Does spending time away from your baby make you feel guilty?
Priya Nair Heatherley finds that a few breaks from mothering improves motherhood...and that children are surprisingly resilient!
“You’re kidding, really? Six whole months?” I looked at my mom with total disbelief. My mom was visiting me and we were having one of our usual deep conversations about life and family. She was reminding me about the time my sister and I spent an extended time with my grandma and family in Michigan. I couldn’t believe it. So many questions: How old had I been? How did my parents live without us for so long? Why couldn’t I remember it? Didn’t the guilt kill them?
As a new mom, I find guilt to be a constant companion; guilty for wanting to work late; guilty for leaving work early to pick up my baby; guilty for leaving on a business trip (and guiltier for loving the time away for myself); guilty for traveling for energy healing courses and leaving my hubby with the baby for two weeks at a time. Guilt, guilt, guilt. Recently, I had the ultimate experience of motherly self-blame.
It all started with a weeklong business trip for me and runny nose for my baby. My 21-month old son stumbled home from daycare with a messy smile the day I flew home. Two days later, I was fighting off a stomach virus and cold and my husband began to complain of a sore throat; it was just like that movie Contagion at my house.
Order broke down quickly - dishes piled up, tissues tossed everywhere, coughing and sneezing echoed, while each member guzzled age-appropriate fever reducers. We attempted to drag the baby to daycare and his parents to work. The baby fell asleep in the middle of recess with a fever and I had the walk of shame to pick him up, where they made me sign a paper promising I wouldn’t bring him back for at least a day. Bad mommy! When we finally got to a pediatrician, my little one had two ear infections and RSV*. Very bad mommy! This had to be my fault. I had been gone on a work trip for one full week. Clearly my son missed his mama so much his immune system was compromised! Very, very bad mommy! Surely my mom and dad had days like this too?
My family is the traditional 70’s Indian immigrant family template: one doctor, one engineer and two decently smart children born two and half years apart. My mom, the doctor, broke the template a bit when she completed her BS, PhD and MD here in the US, after she had kids. She started her PhD program when I was 3 and my sister was 5; medical school followed.
For as long as I can remember my mom was in some sort of school. Because of this, I remember a lot of adventures with Dad during that time. Like the way he learned to french-braid my sister’s hair by reverse engineering the braid my mother did. The experiment of labeling our hangers with the day of the week so we would pick our outfits in advance and cut down on morning hassle. And my favorite, going swimsuit shopping with him when he took me to Sears and gave me five minutes to find a swimsuit.
And my Mom? She was busy a lot during ages 3-13. It never seemed strange, it was just what we did, but I did miss her. I enjoyed the time we had together, bringing her a Tupperware full of Indian food while she was on call as an Intern. And those intense moments of freedom together when she had time off, like you had to grab joy quickly and be totally in the moment. I remember the time she had a last-minute afternoon off and she took my sister and me to see the last matinee of “Labamba”; apparently everyone but me knew how it ended and I cried for 30 minutes after. I remember her holding my hand and leading me to the car with tears streaming down (while my sister rolled her eyes).
It took seeing the looks of incredulity on strangers’ faces when I told them my mom was a PhD and a MD, who went to school for both while my sister and I were growing up, to realize what we did as a family was hard.
And apparently, my sister and I spent a half year apart from my parents, at ages 3 and 5, and we all survived (and I forgot about it). Wow. Really?! It got me thinking...how about I start cutting myself some slack and tone down the ego a bit? Maybe the baby just caught a cold from another little one at daycare. Perhaps he didn’t even realize I was gone for a whole week because his grandma was here, lovingly spoiling him. It’s time to remember that children are unbelievably resilient, especially when loved well. It is also time to remember that with less energy devoted to feeling guilty, the more energy there is for playing with my baby, loving my husband and achieving my dreams.
Who knows what my little one will remember, but when I think back now about my mom’s choices, I mainly feel pride about what she accomplished with my dad backing her. What an amazing example of what a person can do when they follow their passion and have a village of support.
So here’s the homework for this month: Let’s shelve the guilt and pat ourselves on the back with appreciation for being strong enough to juggle and wear multiple hats instead. Let’s give ourselves a big hug for following our heart and passion at the risk of dropping a ball or hat (and self-forgiveness if they have already fallen!). And finally, let’s use that new found energy to give a huge shout out to our village of support that help us do this amazing thing we call daily life.
* Respiratory syncytial virus