust that that’s good enough!
  6. Commit to go all in when you’re with your kids. Open your senses and take it all in. The breeze, the sunshine, the glisten in their eyes, the grubbiness of their sweaty palms. The smell of their hair. Be with all of it. Their childhood is so fleeting. Your kids will remember the attention you gave to them, and those moments add up as little bank deposits for their self esteem.

My dear teacher and mentor, Dr. Donny Epstein, actually reminds us that we’re not enough. Why is that? Because we’re not enough for what we’re made for, for what we’re put here to do. Our calling as mothers comes from generations ago and from generations ahead. Live out your calling to its fullest, whatever form that takes. Please share below what your hacks are for dealing with mom guilt!

Photo Credit :: Lindsay Herkert Photography

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Stephanie is a UT grad who lived free spiritedly in Austin in the 1990s. In late 2019, her family of 4 relocated back to Austin from the mountains of Colorado. She is thrilled to be back in Texas, where the sun sets over the horizon. Stephanie is mother to Chloe (12) and Jordan (10). In 2015 her experience of motherhood morphed suddenly into unusual and uncharted territory, when Chloe (then 7) was diagnosed with AML leukemia. Her blog www.healingwithcourage.com chronicles her family’s successful and empowering journey through childhood cancer. Stephanie is a NetworkSpinal chiropractor and owner of Transform Austin Health Center in South Austin. A lifelong athlete, nature lover, and spiritual seeker, she can be found chasing birds and occasionally hugging trees (when no one’s watching). www.drstephanieharris.com

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